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March/April 2020

Practice Management Advice

Hiring Team Players

Heidi A. Barcus

Identifying candidates who are team players can be a challenging and elusive task in the hiring process.

At our law firm, every matter is staffed by at least three legal professionals, usually two lawyers and a paralegal, so new hires must be comfortable sharing information and working as a team. Lawyers who prefer to work alone never succeed in our firm.

After several top tier hires were unable to adapt to our system, I began to study our successes and look for a pattern. The lawyers who really want to work as a team respect the contribution of others. They can identify and recognize that everyone brings a different skill to a project. They are also willing to check in frequently and ask pertinent questions. They will share a draft and talk through issues. They have the innate ability to recognize how their actions impact other members of the team.

Loners like to work behind closed doors. They prefer not to share a draft until it is polished and final. They may be perfectionists. They often feel like working with others slows them down. Often, loners aren’t able to discern when the group will be surprised by information. There isn’t anything wrong with hardworking, independent, motivated lawyers. They just aren’t a good fit for our system. Here are a few tips to help you identify team players during an interview:

The Informal Interview

Spend time with candidates before you make a hire. One of our partners jokes that he thought he was “dating” the firm before we finally made an offer to him. I am sure our hiring process did feel like a courting process. Ideally, I would like to spend eight hours in a car with every candidate before I decide whether I can work with someone. It isn’t until you spend a real chunk of time with a person that their interview personality fades and their true personality emerges. Only after an extended time with a candidate am I confident that this is someone I would be willing to take to a client meeting. Short of eight hours in a car barreling down the interstate, look for ways to spend time with a candidate for an extended period of time. Look for social events like football games, basketball games and local professional gatherings. These events are ideal ways to informally interview lawyers. Consider asking a candidate to join your firm at a bar event or an evening charity event. If you can gather the candidate and a few members of the firm together after the event, do so. During the entire day, listen to how the candidate fills the gaps in the conversation.  Watch how the individual interacts with peers and strangers. Assess whether the candidate has the social skills to navigate the room. Ask yourself whether this is someone you want to spend time with before you make that hire. If this is someone you would be willing to share a meal with, you may have identified your next hire.

Formal Interview

During the formal interview process, ask for specifics. Instead of explaining to the candidate that you are looking for team players and asking if the individual enjoys working on a team, ask some pointed questions. You are guaranteed to hear the candidate enthusiastically say they love working on a team if you merely ask for confirmation of what you need. Ask the candidate to tell you about a successful team the candidate was on and the role the candidate played on that team. Ask what made the team work effectively. Ask for an example of a time the team won or met a deadline. It is okay if the example dates back to a school project. No matter how long ago the experience was, the explanation will have current relevance. Ask for as many specifics as you can. Find out why the team was successful and what role the candidate played in the success.

Another important issue is how people deal with adversity among team members. Loners will take over the project and just finish it. Team players will find a way to motivate the group and bring the team together. As you listen to the examples, look for times the interviewee defaulted to taking back the project and finishing it. This may be a red flag. It is also important to ask candidates what they have done when they disagreed with the lead partner on a project. The only chance you have of obtaining enlightening responses is to have the candidate provide you with concrete examples. Was the candidate able to handle this adversity with grace? Did they handle it in a way you want people in your firm to navigate the challenge?

Listen to the Answers

One year the president of our local bar association used the word “I” in almost every sentence of his remarks to the bar. I began to make a game counting the number of “I’s” used on the back of the brochure for the event. We could have set an over/under for each speech. It turns out this isn’t just a game. It is a tell for how people work with others. During the formal interview, listen carefully for the number of times the candidate uses the word “I.” As the candidate answers your questions and provides examples, listen for how much of the response is focused on the candidate and how much credit is given someone else. Team players intuitively value and respect the contributions of others. Of course job candidates are trained to sell themselves to you.  Nonetheless, if you listen carefully, you can separate those who value self above others from those who can give credit to others. You are looking for people who can highlight the success of others and see the success of others as their own success.

Final Tip

I keep a notebook of the characteristics of the lawyers I want on my team, and I look for the same characteristics in new hires. Team players tend to spend their spare time with other people. They give back to the local and legal community, volunteering for bar associations and charities. When I ask people what they do in their spare time, I look for events requiring group participation.

Heidi A. Barcus

Heidi A. Barcus is a litigator and practicing attorney. She is vice chair of the Law Practice Division and board certified by the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys. She has been an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law and is past editor of the Law Practice magazine. [email protected]