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How Do You Pick the Right Associate?

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AssociatesI got an interesting e-mail from a lawyer the other day complaining about hiring associates. He’s been at it for years, and the following pattern has repeated itself over and over:

He hires an associate. He trains the associate. The associate leaves and starts a new practice across the street. Now he has a new competitor.

This lawyer has concluded that neither he, nor anyone he has talked to about the problem, has made any real money from hiring associates over the years.

He notes that when the associates leave, they usually take all of the practice forms and systems he has developed along with some clients. He also observes that, after they’re gone, the associates start doing all of the practice-building activities he tried to get them to do while they were working for him.

He is frustrated and asked me to answer four questions:

First, how do you pick the right associate?

Second, how do you compensate the right associate?

Third, how do you motivate the right associate to work and build a practice within your office?

Fourth, how do you keep a good associate?

Let’s start with picking the right associate: they say hire slow, fire fast. I think that’s good advice. They also say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. These two ideas (hire slow and avoid insanity) form the foundation of my hiring approach. Insanity? Yes, for many years, I did all of the hiring. Result? Mostly disaster: I got it right maybe ten percent of the time. I tended to hire people like me. Those people, of course, don’t want to work for people like me (I wouldn’t last a week with me).

How did I break the pattern of hiring badly? I tried everything. I read books, watched videos, and went to lectures. Nothing worked. That’s why I gave up. I don’t do the hiring anymore. We have an attorney who handles the entire process, and I never even meet the applicants.

How’s it working? Much better than when I was doing it (it really couldn’t be worse than it was, since I failed most of the time). We’ve had three different managing attorneys over about 12 years, and they’ve all done a better job of hiring than I did. Why? I’m not sure. At some level, I think the kind of people who work for someone else are better at relating to the kind of people who will be good at working for someone else. Maybe that’s the secret?

What about hiring slow? I think that has helped. We are always interviewing (even when we don’t need anyone). We never feel a great deal of pressure to hire quickly because the pipeline is usually full. We’re keeping our eyes open and asking people over to meet with us. Once we find someone good, we pass that person around and get input from others in the firm. We’re not in a hurry, and we’ve got time to reflect on each applicant. We also get a sense, over a longer period, of the applicant’s true character. Applicants have a hard time sustaining a false act over a period of months. The truth usually comes out.

When we take our time interviewing, we end up covering different subjects in different interviews. One interviewer might focus on prior jobs, another might discuss courtroom experience, and another might get a sense of the applicant as a marketer. When we compare notes, we get a multidimensional sense of the applicant. We’ve also found that, by taking our time, things discussed in the interview start to make more sense as time passes and we’ve had a chance to let our thoughts settle. By not being in a hurry, we also give ourselves a chance to gather data from other sources that might not have occurred to us initially.

All in all, getting me out of the process and dramatically slowing down the process have resulted in a constantly improving group of lawyers.

Next up: how do you compensate an associate? Patience, my dear reader: we’ll get to that tomorrow. See you then.

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