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Managing Up

The Law Firm Ecosystem: Recruiting Your Team

By Erik Mazzone

Your law firm is a complex ecosystem made up of technology systems, business development strategies, billing practices, compensation plans and, of course, recruiting associate lawyers. In part three of his series on reimagining your firm’s ecosystem, Erik Mazzone looks at assembling your dream team.

recruiting associate lawyers

Every lawyer who runs a law firm knows that the thing that really makes a firm go round is its people. While we invest in technology to increase productivity and marketing to differentiate our position and increase business, the beating heart of a law firm is the group of people doing the work — serving clients, scanning documents, and answering initial consultation calls.

I’m not gonna lie … managing people can be frustrating on a level that’s hard to imagine if you’ve never done it. Teams are great for getting work done when they are rowing in the same direction, but their capacity to stop rowing in the same direction and start hitting each other with oars while drilling holes in the bottom of the boat … well, it’s something to see.

A Well-Managed Team Is Your Greatest Competitive Advantage

But — and it’s a big “but” — a well-managed team focused on a common goal is the greatest competitive advantage a law firm can possess. The limits of cutting-edge technology and amazing marketing are that they need a strong and capable team to use those tools and do the work.

Previously in this Law Firm Ecosystem series, we discussed location neutrality and compensation, which feed together into assembling and managing a strong team. In broad brush strokes, the people management portion of your firm ecosystem is made up of three components:

  1. Assembling a great team (recruiting).
  2. Keeping a great team (retention).
  3. Managing a great team to do their best work (performance management).

Location neutrality and other employee-forward business practices make recruiting easier. Attractive compensation plans make retention easier. And a strong performance management system ensures you get the best result possible from the team you’ve taken pains to recruit and retain.

In today’s installment of the firm ecosystem, we’re going to focus on the first leg of the stool of people management: recruiting.

Your Ideal Team: Recruiting Associate Lawyers

The past year or two has been unusual for me in my client work. I can’t recall a time when the competition for hiring employees has been more intense. It’s not just attorneys, either. It’s all points on the org chart from top to bottom. Persistent and extremely low unemployment rates have meant that employees have options. Lots of them. Offering a fair job at a fair wage may not be enough to fill your firm’s talent pipeline anymore.

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy to solve this. Different firms of different sizes in different locations with different practice areas are going to have to solve for this differently.

A few thoughts on how to pivot into a competitive hiring market, and from here on in, we will constrain our discussion to associate attorneys. Lateral hires, mergers and other firm staff all deserve their own treatment with their own specific challenges and opportunities.

Identify Your Target Hiring Market

It’s time to start thinking about hiring as seriously as you think about marketing. Because, in essence, hiring is marketing. You are marketing your firm as a place to start or continue a career to a talented professional. It’s a sales process, not just a vetting process.

I will stop for a moment because I can almost hear the sound of eyes rolling.

I know; if you own and run a firm, you have a Dickensian story about how hard you scraped to earn every opportunity you’ve had. It took monumental effort. Oliver Twist would read your story and thank his lucky stars. The need to now sell a job to a young lawyer, well, it’s more than a little maddening.

I get it. I had to bang away in some truly terrible legal jobs myself as I was getting started, too. But the world is different today, and holding onto the emotional baggage of resentment about how hard you had to work to get where you are and how hard you still have to work to get somebody talented to work for you is not going to help the process.

So, do like the song says, and let it go.

OK, back to your target hiring market. Maybe you need the valedictorian of Harvard Law to do your very specialized and intellectual work (you don’t), and maybe your firm’s brand depends on only hiring attorneys from top-ranked schools (it doesn’t).

Maybe, with a strong training program, hands-on management and a commitment to helping attorneys grow, you can hire fruitfully from a batch of students who did pretty well at a pretty good law school and who aren’t carrying around multiple offers from AmLaw 200 firms.

You may want to look for evidence of an actual interest in your practice area (like coursework), and you may decide to prioritize candidates who show diligence and determination over massive amounts of raw intellectual horsepower. Your mileage may vary, as they say. The key here is to determine your target market and work hard to sell your firm to them.

Align Your Benefits to Your Market (Not the Other Way Around)

This may also seem utterly sacrilegious to those raised in the cult of “who suffered the most” at the beginning of their career. But maybe the benefits you think should matter the most just don’t. Talk to your target market, and find out what they value and what they don’t. They might not care as much about a massive 401k match as they would about, say, committing to pro bono work, or a diverse workplace or sabbatical program.

When you are competing for talent, there is not a lot of upside in doing the same things everyone else is doing. Think creatively and really get to know the folks you want to come join your team. And then build the benefits around the things they value instead of the things you valued when you were their age.

Plan Your Hiring Proactively

When you have a small team, the usual plan is to hire when you need to replace someone. It is reactive by nature.

I know this is anathema to small firm hiring practices but try very hard to plan your hiring.

In an ideal world, though, you will control (or at least influence) the timeline of when that replacement happens. To be sure, there are times when you walk into the office on a busy Wednesday to find your favorite associate sitting in your office with that “we need to talk” look. That’s a bad day and there may not be much you can do to prevent total surprise.

On the other hand, you probably have a team member or two who is barely hanging on. Maybe their work isn’t great or they’re not jelling with the firm. Either way, it’s clear they aren’t going to be around for the long term, but you are hoping they (or you) can turn it around. Not least of which is because hiring is such a pain.

This is the opportunity that can be captured. Rather than let magical thinking or denial take over, lean into the opportunity. There’s going to be turnover. By acknowledging that and planning for it, you can influence when it happens, and your firm can be ready. It still stings having to start again with a new employee, but at least you steered the process so that it didn’t happen at the worst possible time.

Assembling Your Dream Team

There may be no more important set of systems in your firm’s ecosystem than the ones that help you recruit, retain and manage a talented team. Getting proactive and recognizing that the rules of engagement have changed in recruiting are the first steps toward assembling your dream team.

Recent “Managing Up” Articles

“Law Firm Ecosystem: Location Neutrality”

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: Tools for Law Firm Growth

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Erik Mazzone Erik Mazzone

Erik Mazzone is a law practice management advisor, writer, speaker and adjunct law professor. As a consultant, he works with individuals and organizations to help them use technology and strategic business practices to reign in chaos, build systems, and grow their practices in smart, sustainable ways. Previously, Erik served as Senior Director of the North Carolina Bar Association Membership Experience and Director of the NCBA Center for Practice Management. He writes and speaks widely on legal technology and practice management, in North Carolina and throughout the country. Follow him on Twitter @ErikMazzone and on LinkedIn.

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