Law Firm Hiring Practices: Factoring In “Cultural Fit” For Job Candidates

In the past, attorneys joined a law firm and expected to work life-long. First as an associate, then senior attorney, and finally—one can only hope—an equity partner.

But, today’s workforce has become increasingly mobile, and law firms are looking to hire any skilled, experienced employee who will increase productivity (and thus profitability) quickly—regardless of tenure.

From big law to boutique law, associates, paralegals, and assistants transfer firm to firm, without becoming career-track employees. However, these fluid workers can frequently bring baggage from prior employment that negates the benefits of their extensive experience, according to Wharton research (via Knowledge@Wharton).

Law firm adminstrators should take note of Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard’s co-authored paper titled Unpacking Prior Experience: How Career History Affects Job Performance. Rothbard wrote the paper with Gina Dokko of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Steffanie L. Wilk of Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business (via Knowledge@Wharton).

In the paper, Rothbard describes employment “baggage” as “a set of norms and experiences that shape the workers’ response to their jobs as much as, if not more than, the industry and occupation-related skills and knowledge they bring to their work.”

In the legal industry, associates who start off with years of tortuous doc review in biglaw firms may not have the transferable skills or cultural mindset necessary to work at a one-man firm.

Biglaw associates, beat down by the grunt work given first-years and the oppressive chain of command of larger corporate law offices, will bring this prior hazing, hierarchical culture with them to future law jobs.

Wharton research demonstrates that this “cultural fit” plays a key role in the success of a new hire.

“A senior human resource manager told the [Wharton] research team, ‘We tried to hire from our competitors and paid a premium for the experience—but those hires were the least successful.’

Another manager quoted in the paper said: ‘People are weighed down by the baggage they bring in'”

So, how do you find “culturally fit” candidates?

First, during the hiring process, be sure to ask about the corporate culture of a candidate’s previous firm. Ask questions about the reporting chain, office dress code and morale, as well as workplace stress levels.

Ensure that potential, future employees are clear about the differences between your firm and their previous one.

Second, don’t rely on experience as a substitute for training.

“Maybe [firms] pay more for those people and invest less in training, but we suggest that might be a mistake. You really need to think carefully about your training and socialization to mitigate the negative effects of the trouble people have transferring the way they think about how the job is done,” Rothbard explains.

According to Rothbard, companies should consider instituting a mentoring program to help employees from similar firms readjust to the culture and mores of their new firm.

“I know it seems odd that if you hire someone with experience to then say, ‘Here’s your mentor,’” Rothbard admits. “But maybe they need a mentor for the values of the company, not so much the skills needed for the job.”

Finally, beware of the old dog who can’t learn new tricks. Don’t hire an attorney or other employee who is resistant to the idea of re-training.

“If you have a strong culture and a clear strategy in doing things that differ from your competitor, you may want to think carefully about whether you want to hire for experience or whether you want to hire people with less experience and invest more in training them in your model,” Rothbard concludes.

“If your competitive advantage is the culture of your company, you want to be careful about bringing in people with a long tenure in their occupation or industry and think about how that prior experience is going to bring positives as well as negatives to the firm.”

So, next time you shuffle through applications, don’t toss out the resume of that young, albeit unemployed law firm graduate. Sometimes a candidate without baggage will become the more productive one for your firm.



For more information about law firm hiring, attend C4CM’s course, “Associate Compensation Models and Trends for 2011 and Beyond.” This comprehensive audio conference examines associate compensation trends and alternatives being considered and used in law firms today, including:

•           What is working and what’s not

•           The pros, cons and long term effects of tiered programs

•           How firms can best identify partner potential within tiered/tracks

•           Pros, cons and realities of merit-based compensation programs

•           Partnering with law schools to produce new talent at the entry level

•           How some of the most publicized new compensation plans are working

•           How firms are managing to do more with fewer associates

•           Incentivizing efficiency and cost effectiveness; incentivizing innovation

•           How your partners may be setting up merit-based programs for failure (non-billable hours required for reviews)


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