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One of the most important challenges faced by general counsel is the hiring of high quality in-house attorneys and staff. Market dynamics affect the availability of qualified candidates. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s is a recent example of an extreme situation in which a large number of attorneys were leaving outside firms for in-house positions and Internet-oriented startups were luring attorneys from traditional in-house jobs. Over the past decade or so, general counsel have had some buyers’ markets. But even in the best of times, there have typically been some specialty areas — real estate and intellectual property come to mind — that have posed difficulties when it comes to filling legal positions. What follows are some general hiring principles that should apply in both good times and bad. The premises for hiring in-house attorneys are somewhat different than those that apply to the hiring of new associates or laterals by outside firms. Law firms generally train associates in the practice of law. Companies, however, often have neither the time nor resources to train inexperienced lawyers. Despite the increased pressure for attorneys to specialize early in their careers, attorneys at many law firms work for clients in a number of industries. Companies want in-house attorneys to learn about their business as quickly as possible. Law firms expect most of their attorneys to generate some business. Most companies have plenty of clients to keep in-house attorneys busy. To be sure, there are some common factors that affect hiring decisions at law firms and law departments. Both strive to hire highly competent, intelligent, articulate people who have sound judgment and good people skills. Generally, law firms hire laterals and companies hire in-house attorneys for the long term. The loss of talented attorneys in either case causes potentially serious dislocations, disrupting client service and adversely affecting the proverbial bottom line. When filling an in-house position, the law department should first thoroughly and carefully define the position. Although the case for a clear definition of a new position is obvious, it is also very important for filling an existing position. Attorneys already in the department may be interested in taking on some or all of the responsibilities of the departed attorney and disposing of some of their own functions. Making these opportunities available can provide non-monetary rewards that can help in terms of attorney retention. Moreover, existing lawyers may have valuable insights into how to improve quality and efficiency in the department. In short, a departure should lead to a reevaluation of organizational responsibilities and an effort to maximize the matching of people to their jobs. Flexibility in assignments can also provide valuable training for attorneys who want to gain experience that will qualify them for advancement to a more senior management-related position in the law department. Law departments should think in advance about who would be the ideal candidate for a particular position, along with the qualifications for that new hire. Would it be best for the person to come from a law firm or would it be preferable to have someone with in-house experience? Is there a need for racial, gender or some other kind of diversity in the department? Should the new hire have managerial skills in order to be eligible for promotion? One factor that is usually more important for a law department than for a law firm is the candidate’s ability to give legal advice in the context of the company’s business. Because in-house attorneys work very closely with business decision makers, they must be practical and cognizant of how legal issues are affected by business realities. On the other hand, in-house attorneys must be strong enough to resist pressures that their clients can exert. Another factor that deserves additional attention is how the in-house candidate will fit in personally within both the law department and the overall company. This is not just an issue for small law departments. In-house attorneys often must work closely together and fill in when another attorney is not available. The visibility of the personal relationships among attorneys and with business people is often very high within a company. The new hire must not only have client-handling skills but should also be compatible with the company’s cultural priorities. For example, the focus on the customer is often much more pronounced at a company than it is at a law firm. When it comes to hiring, the interviewing process is at least as important as the results of the interviews themselves. Many law departments assign managing or senior attorneys to interview candidates in order to assess their qualifications. Many departments, however, do not involve junior attorneys or other staff members in the interviewing process. But it is as important to get input from peers and subordinates as it is to obtain evaluations from more typical sources. Moreover, allowing as many in-house attorneys and staff as is practical to participate in the process enhances their feelings of importance to the department and the company. An increased sense that management cares what they think will encourage greater commitments on the part of such employees. One constituency that is often neglected in the interviewing process includes the business people who are likely to be the new hire’s clients. Not only is their input very valuable in the hiring decision, but their participation will also help to create “buy-in” from the clients when it comes to the new hire. Sure, the additional interviews will take time and may complicate the process, particularly if there are otherwise unanticipated objections. But the investment will pay long-term dividends by helping find the best candidate and starting relationships off right. Interviews alone, meanwhile, are not enough. The law department should have standard evaluation forms that need to be completed and submitted for each interview. Obviously, the content of the form must elicit information that is critical to the hiring decision. The form should require reasons for the interviewer’s recommendation and specific examples to support comments on the candidate. Thorough analysis of the interviews will make it more likely that the recommendations are sound. A word or two is in order about search firms, which perform very valuable services in the legal marketplace. The good ones not only know a large number of candidates but also perform functions that facilitate the process. A search firm that knows your company’s culture and the personalities of the in-house attorneys can pre-screen the candidate pool to avoid wasted interviews. A reputable search firm can also provide valuable information about market compensation, which may not be readily available to the law department even if it is armed with surveys and some first-hand experience. These services, of course, do not come free. A cost-conscious law department will have to consider whether the benefits of using a search firm will be worth the expense. It may be worthwhile to interview several search firms to assess their strengths and weaknesses before deciding whether to retain one of them to help fill a particular position. The decision may depend on current local market conditions for the specialty needed and the resources that the law department will need to conduct the hiring process without outside help. Michael C. Ross is the former general counsel of Safeway Inc. He is an adjunct consultant for Altman Weil Inc., which provides consulting services to corporate law departments.

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