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October 15, 2015 Dialogue

Leadership Transitions in Legal Aid Programs: A Guide for Boards of Directors and Staff – Part II

By Patricia Pap

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series and has been reprinted by permission from the MIE Journal, Summer 2005. Although the article focuses specifically on executive director transition within legal aid organizations, it should provide helpful guidance to leadership transitions within IOLTA programs, as well. Read the first part in the previous issue of Dialogue here.

Recruiting and Hiring

Put in place a process for maintaining confidentiality during the search process.

Applicants deserve confidentiality. The search committee needs to have a process in place for maintaining the confidentiality of all information during the search process including discussions, telephone calls, and reference checks. This is very important in the case of

internal applicants. Other issues to consider include: Where will applications be sent? Who will open mail? Who will prepare copies of information for committee members? Who will write and send the rejection letters? Who will call to set up the interviews?

The board should know how it plans to handle potential conflicts of interest that might arise in the search and hiring process, for example if qualified friends or relatives apply. It is easier if decisions on how to handle conflicts are made before they come up, not after.

Advertise the position.

The search committee will prepare the job announcement based on the job description and the list of experiences and qualities desired of an applicant. Review electronic and print announcements from other legal aid and nonprofit organizations to identify advertisements which might be useful as models. MIE’s website includes these announcements on its employment page for currently open positions and in the e-library as models. Choose your wording carefully to include information that is attractive to a person with the kind of qualities you are seeking and helps to screen out unqualified applicants. Include a few lines about the strategic direction of your program and the qualifications which are “must haves” on your list. Decide whether to include a salary range. Be prepared to give interested candidates an information kit with an updated job description and general information about the organization. Candidates whom you select for interviews may ask to receive more information, such as audited financial statements, by-laws, advocacy dockets and strategic planning documents.

You already will have created a budget for advertising the position. Make a list of places and organizations to receive your notice. Work your network broadly to advertise your position. Reach out to other legal aid programs and to your community partners to be sure that as many people as possible know that your organization is hiring a new executive director. Consider the following avenues for publicizing your position: newspapers—daily and weekly; newsletter—community, special interest groups; bulletin boards—employment offices, community and service organizations; electronic bulletin board services; mail, faxes and email to related agencies and organizations; and internal communications.

Develop a diverse pool of candidates.

Build into your job description and desired characteristics for candidates such qualities as bilingual/bicultural, community ties, life experiences, cultural background, experience as an immigrant or public assistance recipient or indigent.

In job announcements, set out the program’s intent to provide equal opportunity in hiring and not to discriminate on the basis of age, class, color, ethnicity, disability, faith, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. One possible statement might be: “We are committed to diversity in the workplace and regard difference as an asset. We strongly encourage applications from people of color, people with disabilities, women, bilingual/bicultural people, former or current recipients of public assistance, and gay men and lesbians.”

Circulate your job announcement to increase your chances of a diverse candidate pool by sending it to places such as legal aid and other diversity coalitions; minority bar associations; ethnic media; diversity job fairs; diversity websites; local and statewide community-based organizations; and use personal outreach. Encourage all staff to make ongoing recruitment efforts through personal contacts who may be interested in the position or know of others who might be.

If it turns out your pool is not diverse, revise your search plan and extend the search.

We tend to hire in our own likeness. We might over-appreciate strengths like our own, and undervalue the qualities we do not possess. Our board members, who may not be diverse, similarly may be more comfortable hiring people like themselves. Discuss diversity with the board and the search committee to maximize appreciation of diverse characteristics and to guard against unintentional bias. Be sure to have a diverse search committee. Involve your program’s affirmative action officer and/or committee in building the job pool and in board diversity discussions.

Use your candidate rating sheet and interview questions. Create a clearly defined and weighted set of criteria for hiring that values the ability to serve our increasingly diverse client community in a more culturally competent manner.

Take steps now to expand diversity throughout your program to build diverse leadership for the future, while providing culturally competent client service. Look beyond traditional leadership positions to additional ways to promote leadership opportunities and professional growth.

Make presentations and maintain regular contact with potential sources of diverse candidates.

Screen resumes.

Before plunging into the screening of the many resumes you are likely to receive, first train search committee members on reading resumes. You all want to be on the same page in terms of the primary and secondary qualities and experiences you are looking for, and of your appreciation of diversity characteristics.

At the closing date, the search committee will use the candidate rating sheet to sort resumes in some way such as: those who do not meet minimum qualifications; those who appear to have some of the primary and secondary characteristics; those who appear to have a strong assortment of the characteristics such that you are interested in interviewing them.

It is a good idea to send a courteous letter of rejection to candidates who do not meet your minimum requirements. You can word the letter so that in addition to letting the individual know about the status of the application, you build support for your program.

Consider internal candidates.

There may be qualified and suitable candidates within your program, including possibly an acting executive director. The search committee needs to give thoughtful and diplomatic treatment to internal candidates. It may want to identify potential difficulties in advance and make plans to handle them tactfully. Consider: Will the search committee conduct courtesy interviews for all internal candidates? Would an unsuccessful internal candidate be able to support a new executive director? Is it appropriate for the search committee to announce that it will be hiring only from outside the organization?

Begin initial interviews.

You will need to decide whether or not you will do any telephone screening and for what purpose. Some programs choose to screen candidates by telephone using a standard set of questions. This screening process helps you to get to know the candidate, decide whether or not you wish to invite the candidate for a formal interview, and be more prepared for the formal interview. Telephone interviews may also be a diplomatic way to provide a courtesy interview to someone you would not hire, but cannot afford to offend.

Develop a set of interview questions which you will use with all candidates. This is not to say that you may not divert from the questions to follow up on particular areas, but it is important to develop comparable information about each applicant for best decision-making. If you have any questions about the propriety of any of your potential questions, have them reviewed by an attorney for possible legal issues.

In preparing interview questions, ask yourselves:

  • Have committee members agreed to the key concepts you want candidates to address when answering the questions?
  • How do you expect the candidate to explain how he or she will move the organization to the vision?
  • How do you expect the candidate to demonstrate that he or she has the skills, qualities and experiences to meeting the organization’s strategic challenges?
  • Are there any case studies, based on the organization’s experiences that will help you to understand how a candidate might respond in a given situation?


Look for emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognize our own feelings and those of others, to motivate ourselves and others, and to manage emotions in ourselves and in our relationships.1 It describes abilities distinct from academic intelligence or expertise. Academic intelligence (IQ) and expertise (a combination of common sense and the specialized knowledge and skill we pick up in the course of doing a job) are baseline competencies needed to land the job and get it done.

What distinguishes outstanding performers, what allows people to develop their full potential, is emotional intelligence.

Interview your selected candidates.

Interviews can be stressful. It is important to work toward a positive experience, so that your candidate and your program both reveal their best. Set the right atmosphere with a location that is private, relaxed and comfortable. Practice good communication during the interview, allowing time for the candidate to clarify questions you ask and for committee members to clarify information that the candidate presents.

Set an interview schedule that allows for both the candidate and the search committee to relax and get to know each other, without being too pressured by the clock. Avoid scheduling interviews too close together. You do not want to keep a good candidate waiting. It is a good idea to allocate time between each interview to allow for flexibility and to give committee members time to write down notes or confer.

In addition to the search committee, staff members and other key stakeholders in the community may appreciate the opportunity to meet with your finalists. Consider the kind and method of feedback you want to receive from these interviews.

All told, you will want to have held at least two in-person interviews of your finalist candidates, in addition to any telephone screening you may have done. The in-person interviews may include one by the search committee and one by the board, or the search committee itself may decide to hold two interviews before making its recommendations to the board. Obviously this is a costly proposition if your candidates are traveling any distance, and as part of the transition planning process you will have budgeted in some funds to reimburse candidates the costs of travel for at least the second interview.

When evaluating the interview, look for how the candidate’s answers to questions connect to what is listed on his or her resume. Make consistent use of the rating sheet you have developed to help you compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of your candidates compared to your prioritized qualities and experiences.

Check references.

Reference checking is a crucial step in the interviewing process that many programs take too lightly. Always, always carefully check references of your finalist candidates. With permission of the candidate, check with all supervisors and other work colleagues who may have important objective information, not just with those persons listed on the resume or named during the interview. Be skeptical of peer-only references, or a reluctance to have you talk to supervisors. (At the same time, you will want to respect a candidate’s request that supervisors be informed of the job search only if the candidate is under serious consideration.)

Develop a list of questions for the reference designed to provide you with information you need to make a decision. You particularly want to know if the candidate’s references support the experience and skills that are listed on the resume and represented during the interview. Ask about your candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to your priorities. When you conduct reference checks, listen to what is being said to you. Understand the reluctance of some employers to give references candidly. Develop a rapport with the reference with whom you are speaking.

The search committee will ultimately recommend finalists to the board of directors. If multiple candidates are to be interviewed by the board, and it should be the case that the board sees several candidates, it is important that the search committee be comfortable with any of the candidates being considered for the position.

Extend the job offer.

At last, the board of directors has interviewed the candidates recommended by the search committee, has made its decision, and it is time to make the job offer. The offer should include a summary of the board’s vision for the program’s future, and of the specific responsibilities expected of the executive director. Identify who will be working with the executive director during the early months to ensure proper orientation and training, the meeting of early deadlines and other transition issues.

The salary and benefits levels have been previously set by the board of directors. Include this information with the offer, as well as a pay increment schedule, benefits, holidays, probation period and other useful information such as parking arrangements, hours of operations. Discuss now the board’s plans for annual evaluation of the executive director.

When the new executive director has accepted the position, send letters to all candidates thanking them for their time and interest in the organization. Seek to reinforce a positive perception of the program and build future support.



Prior to the starting date, arrange a big welcome to the new executive director from board and staff via letter or call. Send your funders, bar leaders and community partners a letter introducing the new executive director. Arrange for early in-person introductory meetings between the new executive director and these stakeholders.

The board should establish an organized plan for orienting the new executive director to the program. Involve board, staff and community members and cover topics such as program history, the client community, the program’s advocacy docket, strategic direction, staff members, board members and more. It will not be possible to do it all at once. Optimally, the outgoing executive director or interim executive director will be part of this orientation process, and the incoming executive director should strive to develop a professional relationship with the predecessor.

Of crucial importance, set up an organized and fair process for the board of directors to monitor and appraise the executive director’s performance. The process must collect, organize and present information to the executive director in a manner that directs and supports her or him while providing honest feedback and opportunity for professional growth. Then conduct this appraisal annually.


Avoiding Mistakes

To summarize the information above in a fashion, boards of directors should strive to avoid making these common mistakes while hiring a new executive director:

  • Skimping on any of the three key stages in leadership transition: Getting Ready; Recruiting and Hiring; and Post-Hiring.
  • Jumping out too quickly to think of the search and candidates without first taking the opportunity to consider the future strategic directions of the program and the qualities and experiences of the new executive director needed to get the program there.
  • Jumping out too quickly from the search process itself, in other words, relinquishing too much control to the search committee; or failing to stay involved during the post-hiring period.
  • Being unclear about the appropriate roles of the board and of the staff throughout the process.
  • Not using the program’s best efforts to develop a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Checking references cursorily.
  • Failing to set expectations, beginning with the employment interview, and to appraise the performance of the executive director, and to value his or her formal professional development.


A Final Word on Behalf of the Departing Executive Director

It is certainly possible to honor the legacy of the departing executive director while at the same time candidly assessing organizational strengths and weaknesses. Appreciate him or her and celebrate the accomplishments of the program during this tenure. Recognize too the ambivalence he or she likely feels while departing.


A Word to Departing Executive Directors

What is the right role for the departing executive director during the transition? There are many reasons that an executive director may be leaving. If the executive director is leaving under positive circumstances, he or she may be more involved in the process. Provide the board with a clear picture of how it might manage the interim. Encourage the board to take on the tasks of a thorough strategic assessment and a thorough hiring process. Avoid hasty recommendations. For a fresh outlook, also avoid being actively involved in selecting your successor.

Celebrate your relationships and accomplishments.


1 See Patricia Pap, “Help Wanted: Legal Services Attorney with Grounded Intuitions and a Commitment to Justice,” MIE Journal, Summer 2002, for examples of interview questions which may reveal emotional intelligence.

Patricia Pap

Executive Director, Management Information Exchange

Patricia Pap has been the Executive Director of Management Information Exchange since 1997 and was previously the Executive Director of Legal Services for Cape Cod and Islands. Additional information about MIE and executive director transition is available on the MIE website, or by calling MIE Executive Director Patricia Pap.