how can I make sure I’m hiring people who will thrive in our demanding firm?

A reader writes:

I’m a senior-level associate attorney at a major law firm and work in a small, close-knit practice that’s nationally known and very demanding. We’ve had several performance-related terminations and it’s become clear that part of the problem is in our hiring practices — the people we hire don’t necessarily have the characteristics we need. The result is bad for us and for the employee, and it’s affecting morale. (We may know someone needs to be fired, but it’s still hard and sad on a personal level).

I’ve been trying to figure out what to do to ensure a better fit going forward, but other than saying, “This job is the legal equivalent of becoming a SEAL, so if you’re not up for that, it isn’t right for you,” I’m at a loss. Any suggestions?

Well, first, know that hiring isn’t a perfect science. You can do everything right and, still, some people won’t work out. But you can lower the number of times that’s happening by doing the following:

1. Look at the people who succeed in your firm. What qualities do they have? How do they approach their work? Look at their backgrounds before they came to your firm. Are there any common denominators — types of achievement, particular approaches to their work? Think back to when you were hiring them. Was there anything different about them as candidates that might distinguish them from candidates you hired who didn’t work out? Your goal here is to suss out less obvious must-haves than the ones you might have been using to screen candidates up until now.

2. Once you have a better sense of what traits predict success in your firm, screen deliberately for those in your hiring process. For instance, if you realize one differentiating trait is being able to balance an unusually high workload, ask candidates to tell you about a time in the past when their workload was at its highest. Then ask a lot of follow ups: “How did you handle ‘X’? Why did you decide to do it that way? ‘Y’ must have been a challenge; how did you handle that? Walk me through how you made a decision about ‘Z.’” The idea is that you want to get beneath the surface and into the nitty-gritty of how the candidate thinks and operates — and how she really did think and operate in a specific past situation — not how she thinks she might handle hypothetical future situations (which are easier for candidates to bluff their way through).

3. Help candidates self-select out. Even if it feels awkward, be as transparent as you can about the downsides of the job — and be honest about the types of people who haven’t succeeded there, so candidates are as well-equipped as possible to self-select out. And as you’re doing this, be aware that people often put on rosy-colored glasses, especially when they want or need a job. So pay close attention to their reactions: Do they seem to truly hear what you’re saying, or are they just assuring you it won’t be a problem, without having processed what you’ve said? If you sense hesitation or that someone isn’t really “getting” it, probe some more.

4. Dig more deeply into references. Too often, employers use references simply as a rubber stamp on a hiring decision they’ve already made. But used correctly, references can be a gold mine of nuanced information about how a candidate operates and how she’s likely to do in your particular environment. Dig into what type of environment and management she’s done best with, how she’s responded to stress, specific times when she had more work than could comfortably be juggled and how she has responded to difficult challenges.

And in doing this, pay attention to references who positively rave about a candidate — you’re listening for the difference between “Yes, she did a good job” and “Oh my gosh! She’s the best. I wish we could hire her back.” If a reference raves about one of your candidates and sounds like they’d move mountains to hire her back again, that’s probably the person you want.

This post originally appeared at Daily Worth.

{ 147 comments… read them below }

  1. Arbynka

    Great advice. Number 1 was actually my first thought – look around at the people who make it work, what characteristics they have ? Then you can pinpoint what you are looking for in candidates and starts screening for those qualities specifically.

    1. George Nielsen

      I agree with you, one of the qualities I always look for in a candidate is the ability to adapt and then adopt qualities and values. Because without some kind of change, there is no progress.

  2. Bryan

    I wonder if part of the issue might be that the demands are too high or they might not be paying enough for what they skills the new hire should have. I know it’s a law firm so that candidates shouldn’t be surprised about the tough demands but if they want a rocket scientist/brain surgeon/master chef few people are going to be able to do that successfully.

    1. Harriet

      That was my first thought as well; the problems may be more with your expectations, rather than your hiring process. Without more context, it’s impossible to say. Do people start strong and then burn out? Is everyone pulling tons of overtime? Are deadlines always breathing down your neck? If your workload has grown past the small unit’s capacity to handle it, the answer might be not how to find more SEALs, but more staff in general.

    2. Cat

      If they’re like most major law firms, they’re paying an obscene amount of money but placing demands on their employees that are not worth it to most people at any price. It’s hard for me to imagine most of those firms not burning through a lot of people to find a few that will stick; in fact, I’ve always thought it was built into their business model.

      1. De Minimis

        It probably is, but usually they want to get at least 2-3 years out of people before they leave, and they usually don’t want a large number not working out at the same time.

      2. Dan

        Given the glut of lawyers on the market, why don’t they just cut everybody from 80 hours to 40 hours and cut their pay in half too?

        I don’t mean that tongue-in-cheek at all. If you’re paying somebody $160k to work an 80-hour work week, and you’re having a hard time with retention, you can very well have them work 40 hour work weeks at $80k and they will be quite happy.

        Note that this suggestion only works when paired with “obscene salaries” which have to be (IMHO) in the mid-$100k’s to count. I make almost $100k, and my salary is certainly not obscene :)

        1. Elysian

          I would suggest its because lawyers aren’t replaceable parts. People will leave if they cut salary (or equity) and they’ll take clients with them. A surprising number of people are just thrilled to sell their souls for the chance to pay off their enormous debt load quickly. I don’t think a single firm could just buck the market like that and still keep good attorneys around.

          1. Dan

            The context is first year associates, who don’t have a rep yet. TBH, they’re probably all the same.

            1. Elysian

              The OP never specified they were first years. The could be laterals. But even if they don’t have a book of business, they’re still not all the same. You’re going to get much different talent if you’re paying $80,000 when you competitors are paying $160,000, even if you say you’ll work them less hours.

            2. Corporate Attorney

              They’re not first-years, for the most part – we do very little first-year hiring, for the most part, because it’s hard to start new attorneys in an area of practice that’s this specialized.

              1. Cat

                Interesting – now I’m wondering if you happen to be a cultural mismatch with most of the other firms in your specialty. For instance, are you a regulatory practice area with a transactional practice culture?

                1. Corporate Attorney

                  Actually, I hadn’t thought about that angle, but that’s a possibility – we’re a weird mix of a regulatory and transactional practice, and so our hires rarely come for a practice that’s similar to ours (they’re usually one or the other).

              2. De Minimis

                That makes this even more concerning then….it should be easier to predict if someone’s going to work out when they have established a track record. Something is definitely wrong…maybe with how recruiting is done or within the work environment. But they’re being let go for performance, not quitting. Are they being let go for the same general performance issues?

        2. Cat

          $160k is the starting salary at major law firms in big cities (plus bonuses) with hefty increases in the first few years. I figure that qualifies as obscene for a 25-year-old right out of school. :-)

          My guess is that the reason it’s better to have fewer people working more hours for more money is that you incur additional overhead and transaction costs for each person you hire. But I think more than that, there’s also just a culture of overwork (and “busyness” as per yesterday’s post) and so people aren’t in “let’s be humane” mode; they’re in “let’s maximize my own reputation” mode.

      3. Contessa

        I wish my major (regionally) law firm paid me an obscene amount. But, I guess it’s a trade-off that I don’t usually work more than 50 hours a week (including time working from home at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, of course).

      4. Leah

        If they were like most major law firms, they’d be hiring out of a pool of summer associates. Granted summer associate gigs as cushier than the actual associate jobs, but employers get a sense of how well those people will work or not. My guess is that this firm is not a huge, white-shoe firm but a firm covering a lot of business in specific practice area and region. As much as self-aggrandizing chatter is common in the legal world, I’ve never heard something along the lines of ““This job is the legal equivalent of becoming a SEAL”. From my own and my friends’ experience as attorneys, I imagine there are two major problems that the firm should try to tackle that have nothing to do with hiring process and one that does:

        1) An emphasis on better management styles. I happily slogged through hours of scut work for managers that were amazing and had to drag myself through interesting work for managers who treated people like dirt. No need to give out gold stars for everything but recognize good work, even if it’s just an email. Also, hear out people’s concerns and if either of the following phrases comes out of your mouth, then you are doing it wrong:”You’re lucky to be working her.” “In this market, you should be grateful to have a job.” I wish I was making this up.

        2) Better pay. You can’t turn people into good managers overnight but paying them better will at least staunch the employees from wondering, “I’m not paid enough to care that much.” Law school grads are coming out of school with an average of $150k of debt. They’re going to follow the money. Before anyone dismisses this point, I recently saw a job posting unequivocally requiring extraordinary level of academic credentials and bar admission* for a job in a cruddy practice area for $30k/year. The firm is located in Manhattan. I imagine they wised up or haven’t hired anyone.

        3) Spell out exactly what you want in terms of hours and job duties. This may scare away some people but interviewing is a two-way street in terms of weeding people out. Calling the job the equivalent of joining the SEALs is not informative and, frankly, implausible. If I had to draw any parallels to the legal profession, it would be public defender services, not any part of private practices.

        *In NY this is usually the spring after you take the July bar exam, so nearly a full year after graduation.

        1. danr

          OP’s firm may not be hiring out of the recent grads pool. Or, if they are, they may want to change that.

          1. voluptuousfire

            30K for an attorney position in Manhattan…? Where did they think their candidates went to school? Upstairs Hollywood Law School?

            Although I did see a legal secretary position once that paid $6 an hour in NYC. Yep. I sent that to a friend of mine who is a legal assistant and she didn’t know whether to laugh or be insulted.

    3. Sarahnova

      Yes, OP, I realise some organisations are what they are and cultures don’t change overnight, but: is it really necessary to have the legal equivalent of SEALs?

      Because if that’s what you want, you are going to have to a) either make it worth people’s while with salary, AND screen rigorously in the way Allison suggests, or b) accept a high burn-out/crash-out rate in new joiners.

      I find the long-hours work culture of the States pretty bemusing. We know from research over decades that eight hours a day is pretty much all the productive work you can get out of people; you can push it beyond that for short periods of time, but in general people accomplish very little more in a twelve-hour day than they do an eight-hour one, and as hours go up productivity decreases significantly. Long story short, I find it hard to understand why it’s so tolerated in the US.

      1. Except in California

        It is the Puritan work ethic. Good or bad, and it’s a little of both, but it comes from that. And I don’t think tolerated is right word; encouraged would be more appropriate.

        1. Sarahnova

          I understand some of the cultural roots of it, but we’ve literally known since WWII that encouraging a long-hours culture is actively BAD for a company; productivity declines, absences increase, ill-health affects employees, innovation is limited, etc. Companies in the UK, where I live & practice, do introduce programmes to tackle presenteeism and change long-hours culture, but I rarely hear of such in the States. Does it happen?

          1. Except in California

            I’ve never heard the term “presenteeism” before…so I don’t think there would be. A well-run firm should notice if staff workloads are not in balance and make adjustments and/or hires. Putting that onus on the employee to manage seems a bit odd to me! But I can only speak to IT/web. We manage our projects pretty carefully. That said, most IT folks here spend about 10-12 hours a day on work — both at the official job and time spent off-hours on charity work, learning a new language, or reading up on blogs, journals, and forums. Or fixing a lame-o friend’s computer. Again. I am just saying.

    4. aebhel

      That sort of struck me as well. You know what the drop-out rate for BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training is? 80%. Eighty percent of the people who pass the initial screening to be Navy SEALs never even finish the TRAINING. The Navy has decided that it’s worth going to the effort of training all those people for the 20% that do make it all the way through, but if the OP’s talking about a job that’s the legal equivalent, a high rate of burn-out is pretty much inevitable.

      Not to say that they can’t be more careful about screening their applicants, but it’s something to be aware of.

      1. Chris

        I had just the same thought!
        And how many of the people that sign up for SEALs training go in thinking “I’m going to fail”? Probably none that would admit it out loud. So if you want to hire for the equivalent, you have to know that some people will not self select themselves out, leaving you with the unpleasant task of having to make the decision for them.

      2. Corporate Attorney

        I do think it’s true that we’ll always have high attrition. I guess I’m seeking in part to make sure that more of that attrition is a conscious decision on the employee’s part that this just isn’t right for them as opposed to a crash and burn, if that makes sense. There are a lot of good lawyers who just aren’t right for this job; I’d love to see them be happy elsewhere.

    5. Green

      If you’re really good, you don’t stay in that kind of environment long before you go somewhere making the same amount of money (or more) without killing yourself at work.

  3. Kay

    I think that helping people self-select out is really important here too. Be really upfront if the demands are 60-hr work weeks every week and more when big deadlines come up. Let people know if they’ll need to be “on call” or “reachable” even when on vacation. (I know we’ve had discussions before about how important it is to be able to unplug, but invariably there are positions or employers that require that kind of commitment.

    1. AVP

      That is so true! I know when I started hiring I was so worried about having people like me and my company that I would sugarcoat things – disaster! The more upfront you are about potential issues and demands, the better people can decide if they’re up to the task or not.

      1. Anonie

        I agree. I wish more employers would be upfront about their expectations. If you need to eat, sleep and breathe the job tell the candidate that is what you are looking for so they can make an informed decision.

        I once had an interview where the person who would be my manager was completely honest that the CEO was a jerk and she wanted to be upfront about it so I could make an informed decision. She said she wanted me to work there but only if I knew what I would be getting myself into because the CEO wasn’t a nice person. She was right when I interviewed with him he was horrible. The worst interview I have ever had and I was in shock at how rude he was. I left that interview knowing I would never work there no matter how much they paid.

        Potential employers should be upfront and also be good at assessing if they think a candidate can not handle the job even if the candidate says they can.

    2. holly

      yeah, i think i’d stress the negatives up front and make them sound worse than they are. i had a job where the interviewer told me the boss would probably spend a lot of time yelling at me and she was sort of insane. this was so we could just skip the interview if that wasn’t something i felt like dealing with. i appreciated it.

  4. Thebe

    Maybe the OP’s firm isn’t offering enough compensation for what they expect. When our company was looking to fill a white-hot demanding position last year, our CEO refused to pay above a certain level. We warned our candidates how crazy the position was, and they all claimed to be “excited by the opportunity” and “always thrived on adrenaline.” So we hired a guy and he’s a disaster, but our out-of-state corporate parent won’t let us fire him because they’re terrified of California labor laws. I can’t help but think that if we were allowed to offer more pay, we would have gotten a better candidate pool.

    1. Dan

      Were you actually advertising the pay in the job posting? Alternatively, is your company known within the appropriate circles as underpaying?

      What you didn’t say was people were rejecting offers and you were stuck with your 3rd/4th/5th choice. In fact, it seems (from your writing) that those who applied were all excited about the opportunity.

      IOW, maybe your pay is actually ok. For “better pay” to have gotten you a better applicant pool, your applicants would have had to have known ahead of time that your pay sucked and it wasn’t worth their while.

      1. Thebe

        We did interview a few people who had the chops to make this position work, but they all wanted more money than our CEO was willing to pay. So, as you said, we were stuck with our 3rd or 4th choice and he is now a major problem.

        1. Dan

          You know, when we get into really long winded conversations about pay around here, people “blame” companies for underpaying. But the truth is, companies don’t set pay, the market sets the pay. As you’ve noticed, your top choices have had no problem walking away because the pay sucked.

          1. Leah

            Theoretically, that’s true for a specific job. However, if you have someone very out of touch with reality for whatever reason then whatever the market is doing doesn’t mean a thing.

            1. Thebe

              This. When a company refuses to pay the market rate for a position, managers are forced to look for “hidden gems”: extremely competent people willing to work for less money. It’s very stressful for the manager. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a super-smart person who will grow into the position. But such a learning curve takes time and then you risk them leaving to earn what they’re really worth.

              1. Except in California

                Hire Pete Carroll and John Schneider as consultants! If you are not a football fan you probably did not get that.

    2. Green

      Starting first year pay in biglaw market is $160k, $130-145k in smaller markets, and there are hundreds of firms that start that range. If you want someone to kick butt and take some names, then you need to pay for it. If you can’t offer the salary up front, then you need to give them a % of billables as a bonus.

      Also be upfront. If you don’t have a billable hours policy because you mean “as many as it takes”, then you shouldn’t frame it as “we don’t have a billable hours policy” but as “We typically bill 2500-2600.”

      You may also want to check your reputation with key law schools. There are some firms that have absolutely terrible reputations (bad for women/harassment, awful partners, few development opportunities, undercompensated, stingy bonuses, whatever) and seem to have no idea why nobody with the grades they want sign up for their interviews…

  5. Totally Normal Person

    Good advice for the letter writer, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the unaddressed 800 lb gorilla in the room is that this may be one of those workplaces where 80-100 hour weeks are expected. I’m pretty certain I would be fired for performance related issues if I unknowingly took a job where that was the expectation. I’ve beaten my brains out trying to figure out how best to ascertain average work hours/work life balance during job interviews and there just doesn’t seem to be a good way to ask about this in an interview without appearing lazy or unmotivated. I’ve even resorted to driving back to the workplace and just parking in the parking lot about 5 or 6 pm and just watching to see what time the bulk of the employees actually leave. Maybe this is something that the OP is avoiding addressing for fear it will scare off too many applicants?

    1. De Minimis

      It most likely is, but it’s one of those cases where everyone should know that going in—it is a fairly standard expectation for that type of law firm.

      1. Green

        They still vary widely. Minimum billables and average billables are tracked by firms and OP should provide the information.
        1800 hours, 1950 hours, 2100 hours, 2300 hours, 2600 hours…

        The difference between 1800 hours and 2600 hours is an extra five months of work crammed into the same calendar year.

    2. L McD

      Would it really come across badly to just ask “what kinds of hours are expected from someone in this position?” Or is the fear that you won’t get an honest answer during the interview process? I’ve never been in an interview for a salaried position, so I’m honestly curious. I can see some companies trying to keep a lid on crazy hours expectations, but that seems horribly counter-productive in the long run…

      1. De Minimis

        As a recruit I did see a lot of that….people really tried to not talk about the crazy hours–saying stuff like “well that’s just busy season and we have good work/life balance overall…” but I did know of people who actually spent the entire night at the office sometimes. People should be upfront about it, on both sides. The employer needs to be open about the requirements and the candidate needs to let them know if that’s going to be an issue. I think some firms do try to play too many games and pretend that “things are different now” just to snag candidates.

        1. Leah

          I had an interviewer do that once. She said that the firm had a great work-life balance and when not preparing for trial,she usually left 7:30-8pm with a 9am start time. The hours wouldn’t have bothered me so much if she hadn’t classified it as “a great work-life balance”. It’s not and by saying it is, I became concerned about how I was going to be treated if I worked there. Just like a potential employer is trying to read between the lines of what you’re saying, the potential employee has to do the same thing.

          1. Elysian

            I asked a friend about her hours once and she said “They’re awesome! I only work on the weekend about half the time.”

            I mean, compared to some other firms I guess that’s awesome…

      2. Elysian

        My law school career center advised me never to ask this question. Asking about work-life balance is the kiss of death for a new associate.

        1. AmyNYC

          I think THIS could be a bigger problem… 80 hrs are expected?! I know some people love their jobs, but this is just too much work to be healthy – mentally or physically.

          1. neverjaunty

            Keep in mind that the way most big firms work is billing by the hour – but associates are paid a flat salary (sometimes with bonuses). So the more hours they can force the associate to put in, the bigger profit the firm makes.

        2. Green

          And to clarify, “work/life balance” means “I want to have babies soon”, so ask about billable hours policy instead.

            1. Green

              Biglaw is legit crazy. Almost all the interviews are a sick “So what questions do you have for us?” reverse interview.

    3. NylaW

      I was thinking this too, but it is a law firm and I think most people in that industry know what they are getting into. But in general that’s why it’s very important for employers to be upfront about those expectations for how many hours they expect people to put in, on call, off hours availability, etc. If you as an employer are not honest about what you want, then you probably aren’t getting the hires you want.

        1. ac

          Well, tell me about yesterday.

          Lawyer-specific followup:
          – how often do you [whatever task – go to court, talk to opposing counsel, meet with partner…]
          – and do you typically work with this partner/talk to opposing counsel/etc.

    4. MissDisplaced

      I’ve known a LOT of HR departments who outright lie about hours. They will evade and say something like “there will be some expected overtime to finish projects,” but what they really mean is that there will be regular 80 hour workweeks.

      I think the OP needs to make sure that their level of overtime commitment is stated clearly up front.

    5. Mephyle

      Even if the company were upfront with what they expect, candidates might accept the job thinking they can handle it, and then find out they can’t.

      But OP asks, what to do “other than saying, ‘This job is the legal equivalent of becoming a SEAL, so if you’re not up for that, it isn’t right for you’?”

      I don’t know why you are ruling out being frank and open about what you expect. That’s exactly what you need to do – if the other option of changing the company culture and expectations for the position is off the table.

  6. De Minimis

    A lot depends on the type of position…..entry level roles are going to be tougher as far as finding good predictors of how they may do. Even a good student with many activities on their resume may have trouble adjusting to the demands of a professional services firm, even if they can tell you about situations that point to them being a good fit.

    It can be somewhat easier with experienced hires since their work experience is the best indicator, but I agree that you have to really drill down, contact references, etc.

    I’d say screen for people who enjoy a ever-changing environment. Not just people who can adapt to change, but people who prefer it.
    I used to work for a similar firm [not law, though] and that seemed to be the common denominator among people who succeeded there.

  7. fposte

    I actually haven’t asked my hires about the effectiveness of this, but our questions have gradually ways to signal the nature of the position as well as eliciting information. “We often have this scenario. Tell us what you’ve done in a scenario like that. We also find that this scenario can go wrong in this way. What would you do if it does?” We’re not hiring for hugely long work hours here, but you could even ask about how late-night work affects their productivity and what errors they’d guard for, that kind of thing.

  8. Del

    Sometimes “this job is the equivalent of becoming a SEAL in the industry, are you up for that?” is a pretty decent question to ask — maybe a little less colloquially, but it isn’t a bad thing to say, “Let me be square with you: this is an unusually challenging environment even compared to this challenging field. We’re looking for someone who is going to thrive in an environment that is [fill in your descriptor – high-stress, long-hours, highly competitive, has no margin of error] and if you’re not prepared for that, you’re not going to thrive here.”

    I have had an interviewer say this to me before, and it was a huge relief to just have it out in the open — I wasn’t right for the job, and her openness convinced me of that, while I was second-guessing myself about it up to that point.

    1. De Minimis

      The thing about that is if someone is applying at a firm like that, they at least think they can do it. I don’t think they are going to self-select out, especially if they’re new.

      I’m coming at it from the perspective of someone who washed out at a Big 4 accounting firm with a similar culture. I think most people think they are up to the challenge, and it’s a rare person who is willing to get that far in a recruitment process only to say, “You know what? I don’t think it’s right for me.”
      –especially if they’re having trouble finding a job, which seems to be the case in law these days. I think most people will at least pretend that they’re up for it–which I guess is where Alison’s advice to probe and see their reaction comes into play.

      1. NylaW

        Sometimes you have to try out that type of environment to know if you can handle it, though. I know that might suck for the company and you when you inevitably are fired or leave for another job, but really how else do you know what it’s like and if you can thrive in it?

        1. De Minimis

          For bigger companies/offices that’s not such a big issue, they kind of assume some people aren’t going to work out—I used to help with recruiting and the stat they kept using was that 10% left during the first year, and although they wanted to reduce that it seemed like they thought of it as sort of a given. But it was a larger office that had a pattern of hiring several people each year.

      2. Kelly L.

        Yeah, I’m nowhere near a rockstar ninja SEAL lawyer, but at one point last year I was pretty desperate for a job (long story) and interviewed for one that I quickly realized was Not. For. Me. Just walking into the office gave me a feeling of despair, and the interviewer was rude and condescending. She also let slip that I’d be there in the middle of the night 6 days a week, which wasn’t really mentioned in the job ad, and this was a really spooky, deserted neighborhood. There were other factors but it’d take me a while to explain; just trust me that it was not a job I wanted. Yet I felt like I was obligated to take it if they hired me, since I was at that time being helped by a family member and felt really guilty about it. In the end I was passive-aggressive–I didn’t opt out, but I also didn’t send my usual thank you email or follow up with them in any way. I don’t think they were any more impressed with me than i was with them, as it turned out, so I was free to take a much better job a few months later when it finally came my way.

      3. Contessa

        Even if they’re not up for the challenge and they know it, a lot of newer law school grads will indeed pretend they are, because they’ve got crazy debts and only a few entry level jobs.

        Now, I was warned about certain types of legal jobs when I started law school (we had required reading that included a firsthand account of working in a large NYC firm), but not everyone is going to be prepared for the actual job market. Law schools are notoriously bad at providing real-world experience or advice. There was also a nasty habit of lying about job and salary numbers (which I hope has stopped, because several schools got sued for it), which induced students to take out larger loans, and a lot of them now need those jobs with obscene salaries to pay back the loans, whether or not they can handle the demands of the jobs.

        1. Elysian

          It hasn’t stopped! They’re less overtly lying now, and more “fudging the numbers.” ie. hiring their own grads for very little money so they can count them as employed, and other shady tactics.

          I’m in the process of convincing a friend not to go to law school but he believes the numbers. Don’t do it, C!

          1. Dan

            My lawyer friend (known him since he was in law school and I was an undergrad 15 years ago) told me he would kick my ass if I ever went to law school. I believed him, and stuck around STEM instead. I never regretted it. While I do have a boatload of student loan debt, at least I can make enough in 40 hour work weeks to pay them back and still enjoy the rest of my life…

            1. Grace

              @Dan: You have a great friend!
              Reminds me of a call to PBS’ “Car Talk” show.
              Caller: “My friend offered to sell me a Jaguar. What
              should I do?”
              Car Talk Brothers: “Punch your ‘friend’ in the nose!”

          2. Contessa

            My law school did that to me! I worked exactly three hours for a journal (which included falling down marble stairs at the library and almost breaking my arm), but hey, employed one month after graduation!

        2. ArtsNerd

          Do you remember what that reading was? I have a friend in law school who might want the heads up.

          1. Elysian

            Half the things written on the site Above the Law are about this.
            This New York Times article is a little old but still accurate: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/business/09law.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

            For researching specific schools, try http://www.lawschooltransparency.com/

            Note that lots of schools have something like a 60% employment rate where the grads that ARE employed make an average of $55,000 and leave school with an average of $150,000 debt. Problem is, your friend will be convinced he’s above average. Everyone is, and so it goes on and on.

            1. ArtsNerd

              Thanks! Yeah, he’s definitely above average – both in reality, and in his own brain. He makes decisions VERY differently than I do, and I’ve long ago given up trying to convince him to do anything otherwise. For one thing, he keeps succeeding!

          2. Green

            The issue is the bimodal salary distribution. Either you hit it big and can actually pay off your ridiculous debt (mine was $200k) or you are unemployed and trapped by debt forever.

            1. ArtsNerd

              Yeah, he’s very aware of that issue and doing everything in his power to hit it big. His whole career plan sounds like misery to me, but differences make the world go ’round, etc.

              1. Green

                I left biglaw after 3 (exhausting, horrible, PTSD-inducing) years and am now in-house corporate 9 to 5 (and even better compensated), so it can be done with minimal misery, but it is a hell of a lot of hard work and a hell of a lot of pure luck.

                1. Contessa

                  That has become my plan, but in-house departments seem uninterested in hiring litigators who don’t want to litigate anymore.

        3. Legaljobs

          While your point out one issue, the problems with the legal profession are several as I mention below.

          The chief problem is that its industry stuck in the past. I think from a business perspective, unless is truly big law (I think there are only may be 100 law firms in the country that are truly like big multinational corporations in terms of revenue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_100_largest_law_firms_by_revenue) chasing the same traditions and business models is making less and less sense.

          I wonder if OP firm is truly “Big Law” or just acts like it is. The problem with chasing after pedigree and reputation is that your employees may be playing by the same game and other firms are willing to poach since they are only willing to hire associates who are exactly the same.

          1. Green

            Biglaw is the Vault list, bet-the-company cases/deals, pay-for-prestige.

            But excellent point about lots of firms (especially “boutiques”) overvaluing their own prestige rankings. As many biglawyers know, it’s a hell of a lot easier to move down the Vault rankings than move up.

  9. B

    I find it refreshing when job postings say exactly what they need. For example: Must have a thick skin, overtime always needed, 50-hour work week, be available 24/7, etc. That has allowed me to self-select out numerous times. I don’t think less of the company, I actually appreciate they are saying this upfront rather than me wasting time applying and possibly interviewing.

    When you know it’s a tough environment be upfront about it.

    1. jmkenrick

      I once did an interview where I was told once of the managers had an “aggressive, military-style approach to management that sometimes rubs people the wrong way. You need to be prepared to let that roll off your back.”

      I was only two months out of school and knew that wasn’t right for me. In retrospect, I really appreciate that they were making the right choice in being upfront about that. Yes, lots of people will self-select out, but that saves you the cost of hiring/firing those people.

  10. Meg Murry

    Can you have some of the people closer to the level of the new hire be more involved in the interview process, and encourage them to be honest with the candidates about what a day might entail? And none of the “there’s no such thing as a typical day” baloney – true, there might not be ONE typical day, but maybe there are 2 or 3 different common types of days.
    Also, I would take a look at your on-the-job training process. Are you just throwing people in the deep end and expecting them to figure things out for themselves? Are you giving the people with performance related issues feedback early and often so they can self correct before it becomes a fireable offense?
    Last, are you encouraging current employees to personally recruit people they’ve worked with at previous jobs that they think would be a good fit? Someone who is currently doing the job is probably good at recognizing a “kindred spirit” from a previous job.

    1. aebhel

      I think this is a really good idea. Sometimes people who’ve been through the hiring/acclimation process more recently will have insights that someone higher up the ladder might miss.

  11. Just a Reader

    I think a lot of companies do a bait and switch type thing to get good talent. And then the talent finds out they hate the reality. We see it all the time on this blog.

    Work hard, play hard = sweatshop!

    1. Sarahnova

      Yes, the sight of the dreaded “We like to work hard, play hard” leads me to cross a company right off my list.

      1. LV

        Whenever someone tells me that they “work hard, play hard” what I actually hear is “I have a Type A personality and a drinking problem.”

      2. Tax Nerd

        I’ve come to interpret “We work hard and we play hard” as code for “We will work you extremely hard. For many people here, the only solace is drinking. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll end up a functional alcoholic.”

  12. NylaW

    Can we just all agree that honesty in the hiring process is the best policy? When applicants and employers are open with each other about expectations and abilities, everyone wins.

  13. Corporate Attorney

    OP here!

    To answer a couple of questions others have raised: comp likely isn’t the issue (like other big law firms, we pay a lot and the benefits are very good) – competitive candidates won’t be able to find another job that will pay them more, because like most big law firms, we pay what our competitors pay. The hours are high, but not actually at the high end for a big firm – think 1900-2000 billable, not 2300-2400. Unpredictability is an issue, however.

    1. Totally Normal Person

      Thanks for addressing these issues, OP. I have no knowledge of the legal field but an obvious question does pop out. You seem to be benchmarking against what other law firms do (or what you believe other law firms do). Is it possible that other law firms are having the exact same problems for the exact same reasons?

      Not trying to be a smarta$$. Just an honest question.

    2. Totally Normal Person

      Also, just a thought. Maybe it would be helpful to you to find out where the people that wash out at your firm wind up? Where do they go and are they successful there? And why?

    3. CA Anon

      Try hiring a consulting firm to do behavior and learning assessments on your current “SEALS” to get a sense of who does well in your environment and then give those same assessments to your top candidates for the job.

      Assessments like the DiSC (measures workplace behaviors) and the HBDI (measures how you think through problems) can give you valuable insights about potential new hires and how well they’d fit in your team. You can get similar results from asking the sorts of questions that AAM suggests, but these models tend to be pretty accurate and really nuanced and can help supplement the answers you get from an interview.

    4. Dan

      Can you give me some sense how many “real” hours it takes to generate a billable hour?

      To give you an example of what I’m talking about — in a former life, I wanted to be a pilot. Pilots are capped at 1000 flying hours per year. Sounds like a part time job, right? Well, pilots are only paid while the aircraft is moving. So, pre-flight prep time, post-flight paperwork, and layovers are unpaid. It can sometimes take 14 hours to fly an 8-hour day.

      Which leads into the next question: If the hours are fine, what is so “SEAL” about your place?

      1. Elysian

        In my experience, I can bill about 6 hours in an average 8 hour day. A lot depends on what your firm counts a billable or not, along with how ethical you are with your billing, but I don’t think I’m unusual. To get to 2000 hours I would probably have to work 50 hour weeks (at least 10 hours a day) on average, taking very little vacation. Your mileage may vary.

        But the OP is right, that’s on the low end for many law firms. A lot of people would look at that and think “refreshing!!”

        1. De Minimis

          Do people “eat time” in law firms the way they do in accounting? I’d guess so, although I’m not familiar enough with the nuts and bolts of legal gruntwork.

          It was pretty comical. Partners would say don’t do it, charge all your time, your seniors would say there’s so much time budgeted toward development so it’s okay, but then you’d be told “you don’t have to charge every single thing” and that people needed to keep in mind “project economics.”

    5. Meg Murry

      I think it would be important to be up-front with candidates about the unpredictibility. As in: “Our billables are 1900-2000 per year, but the monthly volume is highly variable – some weeks will be slow, while you may have 3-4 80 hour weeks in a row a few times a year.” or something like that. Because if you just say 1900-2000 a year but leave out the part where some weeks are crazy, that’s not really genuine.

    6. r

      What level of seniority are your hires? Are these fresh out of law school folks who dont know what they are getting into, or laterals with a track record.

    7. Sarahnova

      Thanks for providing that context, OP. I’ve got to admit to still being slightly confused, though. If the pay is good and market-rate, and the hours are actually shorter than many… well, that sounds like an awful lot of uncertainty if that alone takes this job into SEAL-equivalent territory. Are people actually burning/crashing out faster than in other law firms? Is it really the uncertainty that’s causing it, or are there other factors that make this an unusually difficult place to work?

    8. Green

      It’s a high turnover field, but usually they leave you and performance-related firings are relatively uncommon…

    9. neverjaunty

      OP, something isn’t adding up in your description of this job. 1900-2000 hours at a comparable salary and you’re still in the middle of attrition? “Unpredictability” is pretty par for the course in law, too – some weeks you just get work dropped in your lap – so I doubt that’s it.

      I would urge you to take a very hard and honest look at your firm’s culture. Do associates have to be “Navy SEALs” because they’re going to get thrown in the deep end and screamed at if they make a mistake? Are they going to be expected to do top-notch work with bottom-rung resources? Is your firm one of those where the people who can manage a volatile senior partner’s moods do fine and everybody else lives in terror?

      Because if you’re only requiring <2000 hours a year billing and pay competitive salaries and you're still losing people, you have a problem, and that problem is not in your hiring methods.

    10. JuliB

      Have you tried exit interviews? Rather than get specific what went wrong for them, but ask what the people leaving would have liked to hear about before taking the job.

  14. E.R

    Some things that have worked in my experience:
    1) Be very specific about the challenges. Ie. “I work 75 hours a week and Todd, when he started in your role, worked an average of 65 hours a week without taking vacation for the first year”. Or, “We have some challenging clients. For example, one of our clients consistently asks for 24+ page reports at 5pm, due next the morning. How would you deal with that?
    2) Have a mentorship program is you don’t already. Mentors can be rather senior folks or people with only 1-2 years of more or less successful experience, (who remember how hard it may have been in the beginning). It is beneficial for the both the mentee and the mentor, and the company at large. It can be personally and professionally rewarding. It should be an opt-in program with a defined timeline, though.

    1. De Minimis

      My firm assigned a number of people to each new hire…you had an associate “buddy” who was a peer with maybe a year or two more experience, then a senior associate buddy. Both of these people were supposed to help you find your feet, help you find projects, answer questions, etc. You also had an upper management “coach” who was more of a supervisor—they would help you with your official development plan, they would be who you would call if you were calling in sick, they’d meet with you if you were getting called onto the carpet about something with HR or someone else. They were more there to advise you on the big picture.

      I don’t know if BigLaw functions in the same way, the time demands may be too great to have that many staff involved with one person all throughout the year–although in reality, my office tended to ditch a lot of the coaching stuff once busy season rolled round and then it would start up again near year-end when it was time to do evaluations.

      1. Contessa

        In my experience, it doesn’t work that way, but it should. I WISH I had that kind of support when I started. Heck, I’d take it now. Law firms should adopt some form of the practice, absolutely. (some firms may actually do it, but not mine)

        1. De Minimis

          Also accounting firms often tend to be more seasonal in terms of workload, so they’re more able to do that kind of thing, at least in tax [audit might have had their own way of doing things.]

          1. EE

            Audit has its own busy seasons. When I trained we had two busy seasons: Jan-Mar and October. Nobody helped you out there. Summer was study leave so no help there either. Maybe somebody might ask you what your goals were in November.

            My entire training time could be described as like a moshpit, except few people care if you fall over and get trampled on, unlike in a moshpit where strangers will help you up.

  15. Joey

    I’d consider one of two things in addition to Alison’s suggestions. Before someone accepts schedule a successful recent hire or two talk about the job with the candidate. You can also do a sort of ride along interview with someone- that is- let them tag along with someone to see what a typical day is like before they accept.

  16. EmmBee

    I just went through a round of interviews (six people!) at an established company. Though I ended up withdrawing because I realized I didn’t like the way the job description kept changing, I was pleasantly surprised by how upfront they were about the demands of the office. Every person I spoke with, from three HR people to three business people, made it clear that this was a high-performing place where a lot would be expected of me.

    I do wonder if this firm is stressing that enough. The way this company handled it with me wasn’t pushy or intimidating; it was frank and candid and even polite. They were clear about what was expected, and even told some stories about why they’re so upfront about it (because, naturally, they used to spend a lot of time hiring good people only to have them leave quickly once they became aware of the pace).

    They gave real examples, which helped. Like “sometimes we have an idea on a Wednesday morning and it has to be executed by Friday afternoon…and sometimes that happens three times a week.” The more honesty about the pace of a place, the better.

  17. Dan

    When “helping candidates self select out” be very careful on how you approach that. During my last round of interviews, I was unemployed. At my previous job, I was paid straight time for every hour worked. I routinely worked 60 hour work weeks and brought home a corresponding increase in pay of 50%.

    Also note that in “my field” 40-hour work weeks are the norm.

    So, at this one interview I had, I interviewed with one guy who talked about what kind of work-a-holic he was. He said, “I don’t know how true this is for your role, but I work 60-70 hour work weeks a lot and miss my kids’ birthdays, band performances, and sports competitions. How do you feel about that?”

    How I *really* feel is that those kind of hours impact salary negotiations. But bringing that up should only be done if those kinds of hours are a regular part of *my* position. (Note he said “I don’t know how true this is for your role…”) I had to hunt down another interviewer before I left to ask him about those realities.

    Bottom line: Engage the interviewees in a meaningful dialogue about the realities of working for your firm. Don’t waste their time (and insult their intelligence) by asking them leading questions. Make no mistake — during an interview, shallow questions about work place style and work hours are very much leading, particularly if the candidate is currently unemployed.

  18. First Year Big Law

    Huh? If the billable hours requirement is 2000, then something else is going on. Because if the firm pays market, and the hours requirement is 2000 hours, this is actually a pretty good gig for a biglaw firm. I have friends washing out at firms where the requirement is 2400, even 2700. Are you in a small city where these kinds of hours are not typical?

    As for the unpredictability… that’s what the money’s for! But seriously, certain practice groups are more predictable than others hours-wise. But these things are well-telegraphed in advance. I avoided M&A like the plague for this reason.

    For people who are not lawyers – Biglaw is a very transparent industry (at the associate level). Firm reputations (hours, culture, everything) are REALLY well known before you join. What level of these hires? Do you mean laterals? Or summers/1st years? Summers/first years have a 10 week interview process. Laterals are typically hired through recruiters (who REALLY know their firms) or through networking when you’ve worked across them on deals. I don’t really even understand how you can be getting all the way through the hiring process with candidates who don’t understand this.

    Also, the attrition rate in biglaw is crazy. It’s a pyramid where the partners at the top of the firm are not really moving. The model depends on shedding 70% of your 1st year hires over 5 years. So there is a natural way to get rid of people who don’t want to be there. Most people are not fired. They leave because everyone knows if you don’t want to make partner, you have to be gone in 5 years ish. The fact you have fired multiple people for non-economic reasons is CRAZY.

    I’m saying this because I think that, while AAM’s answer was okay, it was not really written with a full understanding of the special circumstances surrounding the biglaw industry/ditto with a lot of the comments. For a lot of workplaces, this is NBD. Pay a bit more, explain a bit more about the job, yadda yadda yadda. For biglaw, this is really strange. If this applies to 1st year hires – this is incredibly alarming. My guess is that there is some sort of well concealed management problem at your firm that the hires are picking up on. Screamers? Insanely disorganized partners dumping work last minute? Harassment? Old boy’s club? Unethical practices?

    I would also post on corporette for more advice from lawyers who can give more specialist advice.

    1. Brett

      I only know biglaw from the outside watching some of my friends (who were top 10 in their classes) get recruited.

      It really seemed that some firms badly botched their recruiting, and as a result, were getting inferior candidates from the very beginning. The most common screwup was simply failing to keep candidates informed and updated as the recruitment process moved forward. But in some cases, they gave off horribly disorganized impressions that turned people off from those firms.

      So, maybe part of the problem for the OP’s firm is in recruiting? If they don’t get the candidates they need in the first place, they are not going to get the hires they want out of their hiring process.

    2. Cat

      I think comparing billables hours requirements isn’t always apples to apples. For instance, if you’re at a firm that (a) requires you to wait around late for partner edits; but (b) doesn’t allow you to bill that time waiting, then that’s going to lower your billables vs. a firm that does allow it. If you’re at a firm or in a practice that expects you to take on a lot of non-billable firm service and promotional stuff, that lowers your billables. That kind of thing.

    3. Corporate Attorney

      OP here: It’s less the overall billables level than it is the level of performance that’s required. I’m not giving a lot of detail to avoid outing myself, but the stakes are very high for our clients (higher than usual), and the hours distribution is really lumpy. This isn’t a standard biglaw M&A/capital markets/corp fin shop.

      And for clarity (I should have put this in the letter), the concern is lateral hires, not first-years, and they don’t generally have experience in what we do (it’s virtually impossible to find). We don’t typically hire or use first-years.

      1. danr

        Sounds like you’e a highly focused boutique firm and that you get the tough jobs. I would say that there is a high satisfaction level when a tough job is finished and the client is happy.
        You might look at what other kinds of experience your hires have. If they are on second or third careers and coming out of business, they will bring an extra dimension to the practice that may make a difference in overall satisfaction levels.

      2. Green

        One of the things that might make it more bearable is minimizing face time requirement. It was easier to do 100 hours in a week at my firm since I could actually go home the following week when there’s only 20 hours of work to do. I’d not come in on a Tuesday unless I got an e-mail if I killed it the previous week. I knew what I had to hit and what I had to accomplish. The thing that sucks about some firms is that even if the hours aren’t there, you still have to sit there 9-6 looking for hours or looking busy, which makes billable hours a misleading measure…

      3. neverjaunty

        Even so, First Year Big Law is right. If you’re bringing in experienced laterals – even if their experience isn’t in your specific area – and they’re leaving in droves in this horrible legal market, something is very wrong that is making these people jump ship. It’s tempting to just say “oh, we picked the wrong people”, but you’re never going to pick the right people if you have institutional problems.

        1. Corporate Attorney

          Well, our frequency of people who leave voluntarily is extremely low – it’s the people we end up letting go (as opposed to the people who decide this isn’t right for them and move on) that I am worried about.

  19. AndersonDarling

    Are you doing exit interviews? Are you interviewing the employees you are firing as well? I know that isn’t customary, but if you are really having problems hiring good employees, the answer to your question walks out the door with the fired employee.

    You may find out something that you aren’t even considering. There could be a co-worker that is making everyone miserable or sabotaging work. There could be a breakdown in communication and the employees didn’t really know their goals. A regular client could be harassing newbees.
    If nothing else, you could ask straight out, “Were you prepared for this position. Is there something we could have done to help you?”

  20. NP

    Also consider whether there’s a pattern to the performance issues you’ve seen. Are they all falling short on writing skills? The way they interact with clients? Unable to meet deadlines despite putting in long hours? Insufficient attention to detail?

    If there is a pattern, see what sets the good performers apart from those that are let go. For example, if the job requires a lot of writing and several of the good ones excelled at intensive writing courses in college or law school, and you might start looking for that in new hires.

    1. Trixie

      I think that’s my question as well, what are the performance-related issues leading to termination? Do they vary or is it one consistent theme across the board, and can it be better furrowed out in the interview process and reference checks? Also, are lateral hires simply not as experienced/well-trained as they used to be?

    2. fposte

      And even ask the successful hires what may have been an unexpected challenge or what could you do to get more like them.

  21. HM in Atlanta

    I would add really look at how you want people to work -behaviors you want them to exhibit – and be brutally honest. Don’t stick to the way the organization aspires to be. For example – if you know that junior associates will always have to track down senior associates for x,y,z, but they have to be really assertive to make that happen – acknowledge it.

  22. Anon

    So I worked in an office that wanted the equivalent of Seals, but not in the legal field. My first thought on reading this was to wonder whether you’re asking too much of your employees. People have raised that. But I think there is another important question to ask: Is the non-directly work related climate in your office causing the problem?

    Let me explain.

    I have always been one of those people who would work 10 hours when the expectation was to work 8. And when I went to work at a place where the expectation was to work 12 hours a day, I thought I would be a perfect fit. I am glued to my phone. I’m a compulsive over worker. And I was pretty good at the technical side of the job. Lots of the hours and demands were discussed in the interview process. They were very upfront about it being a demanding role and that type of screening took place. They talked to my references about my historic work ethic. They talked about the attributes that do well in the job. Should have been a perfect fit.

    But it was all the other problems at the office that made it a problem. The general culture was AWFUL. It was badly managed. There was a ton of backstabbing. You couldn’t trust anyone. Everyone was paranoid about what would happen next. The upper management thought breeding competition and distrust between employees was a way to improve productivity (it isn’t). Team work was a dirty word. After a short period of time, I became miserable. And when I was miserable, my work product suffered tremendously. I reached a point were I started to realize that my employer was so miserable to work for, not only was my desire to work longer hours or harder zapped, which is counter to my personality, but I aggressively didn’t want to give them any more of my productivity that I had to. It was a toxic and horrible situation.

    That work place continues to justify their horrific turnover rate with “We just demand a lot of our employees and some people can’t hack it.” And every time they do that, it ignores all of the problems to continue to bog down the office.

    I’m not saying you’re a horrible employer. But maybe you want to look at some of the other things that are happening in your office. No one intends to be a bad boss, but we all know they’re out there.

    As an aside, I have since left that very toxic work place and my productivity and work quality have improved drastically. It’s also given me a lot of perspective. Everyone is at fault in such a situation, I shouldn’t have been such an awful employee. But if you continue to think that the only problem is that you’re not picking the right people, you might not notice that the people you’re picking could be right if the climate changed.

    1. neverjaunty

      Exactly this. And that the people OP’s firm is picking may be the wrong ones for what they think they want. Hiring a guy who thrives in a toxic atmosphere but does a horrible job is not really the goal, I think.

  23. Twyla

    I have a very demanding workload too in my department. As he department grows and begins to take on more and more centralized functions from our subsidiaries, we uncover all sorts of bizarre things. I have hired 5 people in the past year and 4 are still with me and doing great. We are very open about the craziness we have on our plate so new hires don’t come in with those rose colored glasses. We are very up front that this is not a position for the faint at heart. We are also pretty open about our plans to bring calm to the craziness over time. My successful hires refer to our interviewing methods as “trying to scare them away” – which is a pretty true statement.

  24. Corporate Attorney

    OP here again: Some more information and an update (since I sent the letter some time ago). For those who’ve asked, this is all lateral hiring (we don’t typically use first-years). Because our practice is fairly unique, we’re also typically not hiring people with a previous track record in doing what we do.

    We’ve hired someone since I sent this letter, and so far it’s working out pretty well. Without the benefit of Alison’s advice (or that of this group), we did manage to sort of fumble our way to many of the same conclusions. Ultimately, although I had difficulty getting the entire team on board with this strategy (a lot of partners just don’t want to move away from the typical biglaw interview model of aimless chatting for 30 minutes), I at least was very honest with the candidate we chose about what my day-to-day and week-to-week work life looks like. And I was very honest about what makes the job tough.

    Many have mentioned, as Alison did, the importance of enabling people to self-select out. I think there’s only so much you can do there, given that a lot of people (i) don’t know how they’ll deal with this kind of pressure and (ii) really, really need jobs. I’m pushing us to take the steps we can on that front, however, in our advertising and interviewing practices. I’ve also made some proposals with respect to doing some focused analysis on the factors that make for success here, and what happens to those who leave (voluntarily or involuntarily).

    I think that the big take-away for me from this is that we need to think harder about hiring. Those who work in big law firms will know that there an existing model for hiring first-years (interview law students, hire summer associates, give them offers unless they embarrass themselves) and laterals (the above-mentioned aimless thirty-minute chats). I don’t think that works for us, because we have an unusual practice and culture (FWIW, I lateraled to this firm, so I have a basis for comparison). We need to approach the hiring process more consciously.

    1. Dan

      Yeah… and some more advice I’d suggest along those lines would be to limit the amount of comparison you do to other “Big Law” firms. Accept the fact that your firm is a bit of a unique breed who can’t do everything “Big Law” does for the sake of doing what “Big Law” does, because underneath the hood you aren’t the typical “Big Law.”

    2. Green

      You should bear in mind that many people lateraling are looking for a step down from the pressure of biglaw and assume that smaller or less prestigious firms mean less work. That’s part of the benefit of home-growing your own first years.

      1. Corporate Attorney

        Yeah, I recognize that, but (although this isn’t clear from the letter), we’re a small boutique practice within an AmLaw 50 firm. So we are biglaw, just in a slightly odd position within our larger biglaw home.

        1. Green

          The answer is then to snag good associates from your firm’s other practice groups and let them get the crappy laterals. :)

  25. Legal jobs

    There is something wrong with your culture. I’ve skimmed your responses and that’s my impression. I would take the advice about bringing in an organizational consultant who will be brutally honest with you.

    On the other hand, it may not be you. Thete is something wrong with the culture of the legal industry in general with its heavy emphasis on pedigree (top school, top firms only) , static billing structures, limited acceptable career tracks ( you must have done x, y and z in exactly that order or we aren’t interested. example: we aren’t interested in you bc you worked in-house), working hours that are not resulting in greater productivity and glut of lawyers.

    I was talking recently to a friend , who is an executive in a major tech company. We were discussing the differences between how he was hired for his current position versus how lawyers are hired. He doesn’t come from a traditional bachground. It was considered an asset by his hiring manager.

    He said that lawyers do not seem to reward skill and experience. He wasn’t referring to money.. People need to feel like they are part of something more than a salary.

  26. Not a lawyer

    I wonder if, during the screening, your “self-selection” information is more along the lines of humble-brags than real warnings. Many lawyers pride themselves on working long hours; telling them its a competitive environment with long hours might make them more eager to prove themselves at it. Perhaps look at re-framing your screening statements/questions in a way that is less appealing to the type of people you are trying to hire, so that people really will self-select out.

    What exactly you should be saying is really field-specific, so I can only give an example from my field. For example, I recently went to an info session for an organization that tried to scare people away from jobs by showing them pictures of the “harsh” living conditions that would be required when working in the field—the audience was a group of people who had traveled the world and were studying international development….trust me, this presentation had the opposite effect. However, I think if they had focused more on sitting inside a cramped office all day with a bad internet connection near the field but not in the field, or being stuck inside a highly protected international zone with no opportunity to meet local people or even see the real city, they might have done a better job of scaring people off.

    1. Ruffingit

      Totally agreed. This is the basic premise behind “KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.” If you’ve got an audience of world travelers who have built irrigation systems and mud housing in underdeveloped parts of the world, they are not going to be scared off by the field work conditions.

  27. A (first-year biglaw) lawyer

    You are getting a lot of comments which, while understandable (I agree, lawyers should work fewer hours!) are somewhat misdirected. If the problem you have is that you’re having to fire people, instead of that you are telling people they won’t make partner and they are moving on after a few years, that’s very different than most law firms that have retention problems (I think).

    How are you finding these people? If your practice is different from anything that’s out there, and you’re hiring people after a few years at firms, and you sell yourself as “we’re different and specialized,” it seems entirely possible you just get a lot of folks who are fed up/not succeeding in their work at a law firm and decide to give you a try instead. And, as it sounds like you know, the standard law firm interview will not screen those people out well at all.

    In terms of specifics, you are much to vague about your practice for any of the suggestions here to be really helpful. Saying you’re a SEAL/ninja lawyer is not a skillset, it’s an effort level, and most law firms get a tremendous (read: unhealthy) level of effort from their employees. Given that you have people actively failing, not just hating the hours, and have some sort of specialized practice, you might require a specialized skillset, and it sounds like you haven’t quite figured out what that skillset is. Laywers who know math? Lawyers who can act like consultants? Lawyers who know how to hustle? I’m guessing there is some other quality you need besides “good lawyer.”

    (Although, if the other quality you’re hiring for is “being motivated by screamers and jerks to work long hours after we told applicants we were a lifestyle firm” then I agree with everything said above.)

    1. Legaljobs

      If most people who are posting comments here are like me, they are playing the law of averages.

      Most lawyers will expect long hours. So, if this firm is having so many problems, it stands to reason that its because there’s something wrong with the firm beyond what’s wrong with the legal industry in general. It may be that they are just having really bad luck, but I doubt it.

      Double downing under the circumstances on trying to find candidates that fit the firm rather than taking a moment to look at the firm itself seems likely not to help. Just my humble opinion.

    2. Corporate Attorney

      This is really helpful – thank you! I think you’re right about the skillset issue.

    3. Grace

      I just laughed when I read the OP’s question about how to retain people. It sounds like it’s a lousy place to work and it serves ’em
      right. If they haven’t figured out that they should change so as not to lose talent (and lots of $ with turnover)…oh well. The only people I know – and I’ve worked in law for years – who would put up with that kind of bad work environment were, usually, raised in an alcoholic home and have some issues to resolve.

  28. Wilton Businessman

    I know people are going to disagree with me and even call me bad names, but the Predictive Index (http://www.piworldwide.com/) is a great tool to help the trained professional understand the person you are considering hiring. Is the PI a substitute for effective interviewing and background checking? No. But it is a tool that can help you understand the person you are hiring and give you effective management techniques to deal with certain personalities.

    *I have no affiliation with PI other than as a user of the system.

  29. Ed

    I would appreciate being made aware of OP’s expectations when interviewing. I have always been considered a “super star” employee in any job I’ve had but I prefer to be a super star among average employees. That might even partially be what drives me. I would have no interest working somewhere if everyone is expected to excel.

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