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Beware These 5 Things When Hiring Recent Law School Grads: The Good, the Bad & the Smugly

Summary: Great lawyers are made by senior associates and partners. Know what to look for in choosing candidates and know what needs to be done to make your next hire a worthy member—and maybe even a star—of your firm.

Beware These 5 Things When Hiring Recent Law School Grads: The Good, the Bad & the Smugly
  • Know what to look for in an entry-level attorney when hiring inexperienced, recent new grads.
  • Know the difference between good communication—an essential for a good lawyer—and good social skills. Know the difference between “smarts” and the prestige of a good transcript.
  • Treat your young associates fairly but let them know what’s expected of them. Great lawyers are made and it’s up to senior associates and partners to make them. It can’t all be their own initiative.

Fresh-faced and Unformed
They’re young, inexperienced, and will make your firm hemorrhage many billable hours to train them. And even then much of the work they’ll do in the early years will likely require babysitting and copious editing.

Why bother then?

Think of these baby lawyers as lumps of clay ready to be molded to your specifications. They don’t have years of bad habits, presumably, and their skills are callow but earnest. And whatever their habits, you have the opportunity to make sure they are the ones you teach them. Whatever your generation—be it Boomer or Gen Xer (or really crusty Millennial), chances are you’ll find some cultural differences with your young hires. On the upside, they’re also digital natives and used to rapid change—it’s all they know. And they may better understand the intricacies and value of a social media presence.

While filling entry-level attorney jobs requires both art and science, the art aspect is often not given nearly enough credit. With that in mind, what follows are five comprehensive suggestions to help you find your best candidates among the helicopter-parented generations. (And beware of those that bring their parents to interviews):

1.Making the best of inexperience
Generally speaking, they probably won’t have much work experience. About half will get to be college graduates before ever working their first job—probably even fewer for law school grads, but not everything you need to know will be on paper. Their résumés could be as thin as a Victoria’s Secret model despite their how earnest their faces may be. You don’t want your law firm to be the test flight for how industrious or not they’re going to be. But, there may be hints in there of what’s to come:

Recommendation: Top firms shortcut this hiring process by choosing graduates from top law schools. However, most will tell you this credential means much less down the road. Remember, Clarence Darrow, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln didn’t even attend law school.

Top law firms place a high value on the “prestige factor” factor of elite schools, GPA’s, and academic honors. They’re seen as proxies for potential. And as a result law firms tend to be bastions of unattainable privilege for the very few.

Candidates should be intelligent and driven and their paper backgrounds should offer some evidence: Without a work history, past performance becomes the best indicator for future performance wherever it can be found, so stellar GPA’s, scholarships, and other impressive academic accomplishments become the only currency a law school graduate has. Take note: Did the candidate also maintain this GPA while interning, volunteering, participating in campus organizations, and maybe even working a part-time job? If so, they may very well have exactly the kind of industriousness and resourcefulness you’re looking for.

2.Training days
You already know there’ll be many days ahead before the young prospect will become profitable. And while those in entry-level roles may work (relatively) cheap, if you’re a smaller firm without the time or resources, hiring attorneys that are fledgling graduates may not be your best choice. On the other hand, this is a chance to play Dr. Frankenstein and create the monster attorney of your dreams. A professional attorney with limited experience might try to repeat the past mistakes they made in past jobs but a recent grad may be more willing and able to learn the exact processes your firm demands. The right young candidate could just turn out, with your help, to be the ideal team member.

It’s all right to expect a certain amount of initiative and spunk from your young associates. But leaving it all on them only makes the process much longer than it needs to be. Consider pairing the recent graduate you hire with a senior attorney who will provide the proper guidance and feedback.

3. Don’t mistake great social skills for great potential
As an attorney who will be representing your firm, obviously, communication skills of the written and oral variety are vital. Attorneys know that good communication skills also provide good camouflage.

One way to weed out the talkers from the doers is to ask the right questions. A solid interview process will be critical. For instance, situational vs. behavioral questions: By asking the same question in different ways you may get more interesting and authentic answers from your interviewees. Are they good listeners? Also, try to get a sense of their maturity level. Clearly, the adult responsibility and pressures of a legal career will be a considerable leap from academic life.

Ask why the candidate applied for the job, their interest in the role, what they know about your law firm, and how they’d approach the job if hired. Know that law school doesn’t teach character and this will be your last opportunity to figure this out before they’re on your payroll. Also, chances are good that your interviewee has also applied for many other jobs. If they did, ask what their particular interest in your firm was or were they just looking to start paying off their loans with an indiscriminate anybody?

4.Treat your interns & summer associates right
An internship is supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Expect that the intern has high expectations of what they hope to get out of their low/no wage labors. They’re hoping for training, a résumé building experience, and, hope against hope, a job offer at the end of this. Don’t view this person as someone to do your company’s tedious work for free. What’s best is to create a formal internship program that provides participants with meaningful training and may serve as a useful platform for launching their legal career.

The United States Department of Labor provides the following legal standards for compliance for how to hire employees that are interns:
  • The internship is part of a student’s studies or results in them receiving academic credits.
  • The intern fully understands they will not be compensated.
  • The intern receives training that relates to their field of study.
  • The internship schedule accommodates the student’s class schedule.
  • The internship concludes when the intern has completed their company-provided training.
  • The intern does not replace a full-time, paid employee.
  • The intern does expect a paid job at the end of their internship.

5. Be upfront about expectations & realities
If you’re a small firm in a small market, you’re probably not going to have candidates from top 15 law schools. Most young lawyers, despite their outsized ambitions, will understand that the early years in a law career are spent in the grindhouse of endless research, pouring through files, line-by-line digging, etc. And yet, despite the tediousness of the work and because of billable hours and the efficiency required, this will be compounded by the fact that they won’t have any experience and will still have a lot of responsibility.

Welcome to the bottom of the food chain.

Things they’ll need to know:
  • Reliability is one of the most important aspects in the practice of law. Quality is assumed; reliability never is.
  • How to write, both impeccably and convincingly. Even litigators spend much more time writing than appearing in court; plus research, they’ll need to sleuth like Nancy Drew with the stamina of a marathoner.
  • To always be available, 24-7.
  • How to take ownership of the work: Everyone is busy so no one wants to have to micromanage the young associate.
  • To listen: And listen some more. Ask questions—be it about law or the profession. But: Don’t ask questions before thinking through the issues. Seniors love it when juniors attempt to solve problems themselves (but also verify that it’s the right solution). Young associates too often are afraid to admit they don’t know something. They think it shows weakness or incompetence. Believe this: No attorney would rather redo hours of work than be asked a “silly” question. Provide them with an atmosphere where they can ask questions and tell them not to try to impress with cleverness; show it through the work.
  • Nurture and defend a good reputation: protect it like your child. A good one takes a lawyer years to build and minutes to destroy. Also think long and hard before doing anything that could tarnish it; the practice of law is also a business, clients are customers, and a lawyer’s name is all they have to go on.
  • Don’t work on a project without checking back in regularly with the assigning attorney. They’ll risk going down wrong paths and create anxiety over the timeliness and efficiency of the work product: And communicate.
The conventional wisdom in law is the best lawyers come from the best law schools. And while many do, qualities like mental agility, sharpness, analytical and critical thinking are all things that tend not to measure well on transcripts. The secret to hiring entry-level attorneys that could turn into brilliant lawyers may be hidden in those things only discovered in an interview. Therefore, it’s paramount that you ask the right questions. Those with the most aptitude and ability for a career in law are often found with qualities well beyond the job description.

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