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Lateral Associate Hiring: From Distant Vision to Firm Office, Contributed by Tacie J. Steidel, Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The past few years at law firms have marked the end of predictable landscapes. Once a steady climb, the legal world has found itself on a constant evolving path, and with that, firms’ needs have changed as well. In order to maintain practice group strength and expertise, it is essential to make smart and informed lateral hiring decisions. The combination of a dedicated hiring team, direction, research, and a little common sense will help your firm do just that.

Identifying Needs

The Recruiting Committee of a law firm can guide practice groups through the process of identifying their lateral hiring needs. Often, a group’s initial thoughts on its area of need, or ideal candidate, are far from what it actually wants. The Committee should anticipate this and prepare a list of pertinent questions to ask when making this initial assessment. Having an honest conversation with all members of the practice group (both the partners and non-partners) in order to survey everyone’s expectations can help the practice group identify its true objective. Begin with the answers to these basic questions:
  • What level Associate?
  • What specialty?
  • What office?
  • What skills must the person possess?
  • What holes in the group are they looking to fill and why doesn’t that aspect already exist?
Next, tackle the harder questions: the tacit ones. Perhaps the most important aspect of finding the right person for the job is to have an accurate perception of the group and the firm. If the firm is large or if it is small, it needs to attract people who want that type of environment. It is easy to label the straight forward areas like “we need a fourth year associate.” However, no one wants just a body in a chair. The difficult task is identifying the characteristics a person needs to embody in order to succeed in the group. Does the person need to write well? Does the person need to be the group’s interface with clients? Does the person need to manage a team? These areas are more important than any story a person’s resume will tell. It takes proper preparation to be able to spot them. Pinpoint the qualities the group sees in its ideal candidate but know what it will settle for if it can’t have it all. Everyone sees their firm as the best, and thus believes their group deserves the best candidate on the market. Who wouldn’t? The hiring team should cautiously avoid drinking its own Kool-Aid. Everyone needs to be realistic about what the firm has to offer, the candidates it will attract, and what is available for its level.

Attracting the Right Candidates

— Know What Your Firm Can Offer

The Labor Department of New York ran three separate studies over the course of five years to focus on what people want from work. Results found that a common misconception among senior management is that the position and the perks (like salary and office space) are candidates’ focal points when selecting a job. These tangible elements actually take a back seat to the intangible. While supervisors perceive high wages and job security as the top of employees’ importance lists, in fact its qualities like “full appreciation of the work being done” and “the feeling of being in on things” that employees rank the highest. Be sure to fully understand what qualities your firm has in areas like these before beginning the candidate search. When it comes to their careers, Generations X and Y have different mentalities than most baby boomer partners. Tune in to WiiFm. Today’s lateral associate candidates will want to know “what’s in it for me” and why a position is open. The aftermath of 2009 left everyone walking on eggshells. People are curious to know why associates left a firm and the long-term strength of a practice group. Find a way to sell the position as a unique growth experience that the candidate will not find elsewhere. Will the person gain unique skills? Will there be significant client contact? Will the candidate be able to manage or build a team and a practice? Candidates tend to embrace new opportunities because their current positions and firm leave something more to be desired.

— Manage Your Search Firms

Just as important as a Recruiting Committee’s firm knowledge is the assurance that its search outlets know the firm too. Search firms are probably the most common instrument used for lateral hiring. If the Recruitment Committee has conducted previous lateral searches, it probably has a few firms it prefers to use. This is a smart tactic. It is important to develop a close, trusting relationship with search firms so that they truly know and believe in your firm. A law firm should sell its strengths to search firms like it would sell its strengths to potential candidates. Candidates can sense genuine excitement and enthusiasm about a place, as well as the lack of it. Search firms are the law firm’s ambassadors; the Recruitment Committee must protect that relationship. Additionally, the law firm should limit its search firm use to a trusted few. Doing so will send a higher caliber of applications and prevent the complications of candidate crossover. Keep the “go to” list limited. If a select group of search firms know they are the law firm’s first phone calls, most times they will invest their highest efforts to find the best fit

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