Hiring and Supervising New Lawyers
By Maryse C. Allen
The adage “hire slow, fire fast” seems like sound practice. Yet I have never had either the luxury of time to do the first or the ruthlessness to do the last. When I have needed to hire a new lawyer, I typically needed to fill a position with speed. And, when a new lawyer did not appear to be thriving at our firm, I have redoubled my efforts to mentor that associate. My rejection of this management wisdom may be reason to stop reading, but for those of you who likewise have soft hearts and a skepticism of conventional wisdom, here are a few thoughts on hiring and supervising new associates.
I have practiced family law for almost nineteen years and began hiring associates thirteen years ago. Some interviewed as a result of an ad our firm posted, others came to our firm through their law school’s career development office, and others were attorneys we knew or who were referred by our professional contacts. Normally two or more partners interview a job applicant. Often, we schedule a second interview over lunch with someone we are seriously considering hiring. I look not only for a strong record of academic achievement but also whether the candidate has ambition to achieve in their career. Of course, there are many other attributes and personality traits that come into play when deciding to hire someone, but those two are critical. Although the interview process provides a significant amount of information, until you begin working with a new attorney you will not really know whether you have made the right choice. In the end, however, few new hires are a mistake if you take the time to supervise them properly.
All of the attorneys I have had the fortune to hire have been intelligent and hardworking, yet each has needed very different types and levels of mentorship. There is no formula, paradigm or program to follow that will work with all new lawyers, but I have found the following guidelines to be helpful.
Start with a Shadowing Phase. Allow a new attorney the opportunity to shadow you or another attorney for a time. Let them sit in on initial consultations, client meetings, depositions, hearings, and trials. By observing an experienced attorney in action, the new associate will pick up practical tools to use when they are in similar situations.
- Embrace on the Job Training. Start a new attorney off with the simpler cases first. Let them build up confidence by handling a few uncontested divorces, negotiating and drafting simple property settlement agreements, and conducting a client meeting of limited scope. Gradually introduce more complex assignments to them while giving them the time and permission to educate themselves on new topics. For example, before asking them to draft an agreement dividing a service member’s military retirement, have them review a treatise on military divorces in general, assign them the task of calculating the coverture fraction in one of your cases, and have them research the availability of medical benefits under Tricare to a particular spouse. At some point your new associate will have to take on a task that will make them feel like they are making a quantum leap into the deep end of the pool (mixed metaphor intended). It is unavoidable. It is a good thing. And it will make them grow more than they could have imagined.
- Meet Regularly to Discuss Assignments. Establish a set a time to discuss a new attorney’s assignments with him or her weekly. You may not always be able to make that standing meeting on the set day and time, but having it on the calendar makes it more likely that you will touch base every few days to monitor the attorney’s progress.
- Review the Attorney’s Work Product. It will take time that you might want to devote to your own work, but force yourself to review everything that goes out of the office generated by a new attorney. Do this until that attorney has shown that their work is consistently excellent.
- Start their Marketing Education Right Away. Becoming successful in private practice involves more than legal skill. New associates need to understand the importance of rainmaking to their careers. Bring them along to your events, encourage them to pursue their own contacts, help them to identify how they—even as young attorneys—can begin to bring business into the firm.
- Empower them to take Responsibility for their Professional Development. Encourage them to participate in the legal profession by being active in a local or specialty bar association. Even though they are a new attorney, they have much to offer and can contribute to our community. They can also exercise leadership roles through the VSB Young Lawyers Conference or their county bar’s Young Lawyers group. Give them an opportunity to earn bonus income for bringing in business. Allow them to explore training that could expand the services your firm currently offers. Talk to them about looking for continuing education courses that will help them in an upcoming case or in their practice in general.
- Suggest (or require) them to do some pro bono work. Allow them to gain experience and to help someone by taking on a pro bono case. This will not only provide a service to someone in need, it will develop that associate’s awareness of the duty we have under Rule 6.1 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct to render at least two percent of our professional time annually to pro bono public legal services, or to fulfill that responsibility by direct financial support of programs delivering such services.
Most help-wanted ads for a family law associate will say the firm is looking for someone with two to four years of experience as a domestic relations practitioner. This is probably because that unicorn of a candidate would have enough experience to immediately handle cases with minimal supervision and also be profitable at the outset. If you can find one of these young self-sufficient attorneys, that may be the way to go. But of the many rewards in this profession, the satisfaction of mentoring a new attorney and participating in their growth has to be one of the best.