In my experience, many law firms are going about recruiting and retention in the wrong way wrong.
The formality that exists inside of most law firms when they are doing recruiting can be exhausting. It crushes spirits, produces ineffective and uninspired legal services, creates lower billable hours, poor retention, makes fewer offers accepted and, overall, hurts law firms.
Law firms often believe that because they are law firms, they need to be serious with the outside world, their attorneys, staff and everyone they come into contact with. When the law firm recruits, they are often standoffish with the people they are recruiting, allow long gaps to occur in their communication with these attorneys and even make their recruits feel “small” and undeserving of their company. This happens in many levels of law firms – and it is pervasive. The law firm communicates with its recruits like it is an oracle and makes the candidates feel like they are lucky to be getting any attention at all.
Years ago—when I was getting out of a clerkship—I went around and interviewed with several law firms in Los Angeles. Almost all of the firms were unnecessarily formal with me. They were standoffish and did not connect with me. This was a universal trait among almost all of the law firms that I spoke with. I remember speaking with a five-person law firm in Century City, and they seemed the most uptight of them all. The questions were universally formal, and they asked about grades, legal interests and more. They pointed out weaknesses in my resume and asked me to respond to these. I spoke with a few of the largest law firms in the world, and they were equally formal as well. It was uncomfortable for me. Before becoming an attorney, I had been an asphalt contractor and was used to informality – and most of my work had been outside (and not inside a stuffy office). Going inside and seeing people in suits, all uptight and would up was disconcerting enough as it was. To be dealing with people who were so uptight and wound up just seemed like too much.
I eventually interviewed with a firm that was so informal I could not believe it. The firm had no dress code. A few of the attorneys I spoke with were chewing tobacco during the interview. They talked about fun stuff with me and seemed to connect with me. They were attorneys that I could see myself spending time with after work. Also, the firm had the attorneys with the best qualifications of the law firms that I spoke with. At the time the law firm had only 45 attorneys, and it did not even pay the best out of all the law firms I was speaking with, nor was it the most well-known at the time. Because the people in the law firm were fun and connected with me, I ended up accepting their offer instead of others I had received at the time from bigger, higher paying law firms. The law firm was Quinn Emanuel, and its informality and ability to connect with its recruits appealed to me and many others who followed me to the law firm later. I believe it is no mistake that the law firm grew to hundreds of attorneys quickly. The informality of the law firm made it a fun place to work, made people want to come to work there, made clients like the law firm and more. People felt accepted there — clients related to their attorneys. Attorneys looked forward to coming to work.
As a consequence, people billed more hours, clients stuck around and used the firm more often, more people accepted offers, the law firm has a choice of people it could hire, and the law firm grew. The firm was one of the first to abolish dress codes in the workplace. Attorneys were themselves and did stupid things outside the office, and the law firm looked the other way and was nonjudgmental.
After this job, I soon started in legal recruiting. Except for a few years practicing law, my entire career has been spent as a legal recruiter and managing legal recruiters. The legal recruiters that do the best at this job almost universally are the ones who can connect with candidates and break down the formal barriers that separate most people. When an attorney is looking for a job, they quite often will contact numerous legal recruiters in the process of searching for a position. They will speak with several of those recruiters. Most attorneys will not choose the legal recruiter that has the most resources or even is not the best at their job. Instead, they will choose the legal recruiter whom they feel the most comfortable with and connected with. They want to feel a mutually supportive relationship and like the person they are working with understands them, cares about them and has their back. To connect with that person, the best legal recruiters will generally do the following:
Tips for How to Interview Attorneys
- They will ask the candidate where they grew up. Everyone has their own story. People want the chance to tell this story. Allowing people to tell this story helps make them feel understood. If the interviewer knows people from the same area or has positive opinions about the area, they will share this.
- They will ask the candidate if they have brothers or sisters. People like to talk about their family. These are the closest people to them in the world. People want to feel understood and talk about their family.
- They will ask the candidate what their parents did. Peoples’ parents are generally very important to them. In many cases, attorneys come out of working-class families or were the first people in their family to go to college — attorneys like talking about this and feel proud. Attorneys may also be out of successful families and like to speak about this as well. Making attorneys feel valued due to this is important as well.
- They will praise the candidate for their accomplishments and how well they have done. People work hard for praise—especially attorneys. If an attorney has done well in their life, they want to be acknowledged for it—especially from someone with the power to get them a position.
- They will ask the candidate numerous open-ended questions so that they candidate can talk about themselves and feel understood. People like to talk about themselves and feel important. We respect and bond with people who make us feel good about ourselves.
- They will only talk about the formalities of the job—why the candidate should work with them—later in the interview. Candidates are most interested in how the recruiter makes them feel—and not formalities. Formalities can be spoken about and should be but connection is the most important.
- They will try and be somewhat vulnerable with the candidate and reveal some personal information about themselves to the candidate, or shared common interests. We bond with people who are somewhat vulnerable and not infallible. If we believe we understand others and they are human, we will feel more comfortable.
- They will tell the candidate they are on their side, believe in them and make the candidate feel like the recruiter will show others their best side. Candidates want to feel like they are protected and that the recruiter in on their side. They want to feel protected.
- They will not overemphasize, or probe their weaknesses and, instead, will make the candidate feel like they do not matter—if they bring these things up at all. The best recruiters do not tell the candidates their grades are not good, their law school is not good, they are not at a good firm, their experience is not good enough. Instead, the best legal recruiters will not bring this up and if the candidate does they will tell the candidate “it is no big deal” and will frame it in a different way. There is no use making people associate feeling bad with the recruiter. Instead, the recruiter wants people to feel positive about them and using them.
Attorneys are people and want to feel like they are liked and understood. This means that in order to bond with an attorney, you need to break down the personal barriers between the two of you and not make them feel bad.
Attorneys are motivated by money, prestige and similar things, of course. However, all things considered they want to be in an environment where they feel understood, around others like them and where they are not just workers billing hours and making a profit for a law firm. They want to feel that if they are contributing hours, money and so forth to the firm there is reciprocity and the firm appreciates what is being contributed as well. They want to feel part of a group and the more the law firm makes them feel this way the more likely the attorney is to come to work—and want to do so.
When someone is making a decision about which law firm to join, or which recruiter to use, they want to associate with the person or group feel comfortable, where they are around people they like and where they can see themselves having friends and others in the law firm. They want to be around others who they believe could be their friends. They want to feel a connection with others and like they will be working around those they could spend the rest of their career with. Ultimately, most attorneys are looking for connection, the ability to relate to others and more.
Law firms that connect with candidates during the interview and recruitment stage do well. This means being more informal rather than more formal. Connecting rather than putting up barriers. After the law firm hires the attorney, this informal connection needs to be kept as well. People stay with law firms because they have friends there, they like the people they work with and it is fun. If there is not this connection between people and everything is all formal, people will leave for the next best thing. You need to connect with people and stay connected. This means parties, events and things outside of work are important. This means continually keeping the relationships strong between people and allowing them to blossom.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the Founder of Hiring Partner. Harrison has personally placed thousands of attorneys and is the Founder of other companies in the legal space including LawCrossing and BCG Attorney Search. His columns about attorney careers and placement are the highest trafficked and most read of any attorney career advice columns in the world attracking millions of reads per year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice.
About Hiring Partner
Hiring Partner works with law firms to help them dramatically grow their business through advanced recruiting and placement tools. Hiring Partner is an applicant tracking system that allows any law firm to recruit attorneys quickly and effectively. Hiring Partner helps hundreds of law firms recruit attorneys. Using its tools, law firms have the ability to compete at the highest levels of recruitment and placement and dramatically reduce their legal recruiting costs. For more information, please visit www.HiringPartner.com and set up a free account there.