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Hiring for the intangibles

Hiring professional or support staff is a huge challenge for most attorneys. No one wants to increase their overhead unnecessarily, and the risks of making a "bad" hire are significant. But hiring the "right" paralegal, legal secretary or associate can have a very positive impact on your practice. Good support staff and associates can help you leverage your time so that you are freed up to spend time on higher value work and marketing.

The challenge, of course, is deciding whether someone is "right" for the job.

A good starting place is to come up with a list of skills that are necessary to be successful in the position. A good ending place is to carefully check references (more on that in future tips). But how do you know whether someone will be successful at your firm? Is it enough to know the individual has done the work before and done it successfully?

If you work in a small firm, do not overlook the importance of fit and attitude when you are making your hires. Sometimes, this may mean overlooking a skills gap. Someone can learn the latest version of Microsoft Word or your idiosyncratic docketing system. But teaching someone to show up at work on time, be careful and apply some level of creativity to their job is a much taller order.

A careful reference check can help you get a sense of whether someone truly is the take charge employee that they say they are and whether they do bring some creativity to their job (if that is what you need).

When you interview candidates, ask them to tell stories which give examples of the intangible skills you believe are important. When you check references, make sure to ask for individuals who have firsthand experience in working with the potential employee. Ask open-ended questions and get the reference to tell stories about how the employee performed in particular situations.

Be willing to overlook skills gaps if the missing skills are tangible skills that can be picked up in a relatively short period of time. Of course if you expect your associate to walk in on day one and handle real estate closings, make sure that the associate has that experience. But if some of the skills you laid out in your job description are merely "nice to have," do not overlook candidates who will do much more for your practice in the medium and long run even though they may have to learn a few things when they start.

Tip courtesy of Stephen Seckler, director of attorney recruitment and career advancement, Marc Z Legal Staffing and president, Seckler Legal Consulting and Coaching.

Published December 9, 2013

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