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Understanding successful law firm staffing

Soul and Small Practice
|Written By Pascale Daigneault
Understanding successful law firm staffing

When my husband and I started our law firm, he brought with him his experienced, existing staff. However they eventually moved on and new staff had to be hired. A task for which I had little experience.

I had previously worked in a large firm where employees were hired by a human resources manager, and assigned to new lawyers who had little or no say in the matter (at least so it seemed at my junior level).

Over the last 25 years, I have since hired and fired many employees. Through trial and error, I developed my ideal employment recipe or formula, which consists of three pillars or components.

The first one relates to relationships. These encompass all of the interactions your employee will have while working for your firm such as with supervisors, co-workers, clients, providers, suppliers, and staff of other law firms. In a small firm, usually the most important relationship will be with one’s boss. Also important are those with co-workers. Tensions between staff can create a toxic environment, which affects everyone’s productivity.

The second component is the work. People tend to perform better with tasks they enjoy. Conversely, when doing something they do not enjoy, employees will tend not to devote their full attention, which will be reflected in the quality of their work. Employees know when their performance is subpar. This can affect their attitude and their health, regardless of the qualities of the employee.

Unfortunately poor performance tends to have a vortex effect that draws in the other employees of the firm. Needless to say, this can be devastating for a small firm.

The last pillar is the environment. Someone wishing to work in a larger centre may resent being “stuck” in the smaller city where they only accepted a job as a last resort. Environment however is more than location. It includes the physical working space, work tools, hours, and location.

For some millennials, flex hours are so important they may turn down a position that does not offer it. Someone with young children or adult dependents may prefer shorter workdays, and not perform optimally working full time. Other employees may be light sensitive and require daylight in their workstation to be productive. A Mac user may find difficulty and frustration using PC products. Lastly a heavy smoker may not be happy working in a smoke free office.

Failure to understand these needs (which are often overlooked) may result in decreased performance or the loss of a quality employee.

These components are like the three legs of a stool. Perfect stability comes with all  three legs. Two out of three is an accident waiting to happen. Having said that, it is rare to have all three legs perfectly even, and “sanding” may be required to smooth things out from time to time.

When I interview potential candidates, I discuss my successful staffing philosophy. When I have had to fire employees, I refer back to our initial discussion. Interestingly, the employee being terminated usually knew exactly which component was not working out.

Surprisingly, I found this helped the termination process by shifting the focus from performance deficiency to the more neutral recognition of an improper employment fit. Being able to reduce the “loss of face” helps maintain the exiting employee’s dignity.

To reinforce the importance of these elements, our firm often conducts a half-day trial with candidates. We initially started with a full-day trial, but found that a half-day was more than enough. You cannot ascertain if an employee will be a fit in such a short time. You can however, find out in that time if some or any of the pillars are missing.

We tell the candidate that this tryout period is for their benefit as well as ours. While they may be eager to get a job, the wrong position will not benefit them in the long run, and even result in poor references.

On a few occasions, after the try out, a candidate has decided our firm was not for them. While it is disappointing to hear this if you were considering hiring the individual, it’s better to find out early and save yourself the grief and lost productivity later on.

You can train someone to learn tasks. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to train an adult on how to get along with others, or have common sense. You may not be able to adapt the position to meet the employee’s aptitudes and needs. This is why proper hiring is so important.

Associate Kevin Cheung collaborated on this article.

  • Prof

    PROF LEVY
    You need to have more articles like this one. I have done studies on human resources in Law Firms in Canada and the results are just outrageous how terrible firms are in correctly managing people at all levels of their firm.

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