How to Avoid the Costly Mistake of Hiring the Wrong In-House Attorney

Talent SelectionHiring a new attorney for your legal department can be an exciting process, but it also can be time-consuming and stressful—and the cost of hiring the wrong candidates can be high both financially and in terms of your team's morale and reputation. While there's no way to guarantee that you'll always identify and hire the best possible candidate, there are many things you can do throughout the process to increase the likelihood that you will hire someone who will be a good fit for your team and your company for years to come.

Evaluate as many candidates as possible: The more candidates you evaluate, the better sense you'll get for the type of attorney that will be best for your organization. In addition, speaking with a large number of lawyers will give you options and help ensure that your best candidate isn't overlooked. As a recruiter, I routinely speak with dozens of candidates for every search, and along the way, I remove many candidates from consideration for a host of different reasons. However, through my screening process, I also always wind up identifying strong candidates who initially didn't seem like they would be among my top choices based just on their resumes. For instance, sometimes a candidate will impress me with their thorough research on the hiring company and well-articulated statement about why the company's mission appeals to them; sometimes the candidate will turn out to have relevant experience that didn't appear on their resume; and sometimes their intelligence, poise and presence is so strong during my phone screen that I feel compelled to advance them through the process. These types of candidates often wind up on the final slates I present to my clients, and not infrequently one of them winds up being the candidate selected by my client for the job. I would miss out on many of the best candidates if I only conducted phone screens with those who appeared to be among the top 10–12 interested candidates based on their written materials.

Rely on someone with expertise on your legal community to manage the screening process: Be sure that the person responsible for researching potential candidates and screening resumes is familiar with the legal market and your local community. If they aren't, you could risk a candidate being overlooked because their credentials initially were reviewed by someone who didn't know the prestigious reputation of their law firm or understand that the lingo used on their resume to describe their experience makes them a fit for your role. Many companies have very talented employees on their HR and talent acquisition teams, but if those employees don't hire lawyers frequently, they won't have had an opportunity to learn about your legal community to be able to identify the best candidates for you. If that is the case, have one of your lawyers (or perhaps a highly experienced paralegal) conduct the research to identify potential candidates to target for outreach and also to screen the resumes of interested candidates. Otherwise you could miss out on the opportunity to consider some of the most talented attorneys for your position.

Be transparent about the challenges your new hire will face: Transparency during the recruitment process can go a long way toward setting expectations. While it's certainly of utmost importance to "sell" your company to candidates, a part of that selling process is letting the candidate know the complete picture of what to expect. Every good candidate knows that no job is perfect, and that each company and department will have challenges as well as opportunities. Being upfront about that during the interview process can help you earn credibility and prevent the candidate from envisioning any negative aspects of the role as being worse than they are in reality. In addition, if you are transparent during the interview process, your new employee will arrive on their first day with a clear sense of what to expect, so they may be less likely to become dissatisfied as a result of feeling caught off guard by a challenging aspect of the role that everyone on the team knew about but failed to mention to them earlier.

Engage in repeated interactions with candidates – the more the better: The more you interact with your candidates, the more likely you are to see any potential red flags and the more opportunity you will have to evaluate their fit for your team. Repeated interactions also allow you to gauge the candidates' demeanor, stated desires and preferences, reasons for seeking a new opportunity, etc. As a recruiter, I always speak with candidates a minimum of three times (one of which always will be in-person or via videoconference) and also send candidates written questionnaires to complete before I send them to interview with a client. From doing so, I have identified many candidates that appeared to have inconsistent behaviors or wavering stories and that often leads me to eliminating those candidates from the slates I present to my clients.

Evaluate soft skills: We all know that it is important for in-house attorneys to be skilled at things like communication, leadership, persuasion, teamwork, adaptability and relationship-building, but these can be hard traits to assess during an interview. The more interaction you have with candidates, the better sense you can get for their soft skills. However, when you only have one day (or less) with the candidate, here are some other tricks that may help:

  • Ask behavioral interview questions.
  • Take the candidate on a tour of your office and/or out for a meal and see how they handle interactions with people who are not a part of the interview process.
  • Ask them to complete some type of written questionnaire.
  • Contact multiple references and ask them to rate the candidate on the soft skills that are most important to you.
  • Scrutinize the candidates' cover letters and thank you notes (or lack thereof).

For more on this topic, please see my related article Looking Beyond the Resume: How to Assess Intangible Skills When Evaluating Candidates.

Reach out to passive job seekers: Scanning the marketplace to identify passive job seekers is one key to executing a successful search. According to LinkedIn, in 2016, only 5–20% of the total talent pool was comprised of individuals actively seeking new employment. Given this data, it's clear that if you rely only on posting ads to identify candidates, you likely will only have a chance to see a small percentage of the candidates who could be a fit for your organization. The remaining attorneys need to be targeted by outreach such as cold calling, emailing and social networking. If you don't engage in this type of outreach, the vast majority of the potential candidates for your role won't ever become a part of your screening process.

Fit the personality to your culture: When evaluating candidates, it's key to consider whether they'll be a fit with both the culture of your company and the sub-culture of your department. Some of this comes through observation of how the candidates interact with you and your team members, but it also helps to provide your interviewers with some training about what questions to ask during the interview. The types of questions that can help you get a good sense of how the attorney would fit in with your organization include:

  • What attributes do you look for in a potential new employer?
  • Describe your ideal job.
  • What made you a good fit in your former positions?
  • How do you feel about our company's mission statement?
  • Describe your ideal working environment.

Hiring a new attorney for your team is a big investment, and when done correctly, the process generally is very time-consuming. Unfortunately, when you need to hire someone, it is generally because you have an open position, and that often is when you have the fewest resources available on your team to devote to anything other than managing your company's legal needs. This can make it tempting to take shortcuts in the process, but remember that hiring the wrong person likely will cost you even more time in the long run.

If you find that your legal department doesn't have the resources available to manage the research, outreach, screening and evaluation of candidates, a legal recruiting firm can be a big help. Legal recruiters speak with lawyers (as both candidates and clients) all day, every day, so they typically have a very strong network of personal contacts and a large database of lawyers from which to conduct research. In addition, the recruiters' day-to-day work is the placement of attorneys. They spend their working hours identifying candidates for their clients on a full-time basis, so they typically can work very quickly to identify the very best candidates for your department and your company.

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Kimberly LermanKimberly Lerman is a Director in our In-House Practice Group's Atlanta office. She specializes in placing attorneys in corporate legal departments in a wide range of industries, including financial services, retail, technology, manufacturing, healthcare and consumer services.

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