Though law schools are churning out attorneys in greater numbers each year, many never formally practice law. If they do, it is in smaller firms or very niche areas of law. Working in a law firm, though rewarding, often means long hours and sacrificing personal time. Younger attorneys are more idealistic about how they want to use their law degrees and are choosing to find positions that provide a work-life balance that they do not believe is common in most firms.
Highly skilled and experienced legal staff are equally hard to find. Because of shortages, firms that have qualified paraprofessionals and other legal staff value their contributions and keep their staff satisfied. That means fewer experienced legal professionals are seeking new positions.
Law firms have been slower than other industries to institute new hiring practices. The legal field is notorious for being slow to embrace change, but if firms hope to hire the best and brightest, they will have to make significant changes in their hiring practices.
Hiring challenges and solutions
- Problem #1—Prestigious law firms are often overly selective about where candidates received their law degree, even if they have years of practical experience. Also, some firms still hold to standards like only hiring attorneys who graduated in the top 10% of their class. In virtually every other industry and business, GPA is now an almost worthless assessment of potential candidates.
Relying on GPA’s, or even where a candidate attended law school, is potentially relevant when recruiting newly minted junior associates. However, firms risk turning away highly-skilled, proven talent when hiring potential partners or senior associates. The experience and potential client base that they bring are much more important than where they went to school or how well they did.
Firms are slowly coming to realize that competency is more important than an image, and they are embracing new ways to attract new talent. Hiring partners are looking more at a candidate’s ability to work as part of a team, leadership, results, and resiliency. The results are promising as firms come to realize that these characteristics are a much more reliable indicator of how a new hire will perform.
- Problem #2—Failing to consider the culture of your firm versus the past culture of the potential legal candidate can mean hiring a candidate that looks great on paper but does not fit with the team.
Hiring attorneys and legal staff because of their education at prestigious schools or work history at other prestigious firms has proven to be an ineffective indicator of how they will do at a new position. Each law firm has a distinct culture, and even if a candidate was successful at a previous firm, that is not a guarantee that they will thrive at a firm with a different culture.
To conquer this hiring hurdle, a firm needs a substantial understanding of their own culture and what they are looking for in a candidate. If your firm’s culture runs on 80-hour work weeks and constant pressure, then hiring someone from a more relaxed work environment might cause culture shock.
If a legal assistant has twenty years of experience with a senior partner at another firm, it might seem simple to mark that person as the top candidate for an open position at your firm. There are numerous reasons this candidate might not be the right fit:
- The attorney they will be working with is young, idealistic, and embraces all forms of technology.
- The legal assistant has adapted to a culture that clashes with the culture of your firm.
- The attorney that the legal assistant will be working with would rather train someone fresh from school instead of dealing with the ingrained work habits instilled by another attorney.
- Problem #3—Many firms fail to recruit among passive candidates. assive candidates are not actively seeking new employment, but that does not mean they are not recruitable. Qualified legal candidates that are a perfect fit for the position you hope to fill might not be on the market, but recruiting passive candidates is a modern hiring practice. Passive candidates may require more incentive, but if they are the right fit for the job, they will be well worth the extra effort.
Create an employee referral program that incentivizes staff to share the benefits of working for your legal firm. Social media platforms like LinkedIn allow your legal team to stay in contact with professional acquaintances, making them the perfect recruiters for passive candidates.
- Problem #4—Firms penalize experience and focus recruiting efforts on new graduates. There are many reasons for this practice. Some firms do not want to pay a premium for an experienced attorney, but many times it is because they want to do the training in-house. Truthfully, training inexperienced junior associates take significant resources, and hiring an experienced attorney might be a better solution.
Experienced attorneys and legal staff will take far less time and resources to train and might bring a host of benefits with them. Do not discount that they may bring specialized knowledge about a particular area of law, valuable contacts, or even a client base with them.
Attorneys may have worked as in-house counsel, or they may have taken many other paths within the legal field before they decided they want to work for a firm. Not only do they bring the potential benefits listed above, but they have life experience and maturity that can also make them valuable members of a team.
Law firms, by nature and training, are risk-averse entities. However, with the fast-paced changes that are changing the practice of law, it is time to take some measured risk with your hiring practices. If you continue to hire using the same method that the firm used 20 years ago, then your firm is at risk of stagnation.
Outdated hiring practices ensure missing out on many opportunities to hire the best legal talent.
Hire for the future instead of struggling to just meet present demand. The new talent you bring into the firm today may one day be leading your firm into the future. Take some time to determine the current challenges to growth and what challenges the firm will face. This information should help shape your hiring practices as you bring in new legal professionals.