By Colin Fergus
The National Law Journal, Monday, October 31, 1988

Hiring associates laterally has been in the news a lot lately. How does a firm take advantage of the exciting opportunities offered by attorneys who have good backgrounds, a strong idea of what they want, and enough experience to be useful additions to the firm's strength from the day they start?

Associates who join a firm laterally already have decided they want to be lawyers, not investment bankers or brain surgeons; and they have decided they want to be tax lawyers or banking lawyers or litigators. A firm can find someone who has specific experience, and who has developed and can demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for his or her area of practice.

There is also more to go on in making the hiring decision. A firm can look not only at laterals' academic records, social skills, appearance and interests, but also at the work they have done, the responsibility they have enjoyed, and how successful they have been in practice. And any candidate is going to have a better idea after two or three years of practice of where they see their career heading.

Earlier this year, the National Law Journal sponsored a conference in New York at which the hiring partner from a major national law firm described his ideal candidate: someone with an excellent academic background, from another major firm, who has developed an interest in an area of practice in which his or her present firm becomes involved only infrequently but which is a very significant area of practice at the hiring partner's firm.

Not all lateral moves, of course, result from this type of situation. But it is important not only to find out why an associate is looking to leave his or her present firm, but also to recognize that this desire to leave may well offer an exciting and, perhaps, unique opportunity for a firm with a need to hire additional attorneys.

Time may not seem to be on the employer's side: A firm may need three additional people right away to work on that major insider trading case it took on last week, or it may need someone to replace its outstanding third-year banking associate whose wife is relocating to Australia next month, and the firm has 30 loans to close before the end of the year. But if one starts out with a goal in mind, and with a road map of how to realize it, the road to hiring the right candidate can be a very short one.

Job Description

It seems to go without saying that a firm should draw up a "job description." But in doing this, it helps to do more than just say "We need someone from a major law school with three years of experience in securities litigation from a major Wall Street firm." In writing a job description, one should begin by including everything and reducing it from there. And when looking at something as complex as a lateral move, it makes even more sense to write down everything the firm would ideally want in this new associate.

From this description, a firm should he able to describe to the legal recruiter the qualities it will be looking for in prospective candidates There seem to he three main criteria for determining how closely a candidate corresponds to the Mr. or Ms. Right of the "job description." These are credentials, experience and values.

Who are the successful people in one's firm? What are their credentials and values? What kind of experience have they had?

Credentials seem straightforward enough. It is usually easily discernible whether an attorney went to Harvard, speaks Italian, has an undergraduate degree from the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and is admitted to practice.

However, it is sometimes surprising how a more flexible approach to reviewing credentials can yield productive results. It might well be that the candidate whose undergraduate degree is in comparative religion and who is second in his or her class of 350 people at a local law school is going to be a better bet for a particular position than will a counterpart with a master's in finance who was in the top third of his or her class at Harvard.

Partners often state that experience is the crux of lateral associate-hiring. In the interview, very precise questions will bring out the candidate's skills most clearly. For example, a number of "Have you done...?" questions can help discover the candidate's areas of strength and weakness.

Candidates also can be asked for a self-evaluation: What do they view as their strengths and weaknesses. And candidates can tell the interviewer what they have enjoyed most and why, and what they have enjoyed least and why. Finally, there is one question that will tell a world of information: "Have you had a review, and how did the partner evaluate your skills?" Some responses are surprisingly candid. One associate told an interviewer, "The partner said I tend to miss issues."

Determining Values
The difficult thing to determine is values. If the firm has a clear idea of what is important to it, and also to the particular department and its clients, then the firm should make sure it communicates its values to the candidate, and gets an idea of what the candidate's values are and whether they correspond to the firm's. As the Trevor Howard character said to the Michael York character in the movie version of "Conduct Unbecoming," "one's honor and the Regiment's honor must be one and the same thing."

A legal-search company that is familiar with the law firm and has identified attorneys for the firm in the past, particularly attorneys who have gone on to enjoy success at the firm, will he able to offer valuable insight into the potential "fit." A good recruiter will screen out candidates who may have the credentials and experience, but whose values and interests do not correspond to the firm's. This will save time and wasted energies, and will also speed the process along to a more efficient conclusion.

Successful companies have strong notions of themselves, and this is no less true of successful law firms. The lateral hiring process offers a unique opportunity to get these notions across.

With some law firms, or at some times, finding someone with whom the client will like dealing is also important. Or it may be that a firm wants someone who is always going to put the firm first and take on those difficult weekend projects at 6 p.m. on a Friday. Or a firm may want a very well-rounded individual with polished diplomatic skills. Or all of these may be important.

It generally seems to be the case that successful firms are self-selecting, but it is still important for a firm to take the time to make sure, as far as it can, that there is a fit and that the person hired will make a positive contribution to the firm's culture.

Is there any magic in the selection process? It always seems to follow the same course: Resumes and transcripts are reviewed, a series of interviews is conducted and references are checked. The magic comes in how one determines what the candidate is really like. Legal recruiters may not be wizards, but they can help work this magic.

Knowing the Candidate
The English philosopher Hugh Weldon in "States and Morals" cited three ways one could learn what somebody is like: One, listen to what they say about themselves (the resume): Two, listen to what other people say about them (the references), and Three, by far the most important, get to know the person on one's own. This getting to know someone is what the interview process is really all about.

On the face of it, it might seem unreasonable to say that one can find out about someone in only a few hours. However, a recent study quoted in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the majority of decisions not to hire are made in the first few minutes of an interview. By structuring the interviews carefully to examine credentials, experience and values, a firm should be able to arrive at a decision that will result in hiring an attorney who will go on to become a significant asset to the firm's practice for the rest of that attorney's career.

Identifying and screening an attorney is only one part of the process. Hiring the attorney is the other part.

From the first interview, the firm should be sending out positive signals to every candidate. The firm should begin painting for each candidate a self-portrait of the firm -- what the firm feels is special about its culture, its practice and its plans -- and it should show the candidate how the attorney the firm wants to hire will fit into the picture.

No Surprises
It should be honest, positive and upbeat. In getting to know the candidate the firm should be getting to know how the candidate is reacting to them. There should be fewer and fewer areas open for potential surprise. A candidate should not go through the whole process and end up saying he or she can't actually start for a year. Offers are turned down. But if the firm and the candidate really get to know one another, there should be a meeting of the minds before an offer is made.

A firm that commits to this process will be free to pursue its primary purpose of servicing its clients' needs augmented by the addition to its team of a new and enthusiastic attorney.

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
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