By Shelly M. Ingram, Esq.
Editor’s Note: The author wrote this article in conjunction with her interview on the same topic in the Opening Your Own Law Firm video series, which is available to MSBA Members.
When you are ready to hire, it is important to consider what tasks you can delegate to your new employee. Doing that will inform the process and your decision. Once you’ve made a good hire, then good delegation, and a little luck, will let you dedicate your office hours to your most profitable purpose, and even give you time left over for family, friends, and yourself.
Here are five tips on hiring your first employee (and those who come after):
1. Always be ready to hire. If you wait until you need help, you won’t have time to balance your clients’ needs with your search for qualified candidates. To lay a fertile ground for finding good hires, stay dedicated to good lawyering and to your clients, and don’t be afraid to talk about your work with others in your legal community — perhaps at the courthouse if you’re a litigator. Informal networking is not only good for marketing your practice and relationship building, it can also generate buzz to attract potential hires.
- For a more direct approach, career centers and professors at universities and community colleges may know a recent graduate or student looking for work. Depending on the position you wish to fill, they may even be able to provide you with a pool of targeted referrals.
2. Create a candidate-focused, detailed job description. In addition to thinking about what you need, consider what aspects of the position may entice prospective employees. Show some energy and creativity if it is your goal to attract people with energy and creativity.
Questions you can ask yourself while drafting the job description include:
- Why should a prospective candidate pick you?
- Why would the candidate be excited to work at your firm?
- Are you willing to train or provide continuing education?
- What type of work environment do you offer?
- Is there an opportunity for growth?
- Are there benefits associated with the position?
Pro tip: At the bottom of your job post, include specific instructions on how you would like a candidate to submit their application. If the candidate can’t follow the instructions, it may be a good indicator that they do not have the attention to detail that legal work requires.
Once you’ve created the job description, post it often. Here are a few free and low-cost places to post and share:
- Your website. Dedicate a page to careers with your firm.
- Your firm’s LinkedIn profile and other social media. Let your firm’s personality shine.
- Colleges and university career development and exploration websites.
- Professional Association websites. For example, the National Association of Legal Assistants allows employers to post on a targeted job board.
- Word of mouth. Tell your colleagues and connections that you are looking to expand your staff, and be ready to act when the right person comes your way.
3. Prescreen your candidates. It is easy for a candidate to put their best foot forward for a scheduled interview. Try to get a look “behind the curtain” because a candidate, once hired, will be an ambassador for you and your firm. To do that, show an interest in the candidate and make an effort to know who they are, both personally and professionally.
Call the candidate or set a Zoom appointment to schedule the in-person interview. A brief call or introductory Zoom pre-interview contact gives you a chance to see if your candidate takes you and your employment opportunity seriously. Likewise, this initial contact can give you a glimpse of a candidate’s other strengths and weaknesses. Does the candidate present themselves professionally? Are they properly dressed and groomed for the Zoom call? Do they have a clear speaking voice? What is their telephone demeanor? Is there a greeting on their voicemail and is it professional? Is their voicemail full?
What are their interests outside of work? If they have social media – check it. What types of pictures and posts are visible? If you can find them, your clients can too! Exchange emails with the prospective candidate — they may have a polished writing sample, but how is their grammar, punctuation, and spelling in a routine communication? How timely are their responses?
Pro tip: If you have others schedule calls or interviews with candidates, you will miss a terrific opportunity to gather insights and intel that is easy to overlook in a traditional interview.
Lastly, and often overlooked: ask for references and check them. (continues below)
4. Use a structured set of questions during the interview. Ask each candidate the same structured set of questions. If you conduct conversational interviews, candidates may get off track. You are getting to know them. They are getting to know you. You may get off track, too! A set of structured interview questions makes it easier to get back on track. Just as importantly, structured questions will help you compare the responses of multiple candidates after-the-fact.
Determine if the candidate genuinely wants to work for your firm and with your clients. Your firm will always be your reputation and responsibility. Structured questions will help you find hires invested in the growth of your practice, who possess the skills that are needed to develop your brand and maintain a consistent level of service.
5. Hire a law clerk or a person with legal experience if you can. Movies and television have taught people that the practice of law is sexier and more exciting than it really is. Prospective hires without legal experience may say that they have an interest in the law and a desire to help others. Unfortunately, that interest is not always enough, especially if they expect the kind of law firm life they’ve seen portrayed on screen.
Let candidates know the unglamorous realities of lawyering, such as your practice’s work pace, or that there may be times when additional hours are required, such as during trial preparation. If you’re in a high-conflict practice, like a family law practice can be for example, then explain that candidates will need patience and empathy to calm the nerves of often anxious clients.
Former law clerks or applicants with law firm experience make the best hires, in my opinion. Even if their experience is not in your specific practice area, it can be helpful that they have worked with clients in a comparable situation and also understand basic legal concepts.
Your hire reflects directly on you. Every written or spoken word of your employee represents you and your practice whether you like it or not. Someone whose professionalism, capabilities, and work product you respect will likely earn the respect of your clients and network as well. Take the time to make the right choice, and always be on the lookout for someone who is an asset, not a liability, for your practice.
Another Useful MSBA Article: Five Tips for Setting Boundaries with Clients
Representing Maryland divorce and family law clients for more than fifteen years, Shelly Maynard Ingram has litigated cases involving divorce, child custody, child support, property, domestic violence, and an array of post-judgment matters. She and her associates are based in Fulton, Md.