Looking Beyond the Hiring Process

Hiring the right staff members can be challenging. The average cost per hire is $4,129, and it takes approximately 42 days to fill a position, according to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2016 Human Capital Benchmark Report.

This cost per hire does not include the potential cost of a bad hire. Most companies, especially law firms are not aware of the costs involved in a subpar hire. However, solo attorneys and those who practice in small-midsize firms will most certainly feel the results of an inauspicious hire. Whether it is the costs of recruitment and training fees, the disruption of projects or the loss of current employees’ morale, a bad hire can be devastating to a law firm of any size.

In some cases, a bad hire can lead to losing clients. For example, I had a former client who was the managing partner of a 12-attorney insurance defense firm. Over the course of one year, attorney Doe had six different secretaries. One day, Doe wondered why he was not receiving any new matters from one of the firm’s major insurance defense clients, despite his amazing trial and settlement record. It turned out that the vice president of that client became frustrated because each time he called Doe’s office, a different individual answered the telephone, and that person did not know simple details about his various cases. As a result, the vice president stopped sending new cases to the firm. This loss of new cases eventually caused Doe’s firm to lay off two associates.

The turnover of Doe’s secretarial staff was not because he made poor hiring decisions; rather, he failed to take the proper steps to retain them. Here are five simple, yet important, steps to follow in order to retain your staff member after hire.

Step One: Hire Slow to Find the Right Person

Clearly, the first step in retaining a new employee is to hire the right person. Although this might seem to be a no brainer, it can often be taken for granted. In the past, employees would start and end their career with one employer. Today, this is rare. It is not just the millennial employees who change jobs frequently. Across the generational spectrum, employees and potential employees have seen flayoffs, company collapses and nationwide uncertainty. As a result, the attraction of keeping one job until retirement is long gone, and often employees, especially millennials, begin looking for their next job as soon as they start one.

These serial job-seeking individuals place huge value on personal growth and development, and are always looking for the next chance to build their resumes and enhance their marketability. Take time during the interview process and go beyond what is on a candidate’s resume, and ask the right questions to make sure your potential candidate values and beliefs are akin with the firm’s.

Rather than asking a series of skill set questions, ask questions to determine personality traits and cultural fit. For example, ask your potential employee to describe the work environment or culture that makes him or her the most productive and happy. Or ask what is the single most important factor that must be present in the work environment for him or her to be successfully and happily employed. Asking these types of questions can help you get a better understanding of your potential employee’s personality and work ethic.

Step Two: Take Time to Train

After you have found and hired the right person, it is important to train and onboard your new hire during the first 90 days. This goes beyond a welcome email blast to all members of the firm announcing the new hire, or even hosting a breakfast/lunch meeting to introduce the person. Although a breakfast/lunch meeting is nice, it is imperative during the first 90 days for your new hire to assimilate well into your firm.

Even the most experienced paralegal may know how to do the substantive work and e-file documents in his or her sleep, may find it challenging in the beginning ‘getting up to speed’ and learning how things are done at your firm. Remember, every firm is unique regarding how and where it saves it documents. Something as simple as document naming conventions and saving files, or how the firm uses its management and case management program may seem minor and routine to those who know it, but a new employee wanting to make a good impression may find it time-consuming and frustrating, especially if the firm lacks a procedural manual.

It is a good practice to have a policy and procedure manual on how things are done. In the event your firm does not have a procedure or desk manual, perhaps it is time to develop one. A manual on how documents are saved, where they are saved, etc. in within your firm can simplify the cost of training. This manual is not only helpful for new employees but helpful when an employee is out sick and another person is covering that individual’s job.

In addition to having a procedure manual, assign your new hire a mentor or “peer buddy.” Assigning a mentor for the first 90 days will help your new hire feel comfortable asking “stupid questions” without feeling incompetent or asking the ‘wrong’ person. Additionally, your new hire can learn more about your firm by having a colleague to chat with and make this individual feel less like an outsider, and more comfortable/welcomed into his or her new employment environment.

Step Three: Keep Your New Hire Engaged and Excited

To retain your new employee, you need to beware of what employees are looking for when they change jobs. Assuming you do not overwork or take advantage of your staff members, one main reason why employees leave their current position is for an opportunity to gain more and/or different types of experience or training.

It is important to encourage professional development and diversification of skills for non-attorney staff. Allowing and paying for your staff members to join professional legal associations and/or take time off from work to attend training workshops and seminars communicates to your employees that you have a vested interest in their professional and career growth. This allows your current employees not only to expand their avenues for growth and learn the latest trends within the legal industry, but can also enable them to contribute to the advancement of the firm’s business goals.

For example, by paying for your secretary to attend a workshop on tricks and tips for Adobe Acrobat, he or she will be well-versed on how correct OCR errors and removing metadata, and as a result lead to efficiencies and cost saving. Now your secretary will have not only have a new marketable skill, but will realize his or her talents are recognized and are supporting firm’s goals for improved efficiency. In addition, he or she may now have the possibly of advancement either up the ladder or laterally across within your firm.

Another reason why employees leave their current position is boredom. Employees want to do work that feels meaningful. This can be challenging depending on the practice areas within your law firm. In addition to your daily duties and assignments, try to find projects that will allow your staff employees the freedom to work through problems and find solutions. This can be as simple as enlisting a file clerk to work with the records manager on researching a new cost-effective document shredding service. Employees who believe they are integral part of the organization are more loyal and will work harder.

Step Four: Show Recognition and Reward

Forget the annual performance review. Annual reviews are stressful and requires both the manager and employee to recall events and details on good and bad job performance events. Instead focus on providing consistent and constructive feedback on a regular basis. Through regular dialogue, your employee knows how he or she is doing, and how he or she needs to do to improve. This will keep your staff member informed and happy. As an added bonus, it alleviates the nerve-wracking end of the year performance raise/bonus evaluation meetings.

Remember, most employees genuinely want to know how they are doing on a day-to-day basis, not just once a year. A little compliment can go a long way. Staff members like to be rewarded when a task is well done. When your secretary comes in early and puts all of his or her effort into completing a given task to the best of their ability, and within the confines of a filing deadline, it is not necessary to throw him or her a party, but a genuine, sincere thank you, and/or perhaps a Starbucks gift card acknowledging his or her efforts, can make a world of difference. Attorneys often fail to acknowledge the time, effort and work it takes to complete such tasks.

Step Five: Be Caring and Compassionate

Good employees quit when they work for an uncaring boss. No one wants to spend every day working hard for someone who is cold and impersonal. This goes beyond a simple ‘how is your day’ before unleashing a series of demands and assignments. Showing genuine concern about your staff’s health and well-being is important.

Today, everyone is trying to find the perfect work-life balance. Allowing or embracing flexible work arrangements shows your employee that you care about his or her family and personal commitments. This is not about providing favors to some and not others, nor is it about working less hours. Rather, simply permitting staff members to come in an hour early, leave an hour early, or take a shorter lunch to attend a child’s sporting event or school function or attend a special social event communicates to your staff that you want them to be able to enjoy family and fun. All work and no play leads to burnout/stress and unhealthy employees. Employees want to be successful within their careers as well as their personal lives.

Non-attorney staff are vital members of a successful law firm. As technology and clients’ demands change the way lawyers practice law, it is important that law firms recognize and invest the proper time and training of its all team members of the firm.

About the Author

Cynthia Thomas is the founder and president of PLMC & Associates, a management consulting firm for small and midsize law firms. She can be reached at 650.450.2856 or cynthiat@plmcassociates.com.

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