Oklahoma Bar Journal

'Hire Slow, Fire Fast' or 'Hire Smarter, Fire Less?'

By Jim Calloway

Employees are a law firm’s greatest resource and greatest expense. The cost in time and money to train a new employee is significant.

“Hire slow, fire fast” is an often-used phrase when it comes to hiring new staff. Like many clichés there is a lot of truth in this phrase. We want to be careful with our important staff hiring decisions so there is little turnover. But there is often the tendency to delay and procrastinate terminating the new hire who is not working out.

Law firms are busy places. When you have an opening, it slows down production and increases the load on everyone else. This creates a temptation to resolve that “problem” quickly. When a new hire isn’t working out, it is often human nature to keep giving them more chances. This is understandable. Firing is messy and it then leaves management with the task of finding a replacement. So, law firm administrators and normally tough lawyers may find themselves hoping things will work out if they just give a little more time. Often the result is the employee is retained until there is a serious problem or the negative impact on other employees becomes very noticeable.

We often find ourselves doing just the opposite of the cliché: hiring fast and firing slow. A twist on this phrase might be “hire smarter, fire less.”

Often hiring smarter just means investing the time in the hiring process to do the things that we know should be done. First of all, before the first application or resume is solicited, there should be a clear job description for the open position. Today’s law firms should have written job descriptions for every staff position. But it is most important for the hiring process to delineate both the duties of the position and any cross training or fill-in duties that are required. So, if it is a part of the job to handle receptionist tasks when the primary receptionists are absent, this is an important consideration.

The job description gives rise to the list of skills and qualifications needed for the position.

The firm likely has an application process in place, but many believe the old-school approach of requiring a cover letter and resume is a good initial sorting process. This is particularly true when the position requires preparing correspondence on behalf of the law firm. While it may seem abrupt or even unfair to disqualify a candidate from an interview based on errors in a cover letter or resume, law firm positions do require great attention to detail and there is little tolerance for typographical errors or other simple mistakes in correspondence. If a candidate cannot competently proof his or her own résumé or makes significant errors in a cover letter, he or she likely will not fit well within any law firm culture.

Interviews are often conducted by a team approach, but doing initial interviews one-on-one may make more sense. It is important that anyone interviewing or meeting with a potential candidate for employment is briefly re-viewed on the appropriateness of interview questions. Some areas should be avoided. First-round interviews should adhere to a standard set of questions that are asked of every candidate. Document any variance from these questions after the interviews are concluded.

It is critically important that the process is explained to the candidate clearly. A good candidate can be lost if the timeframe for the process is not clearly communicated and the candidate gets another employment opportunity.

Once the first round of interviews is concluded, the real work starts. There once was a day when doing a criminal background check on a potential law firm employee would have seemed to be out of bounds or vaguely insulting. But today many, if not most, law firms routinely conduct criminal background checks and have the candidate sign an authorization for the same at the initial interview.

Checking the candidate’s references and work history as outlined in his or her résumé is equally important. In the past, this was often performed cursorily, but these days it needs to be comprehensively done. Apparently, applicants now regularly fabricate their histories in résumés. A candidate should certainly be given an opportunity to explain any inconsistencies, but outright fabrication should automatically disqualify a candidate for employment in a law firm.

Even though the candidate may have great references and recommendations, the decision to hire a new employee has such significant consequences, that it makes good business sense to routinely employ skills testing.

A number of online services allow you to do this. For example, one colleague recommended play.typeracer.com to measure pure typing speed and accuracy. Bjorn Christianson, the managing partner at Christianson TDS, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, suggests that do-it-yourself skills testing is fairly simple to set up, even for a smaller law firm. “We put together a typing assignment, giving them text only, with spelling, grammar, and syntax errors imbedded; no formatting,” Mr. Christianson said. “We set the applicant up with a word processor with which they claimed to be familiar. One of our friendliest staff members explains to the applicant that they are to do a letter with this text, clean up the mistakes, format it and make it pretty. She answers any questions about the task. They get 30 minutes and then we grade them on how far they got, what errors they spotted, what errors they added, how they handled the formatting, etc. My assistant also observes, somewhat surreptitiously, to watch for the fluster-level and so forth.”

The firm has been quite pleased with the results. Mr. Christianson notes that this has disqualified some people who did not come close to reaching their purported competence level. (Oh, what’s spell check?) Perhaps more importantly, it has helped some applicants whose resume was thin due to factors like limited experience or time out of the work force. Demonstrated composure and attention to detail can trump speed in Mr. Christianson’s opinion.

Self-made tests can be tailored to the firm’s practice, he notes, and one can easily modify the test if needed to test specific assertions of experience claimed in an applicant’s résumé. “If they say they have extensive experience in wills and estates, they better spot the spelling error in ‘testater,’ for instance,” he says.

Creating an acceptable résumé is relatively easy, he points out. However, skills testing better demonstrates the abilities that the law firm will value. Larger firms may outsource their skills testing to an employment agency or testing service, of course.

Even after the firm has hired a potentially good candidate, there still should be a probationary period and frequent, perhaps weekly, evaluations of the new hire. No one enjoys firing someone and everyone wants the new employee to succeed. One should set the expectation that for the first several weeks there will be frequent evaluations and corrections in addition to the training for the firm’s procedures. The new hire should be made aware that this should not be viewed as a negative and is a part of the firm’s procedure.

This is a challenging task as frequent feedback and criticism may well place stress on the new employee. So management must make certain that the new hire understands that this is merely a part of the firm’s normal process and it should be expected by the employee.

By establishing and implementing a more detailed interviewing and skills testing process, the law firm will hopefully fill its ranks with great employees. Management may find that there is less need to result to the interviewing and skills testing process as the law firm becomes filled with great employees who are motivated to stay for a long time.

Jim Calloway is the director of the OBA Management Assistance Program and manages the OBA Solo & Small Firm Conference. He served as the chair of the 2005 ABA TECHSHOW board. His Law Practice Tips blog and Digital Edge podcast cover technology and management issues. He speaks frequently on law office management, legal technology, ethics and business operations.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 1527 (Aug. 19, 2017)