Law Firms Are Not Run Like Businesses

Posted on Categories Legal Practice, Public

I remember my first “real” interview after I graduated from MULS (this phrase may explain my lack of success in OCI).  One thing the managing attorney said to me continues to stick out in my memory, especially now that I have started my own mediation firm.  “Firms are not run like businesses.”  He stated this in relation to firms renting versus owning real estate space, but in my experience I have recognized this axiom being true in other respects as well.  The one that has stuck out to me is that the hiring process performed by law firms does not conform to standard business practices for HR processes.

Prior to opening my mediation firm, I interviewed with several potential employers as potential fits for continuing my private practice.  I was warned that this article may make me look like a bitter unemployed attorney. Please note that I have had job offers through this process that I have turned down.  It was after turning down bad fits that I decided to open my practice and I am very happy with my practice.  Additionally, I have many attorney friends who are/were seeking new employment opportunities.  These stories are collections of my experiences and those of other attorneys.

“We will be in touch.”

When you specifically make statements that you will do something, it is important that you follow through on those promises.  When an attorney interviews with your firm and you make an affirmative statement that you will be in touch, you should do so.

It is important to note that I practice in the Green Bay-Fox Valley area, which is notably different from the big city practice in Milwaukee, Madison, and other large cities around the country.  In a somewhat smaller legal community (although it still happens in larger legal communities), it is extremely likely that you will see repeat players.

Assume that you do not follow through on your statement and fail to contact that attorney again.  This will be remembered.  They will find another job and you are likely to run into them again.  What happens when you go to them for a simple discovery deadline extension?  Or more troublesome, when you ask them to take you at your word about some portion of your case?

Best practice would be to be in touch with the candidate even without the promise of contact, but if you choose not to follow the best practice, at least do not make the affirmative statement that you will contact them and then fail to do so.

You are setting up potential enemies, for no reason other than the cost of a stamp.

“We don’t have anything available, but we could not pass up interviewing you.”

Really, there may be nothing wrong with this statement and it can be a nice ego boost to the attorney interviewing.  However, the problem lies in when this revelation is made.  Getting a resume and asking for an interview within 48-hours sends a strong signal of potential need.  Waiting to drop the “we have nothing” until 10 minutes into that swiftly scheduled interview seems to be a big misdirection and calls into question the veracity of the statement.

If you really had nothing, why did you bring them in, and so quickly?  If you really had nothing, wouldn’t you tell them over the phone?  Did the interviewee do/say something in this interview that so offended you that the job would be pulled before the end of the interview?

In reality, this may be a simple situation of “we made an offer that we were not sure would be accepted and just found out it was accepted before your interview started” but the entire situation calls this into question.

“This is a long process.” 

Hiring should not be done on a whim.  The process should take time.  And in large, multi-office firms the candidate should expect the process to take significant time.  Office needs to be discussed, candidates considered, and office politics to be played in order to create a position.

When the process takes more than a standard amount of time, let the applicants know.  I remember applying for one position and receiving a letter from the firm a month later stating that their process was going to be 4 months.  That is long, but the fact that that firm took the time to send me the letter (a “this is where we are in the process” letter) made me respect that firm even more.

The alternative can be very frustrating.  Great resume, fit with the posted position (my next point), excited to apply to the organization . . . and nothing.  For months.  Sometimes ever.

“I’m sorry we are actually looking for someone with a background in X.”

Job post says a firm is looking for someone with a background in commercial and real estate law.  Send in the resume; get a call for an interview.  Show up at the interview and are told, “We are actually looking for an attorney with a tax background.”  Well, had that been stated in your job posting, I would not have bothered applying.  Now I am here, you have all cleared your schedules and I feel like I must go through with a pointless interview (in order for you not to hate me and not give me the discovery extension next time).

Having a stock job description ready to post is a very time-conscious way of seeking new employees.  However, make sure that you are posting the right job description.  Failure to do so makes you look sloppy and unprofessional.

“You are the weakest applicant, good bye.” 

I was told of a pair of attorneys who applied for a single opening.  They both were called in for a screening interview with HR.  Both were called back for an interview with the managing attorney.  Only one received a final interview.  However, the firm did not bother to tell the other attorney that he was no longer being considered.  The only reason he knew of this was because he was friends with the attorney who got asked back for the final interview.

The non-interviewed attorney was vigilant with his follow ups, despite his other knowledge.   Only after the firm ultimately decided not to hire anyone was the non-interviewed attorney told that the posted position was cancelled.  In fact, the non-interviewed attorney was told before the one who had the final interview (more in the next section).

When a firm whittles down the pool, send the letter to the applicant to inform them that they are no longer in consideration.  Otherwise you make people wait and wait with false hope.  Even worse is when they know and you just have not told them yet.

“The best laid plans . . .”

Things happen.  Whether caused by poor planning, other internal changes, or even Mother Nature, things happen.  The best practice is to be up-front and honest with the candidates.  However, too often the information gets around anyway and makes your firm look like it was ill-prepared and trying to cover it up.

Small, three-attorney firm has one attorney leave.  They seek candidates and those go through the screening stated above.  After the final interviews the managing attorney goes on a 3 week vacation that had been planned prior to the third attorney’s departure, leaving only the junior attorney in the office.  After the vacation it was realized that “if one attorney can keep us afloat for 3 weeks, why do we really need 3 attorneys?”  This is a good business decision – but the rationale should be stated to the candidates (at a minimum the final interview candidates).  Instead all candidates received a “the position will not be filled” call from the HR representative.  Months later the truth came out when talking to other people knowledgeable about the firm.   The truth will come out, be the one perpetuating the truth.

Alternatively, a medium sized firm that has a transactional partner seeking a transactional associate.  After several interviews and lots of communication, all communication stops from the firm.  Almost a month later the associate candidate finally gets an email from the partner explaining that after a massive heart attack and multiple-bypass surgery she has returned to the office and has a mountain of work to get out.  While not necessarily prompt, the honesty of the response gave the associate candidate even more respect for the partner.

Conclusion for firms

Whether in a large market or a small one, attorneys will see each other again.  If not, they will at least ask their friends and colleagues about this new firm they are going against in a case.  In this age of social media and networking – a single bad review can be disseminated to hundreds of potential employees, and maybe more importantly to potential clients, in seconds.

By perpetuating the non-businesslike hiring behavior exhibited by many firms, those firms are asking for bad-will and even vengeful responses from those spurned in the hiring process.  If firms would take a little more time to act in a businesslike manner in that process, they would garner and perpetuate good-will throughout the legal community.

Conclusion for job seekers

Be ready for anything.  Sure you can get asked tough questions and even silly questions at an interview, but you need to be ready for anything during the entire process.  Continue to act in a businesslike manner (especially if the firm is not doing the same) and remember that if a firm is not businesslike when they are hiring – they may not be businesslike when they are working.

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