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The good news is your practice is thriving. The bad news is you are swamped, and so is everyone else at your small firm. You need help. But before you panic and hire the first person who walks by your door, stop and consider your options. Hiring, more than any other management decision, can shape the future of your firm. Poor hiring is more than a nuisance, it can undermine the success of your entire operation — because adding staff has implications for everything from revenue to firm culture. So how can you hire effectively? Here are some tips: EVALUATE FIRSTBuy time.“Hire slowly, fire quickly,” is the mantra of Julie Pearl, chief executive officer and managing partner of Silicon Valley’s The Pearl Law Group. She’s not alone. Many experts say the number one hiring mistake made by small firms is failing to carefully evaluate their needs. With erratic workflows, balancing workloads can be a real challenge, especially for the smallest firms. Before you begin a hiring frenzy, consider alternatives to adding a full-time employee, such as temporary or contract lawyers, suggests Melba Hughes, executive director of the Atlanta-based National Association of Legal Search Consultants. For many small firms, one of the best ways to recruit is to begin with a law clerk. “Hire with the idea that he or she will get an offer of full-time employment upon completion of law school and the bar,” says Marcia Shannon, a legal management consultant and co-author of the American Bar Association’s book, “Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent.” An added plus: “Establishing a relationship with the local law school will help you recruit in the future.” That’s the approach taken by Abramson Smith Waldsmith, a four-lawyer personal injury firm in San Francisco. “It is almost like people living together. You don’t get to know someone well until you are around them for awhile,” says William Smith.* � Conduct a firm audit.Have a candid discussion about your firm’s goals. Determine if and how you want to grow over the next two, five, 10 years. If you want to increase your ranks, do you anticipate adding single partners who can bring a certain size book of business? What practice areas do you want to develop? Perform a cost-benefit analysis for each proposed employee, suggests consultant Hughes. Compare projected expenses — including salary, office space, equipment, support staff, insurance, bar memberships and continuing legal education — and then add a comfortable profit margin to the new hire’s anticipated billings. The partners of Beckham & Thomas in Dallas conducted such an audit and recognized that they had to take action. Already billing 60 hours per week and with several big trials on the horizon, the firm has grown from six to ten attorneys since last summer. Partners Blake Beckham and Stewart Thomas were fearful of a “perfect storm” on the horizon. THE SEARCHEstablish criteria.Many small firms make the mistake of hiring individuals without thinking through the actual selection criteria. Often they will write a short job description but don’t include the factors that will make an individual successful. “Think carefully about the types of experience needed to competently perform the necessary job requirements,” says Shannon. “Also, consider personal qualities that will help a person adapt and achieve in your firm.” � Have a fit.While large firms can absorb a wide range of personalities, in a small firm, fitting in is key. But while “fit” is important, be careful that it doesn’t become a code word for “just like us.” “If potential clients perceive that your firm does not reflect the diversity of the judges, juries, legislators and economic players whom they seek to influence,” says Drucilla Stender Ramey, former executive director of the San Francisco Bar Association, “then your firm is at a distinct disadvantage.” If your firm is a boutique, be sure the candidate is truly interested in the niche practice area, says Patricia Harris, managing partner of the 28-lawyer firm Zetlin & De Chiara, which has offices in New York City, Westbury, N.Y., and Newark, N.J. “There has to be proof in [his or her] background,” says Harris. For instance, her firm, a construction law boutique, has an associate who used to be a steamfitter. Columbus, Ohio’s Chester Willcox & Saxbe could have stumbled badly as it doubled from 15 to 30 attorneys in less than two years. But the firm thwarted problems by retaining a consultant who specialized in organizational psychology to conduct pre-screening interviews, says chief operating officer Kit Murphy.* The consultant studied the firm and got to know the attorneys in order to determine who would be a good fit. “We’ve found these types of assessments to be invaluable,” says Murphy. “The only ‘miss’ we’ve ever really had was the one time we forgot to use the consultant.” THE INTERVIEWSSell your firm.The courting process sets the tone and expectations for employment. Every interview is a potential marketing event that can add (or detract) to your firm’s reputation. Alan Tarter is managing partner of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, a 13-lawyer general practice with offices in New York City and Princeton, N.J. He says he always spends the first five or 10 minutes of the interview talking about “who we are and what we are trying to achieve.” Tarter details the firm’s goals and growth plans, its client base, a typical workday, and the like. “Part of that process is marketing,” he says. � Manage expectations.“If you don’t give them a realistic view of what to expect, it’s a recipe for disaster,” says Stephen Siller, partner and chief executive officer of Siller Wilk, a 24-lawyer business-oriented practice based in New York City. Don’t rely on clich�s like “this is a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of place.” You don’t want associates to be taken aback to discover they must make their own photocopies or do their own legal research. Outline your partnership requirements. The track at a small firm may be a mystery to them. Be specific about timelines and expectations. Also be honest about how much training your firm can provide. But don’t sell yourself short. Small firms can offer the kind of business-oriented hands-on training that large firms may lack, says Siller. � Ask open-ended questions.For instance, if you need someone who can effectively multitask, ask the candidate to describe how he or she handled a situation that required juggling several obligations, says Tarter. It’s also advisable to conduct multiple interviews. “We do lots of interviews for our top attorney and managerial hires — at least four rounds, on two to three different days,” Pearl says. � Try-outs.Tarter evaluates candidates’ analytical abilities by giving them fictionalized fact patterns, and requesting a report assessing the scenario. This helps him gain real-life insight into the candidates’ work ethic, timeliness and analytical skills, he says. If you’re hiring a junior person, you may want to see if he or she has writing samples from a pro bono matter. Chicago’s Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd uses this approach, based on its assumption that the work is less likely to have been reviewed by several layers of senior people, says COO Audrey Rubin.* Julie Pearl says her firm relies on a writing test. “We test everyone — attorneys and administrative staff alike — on a basic, five-part test of spelling, grammar, filing, detail orientation and composition. It takes half an hour and most candidates don’t pass. We swear by it.” AFTER THE INTERVIEWVerify information.More than a third of all job applicants lie on their resume, according to statistics compiled by HireRight, a pre-employment screening service based in Irvine, Calif. Look for red flags such as time gaps and job hopping. � Check references.Ask for names that candidates don’t immediately volunteer — such as clients or opposing counsel, who may be more forthright. When talking to references, pay attention to tone of voice, pauses, and other non-verbal signals. Faint praise is one red flag, another is an emphasis on personal qualities over skills. Ask about the candidate’s responsibilities, experience and work habits, as well as weaknesses. LAWYER, HELP THYSELF “Everyone thinks it’s the first impression that counts. That’s actually the last thing that matters,” says Tarter, who says he learned this and other invaluable advice from classes on effective hiring. Not a bad idea: Not only will you sharpen your management skills, but you can probably knock off some CLE credits at the same time. Tamara Loomis is a freelance writer based in New York, who has written for American Lawyer Media Inc. publications including theNew York Law Journal. E-mail: [email protected] .
* Member, SFB Editorial Advisory Board

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