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Law Practice Magazine

The Marketing Issue

Law Firm Hiring Goals and Processes in a Tight Market

Thomas C Grella


  • Learn about the evolution of hiring practices and their impact on firm culture and longevity.
  • Characteristics of effective workplace branding campaigns include defining the firm's culture, promoting professional development, involving firm members, conducting regular audits, implementing onboarding and retention programs, and conducting exit interviews
  • Firms need to create a compelling employment value proposition that reflects their culture and appeals to potential candidates.
Law Firm Hiring Goals and Processes in a Tight Market

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Just prior to my writing this column, I was blessed with a milestone in my career––36 years in practice with the same law firm. When I started there were eight lawyers; now there are 24. Surprisingly, given our respective ages, four of the original eight are still affiliated with the firm. Thinking back about our growth over the years, we’ve hired through some very different times, using a variety of different hiring practices. As mentioned in my most recent column, when I was hired, there seemed to be little, long-term strategic thought given to the hiring process. The reason I was hired was that in the short term one of the members who did much commercial real estate representation had become mayor of Asheville, and the other real estate practitioner in the firm was already overburdened with work and could not handle the delegation that would be necessary when the senior member took the helm of the city. I am quite certain I would not have been hired but for a quite common short-term vision: “I am really busy right now; let’s hire someone so we don’t have to turn business away.”

Over the years, circumstances outside of the profession have affected my firm’s hiring goals and processes. I became managing partner in May of 2011. I recall that, just after 9/11, we received a large stack of résumé s from highly qualified lawyers, mostly wanting to relocate from New York City. At that time, we had not yet embarked on drafting a strategic plan. Applying the type of hiring analysis we had historically used, the immediate slump in work due to the nationwide crisis meant the firm was not interested in any of the unsolicited applications received. Several years later, but with congruent strategic and hiring plans in place, we not only read about, but experienced, the phenomenon of larger firms swooping in and enticing recently trained and profitable younger lawyers with compensation terms of which smaller firms could not complete. As I look back, the reaction of firm leadership (myself at the helm) was shortsighted as we swore off ever hiring anyone out of law school again. Our hiring pattern shifted to laterals who were unhappy with the lockstep hierarchy systems they were under, while we had already begun to understand and implement systems that were more conducive to positive culture. For years, this new hiring system worked wonderfully––or so we thought. We experienced very deliberate and slow growth, adding excellent, experienced lawyers to our law firm family. The resulting problem, however, is that the lateral pool is no longer as plentiful, our younger lawyers have become middle-aged, our middle-aged lawyers (me included) have become old, and older are gone. Our present middle-aged lawyers have become concerned that, even with the best culture, a failure to hire younger lawyers will result in the inability of the firm to exist long term (and buy them out when the time comes). Even though the firm has experienced quality hiring, what becomes clear is that without a more comprehensive and intentional hiring plan (most importantly one tied to culture), a law firm will eventually experience a hole in their hiring.

Considering years of experience, I have come to several conclusions regarding the creation of law firm hiring systems.

Hiring Goals Must Be Tied to Culture

Many firms, both in hiring recent graduates and lateral applicants, use the same criteria typically relied upon by law firms 40 or 50 years ago. For recent graduates that means hiring based on U.S. News & World Report law school tiers, GPA, short interviews and in many cases a gut feeling as to whether the candidate will be successful leading clients and creating profit. For lateral applicants, add onto these questions about success and experience in law practice, book of business, and if possible, a reference call to some third party who might vouch for the character and work ethic of the potential hire.

I have read many articles that list factors that should be considered in hiring, all of which can be placed into several broad categories such as experience, expertise, adaptability to firm strategy, business development, commitment to professional growth and compensation expectations. All these categories, and their subcategories are attributes to consider for all types of applicants; however, in my experience, even those who grade the highest on such criteria may fail if law firm leadership does not tie all of its hiring decisions to promotion of desired, and hopefully actual, firm culture.

When culture is not the foremost consideration, I can attest that the highest producer in a firm, who does not fit into the espoused culture, can be the cause of many others not achieving success. I can also attest to the fact that highly competent lawyers who cannot “play nice” with others can create many headaches for firm management, who are forced to focus on managing problems instead of leadership. I can also report, however, that positive effects can be experienced, when a lawyer who does not fit into desired culture, leaves, and firm leaders can thereafter lead the firm to desired vision and purpose.

Workplace Branding Is not the Same as Client Branding, and Must Stress Hiring Goals

Though there is some overlap, the way a law firm appeals to potential professional hires is not the same as branding and marketing to existing and prospective clients. They are vastly different in purpose, in much the same way that a manufacturing business uses different standards and processes for choosing raw material suppliers, than it does when it markets its goods to customers. In the case of law firms, it is important that firms create workplace branding, which reflects the firm as a great place to work and appeals to potential candidates. Each law firm is different and will need to develop its own unique brand to accomplish hiring goals. However, the following characteristics of a workplace branding campaign should probably be included:

  1. Clearly defines the firm’s culture and value standards.
  2. Clearly defines an employment proposition by promoting a commitment to firm culture, individual and collective professional development and public and professional service.
  3. Regularly involves all members of the firm by 1. educating on workplace branding strategy, 2. seeking feedback to determine if the employment value proposition of the firm is true and 3. leveraging the goodwill and job satisfaction of existing firm members.
  4. Includes a regular audit or other mechanism to gauge whether the stated value proposition is consistent with actual perception and reputation of the firm workplace externally.
  5. Cultivates a strong onboarding process and includes a required retention program, reportable to firm and (if applicable) practice group leaders.
  6. Includes exit interviews that attempt to gauge whether departing firm employees believe the firm achieves its hiring goals.

The Recruitment Process Must Support Hiring Goals

The tactics employed in the quest to hire talent will differ from firm to firm depending on such variables as firm size, geographic location, local community and many other distinctions. Having just gleefully watched the Dallas Cowboys defeated in the playoffs for the third consecutive year after a 12–5 regular season, with respect to football as well as law firm hiring practices, continuing to do the same thing as in the past is likely to lead to similar results. In law firm hiring, the same results may be experienced even though a firm’s leadership has devoted much time and effort aligning hiring goals with culture and developing extensive (and sometimes expensive) workplace branding resources. For firms large enough to have subgroups (practice groups, industry groups, etc.), each has its own culture, and a candidate’s successful inclusion into both cultures must be the goal. At larger firms, the process should include significant interaction by a candidate with many firm members, not just those in the subgroup seeking to fill the position. Regardless of firm size, the process should be one that includes both formal interviews, and less formal social interaction. Though social interaction may seem less formal to the candidate, the entire process should be quite intentional. In smaller firms, all members should interact with every candidate, and should be tasked with seeking out and reporting to other decision makers on whether their interaction has revealed any basis for determination of whether the candidate, if employed, is likely to excel at substantive work for clients, and promote the firm’s culture within.