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January/February 2020


Hiring Young Lawyers in a New Era

Thomas C. Grella

My law firm recently lost a partner who decided to move out of the state for personal reasons, leaving a void in one of our important practice areas. Firm leadership believed that this void could not be filled absent another collective partner venture into the hiring process—a journey we have all experienced before. Each journey down this road brings new learning experiences. The process of scrutinizing  several candidates this year was no exception.

Learn to Overcome Generational Biases

As has become a custom at my firm, after conducting an initial round of interviews with potential candidates, informal one-on-one discussions commence among partners who conducted the interviews. Through this process, it appeared there was a consensus front-runner for the open position. We also discovered that we had each arrived at common conclusions about each of the other candidates for the position. As to one candidate, we all concluded that there seemed to be a lack of direction, and possibly a work ethic deficiency. As to another who was also not the front-runner, we had all concluded quite the opposite. As I think back on the interview process, I believe that we had all arrived at these common conclusions based on the demeanor and verbal responses of a Millennial interviewee, created through Baby Boomer or Generation X lenses.

Upon completion of face-to-face interviews, our chief operation officer digs for more information on each candidate, including follow-up with past employers. In this most recent process, what was discovered was eye-opening. By speaking to those with direct experience and regular, sustained contact with each of our Millennial candidates, we discovered that the conclusions reached were the opposite of what had been the experience of past employers. In fact, in one candidate we assumed had energy, initiative and creativity, but the report was that these qualities were lacking. In the other, it was the opposite.


Times have changed. The candidate pool has changed, and we need to understand that hiring systems and considerations must change if we truly want to build a firm to last for generations. Members of our youngest generations can and will develop into successful lawyers, but they may do so using very different work tools, hours and habits than those of older generations. If those conducting hiring processes don’t figure out this new paradigm, bad hiring decision making will result. Here are a few of the specifics I concluded through this recent hiring experience:

  • Don’t rely solely on observed interview personal presentation—it may not be the most significant consideration.
  • Table initial reactions and conclusions about a candidate until full due diligence is complete.
  • Dig deeper than a candidate may suggest, relying not only on suggested references but instead pursue those integral to past experiences (who may not be on the candidate’s suggested list of references).

Turn Employment Qualifications Upside Down

We who are late Boomers or early Gen Xers are likely to focus on traditional gauges of past and potential success. As I have included, and been included by, law firm partners in the process of hiring, traditional factors have always included: law school attended and tier; law school grade point average; law school law-related extracurriculars, such as moot court; and undergraduate school and achievement. My experience is that many lawyers who have themselves excelled in these criteria tend to apply a high standard in each when participating in the hiring process. They set the bar high as a floor, and candidates not meeting or exceeding that bar are not worthy of their time and consideration. For these folks, the important intangibles such as social skills and emotional intelligence (i.e., would you ever want this person sitting across the table from a most valued client of the firm, and does the candidate fit within the firm culture?), personal initiative and work ethic (i.e., though he may be most intelligent, will he exceed production and client satisfaction expectations?) and business development potential (we are trying to run a profitable sustaining business, after all!), are merely factors to be considered once we identify the most brilliant.

My observation, not only at my own firm but others, is that this is quite common. It seems obvious that this is the case in BigLaw, considering the limited sources from which its future is recruited. My view is that this traditional system is upside down. As stated earlier, times have changed, and candidates have changed as generations have changed. I believe that the floor and system I described above was not the best for a law firm in the ’80s or ’90s, and I believe even more deeply that it is a terrible system of hiring for the law firm of 2020 and beyond. Consider the following alternative:

  • Create an objective base floor that is primarily achievable by a larger pool of candidates, being open to candidates from lower tier schools, understanding that top of the class and grades do not necessarily amount to greatest value of service to the firm clients.
  • Establish a soft skills threshold (social skills and emotional intelligence, perceived passion for work and life, cultural integration, etc.) as the primary first floor that must be achieved as a condition for employment, as these factors are most important if the firm correctly defines both potential and success.
  • Use the traditional factors I mentioned above (school tier, class rank, etc.) only for the purpose of differentiation of candidates who are deemed substantially equal after consideration of both the base floor and first floor thresholds.

Focus on the Future

Law firms hire for many different reasons. Some do it in an organized way, planning for the future of legal services delivery, with a true commitment to both maintain and enhance quality service for their clients. Other firms, many within BigLaw, seem to hire as an effort to protect themselves from fierce competitive forces. Classes of associates are hired, and competitive intelligence keeps a close eye on competitor hourly rate and new associate compensation levels. I believe that in many midsized and smaller firms there is less of a focus on long-term mission or fierce competitive forces, and hiring is primarily based on perceived short-term need, even though the firm publicly espouses more visionary objectives that are contrary to reality. In many cases, a member of the firm with a certain specialty or serving an important client base departs for whatever reason, and the firm reacts to fill a void.

I have written about mission, vision and culture many times in this column, and I don’t have the space in this issue to restate everything previously said. At the same time, I cannot write a column about lessons learned in the hiring process without some focus on the most important factors of vision and the future. Here are some of the future-focused lessons I have learned:

  1. All hiring needs to not only consider short-term needs but also mission, vision and the culture that firm leaders desire to either maintain or create in the future.
  2. When going through the laborious process of hiring to fill a current void: Resist the temptation to fill it with a candidate who doesn’t meet established hiring standards and objectives (including, of course, the most important soft skills noted above) out of fear of short-term consequences; at the same time, be open to the possibility that more than one qualified candidate might be presented, and that consideration of the future might mean that the firm should increase the number of available positions to be filled such that opportunity to achieve future success is not lost.

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. [email protected]