6 Tips For Hiring Associates In Today's Legal Market

Changes in the legal market dictate that we examine the traditional criteria by which we hire associates. Associates must be able to learn quickly and come in with more relevant skill sets, not just book knowledge and analytical abilities learned in law school. Many law firms now expect associates to develop business almost right out of the gate. Associates must learn the trade rapidly at the same time they are learning the business of law. Even if an associate practices at a firm where the partnership track is long, he or she must start thinking about business development and marketing soon after starting at the firm. In addition, an associate who can act as an advisor to clients and develop relationships quickly will have an advantage over other their colleagues.

Another major development in the legal profession has been the need to incorporate technology into one’s practice, from getting work done more efficiently by using knowledge management tools, to being able to create and maintain an online and social media presence to build a reputation within a certain specialty. Technology invades all areas of legal practice and marketing now. An attorney’s age and generation does not necessarily dictate how adept or comfortable the attorney is with legal tech tools. I have spoken with many millennials who don’t see the connection between technology and law practice. They use the same work methods their partners did some twenty years ago. So with all the changes in the legal profession, have law firms changed what they look for when hiring new associates? Traditionally, law firms focus on hiring the best and brightest. We always want the smartest law student from the best law school that we can attract. I’ve seen law firms ask for law school transcripts as many as fifteen years post-JD. But the standards by which we’ve evaluated potential hires for so many years are outmoded and ineffective in today’s competitive legal market. Some of the smartest attorneys I’ve seen and worked with over the years have been the worst at the things which have become so important – people skills, effective management of caseloads and transactions, the ability to work with others, entrepreneurialism and business development potential. There will always be a place for the smartest among us, but it’s time to face facts. There are aspects of an associate that might matter as much as grades and esoteric intellectual ability over the long term. Hiring an associate who possesses large doses of practical skills in addition to being smart is a better investment for the future.

Some may argue that it’s better to continue to hire the young associate with the best grades from the best school because millennials are unlikely to stay at law firms for very long anyway in today’s legal market. This capitulation to short-sighted views couldn’t be more wrong, and it shouldn’t be what law firms are shooting for. Talent retention is a large issue (which I will save for a different post) entirely, but wouldn’t a firm rather hire an associate with a full set of potential skills than someone who may well be smart but has much less willingness to stay and tough out the first years of practice so that the firm can recoup their investment?


6 Tips For Hiring The Right Associates In Today’s Legal Market

Given the pressure on law firms to get and keep business in this new legal market, law firm hiring should change as well. There are many important qualities a young associate should have, but I’ve outlined some below that make one associate more desirable over another on day one.


  1. Technologically Savvy – Is the associate comfortable with technology and using the most expedient way to get to the correct answer? Despite what some baby boomers and generation Xers think about this new crop of lawyers, not all millennials are comfortable and familiar with technology. People who enter law tend to have certain personality types and characteristics that may make them uncomfortable learning new technologies or more likely to reject certain tools out of hand because they don’t understand it. A surprising number of young associates don’t even have a LinkedIn profile. Associates should be asked in interviews about how they use social media and how they see it tying into their marketing and practice in the future. 


  1. Flexible – Does the associate have the ability to flex and change with the situation and to learn quickly in an ever evolving legal market? Law school teaches us to analyze, meticulously pour over facts and law, and take as long as we need to get to the right answer. Clients have realized that much of the work attorneys do is repeatable and are refusing to pay rates that reflect the fiction that their issue is being analyzed for the first time ever. An associate must be capable of catching on right away, understanding the issue readily and to understand their role in the representation accurately so that no time gets wasted. When the situation changes (as it often does) and the client wants something different, a strong ability to role with those changes is valuable.


  1. Strategic – Not all lawyers are good at strategy. Some associates don’t understand that strategy is a large part of any lawyer’s practice no matter what subject matter or practice area. Clients now expect that they will get more than the lawyer who just answers a narrow question, or worse, does it with a ten-page memo. In fact, they won’t tolerate it. Getting along with a client and understanding the client’s business along with what they want also involves strategy. Client goals, barriers and expectations must be taken into consideration even at the associate level, and the associate who understands that and actually has an interest in learning the client’s business will be better equipped to contribute on more levels.


  1. People skills – I’m most focused here on whether an associate can effectively communicate, is self-aware and is perceptive about others. Many attorneys are in short supply of soft skills, but they are becoming more and more important. The sooner associates can handle client interaction, the more quickly they bring value. Clients will not object to time billed and tasks completed by an associate they view as competent. This means that an associate must be well-spoken and inspire confidence in the client. Effective communication, intuition, an ability to read others (correctly), and a maturity and self-confidence that lacks bravado all help in this endeavor. An associate who can handle him or herself well is a real strength for a law firm. 


  1. Organized – Not every associate is gifted with the ability be organized and to do work efficiently. Attorneys in general are not known for their high level of organization. I know plenty of lawyers who still have trouble managing workloads after many years of practice. In this new legal market, part of an associate’s value should be determined not by how many hours the associate can bill (if you’re still doing it that way), but the amount of work the associate can do efficiently. As firms move more toward alternative fee arrangements and away from hourly billing more emphasis will be placed on the ability to be organized and focused. 


  1. Positive Attitude – Just because someone is young and new does not necessarily mean they have a positive attitude. And yes, lawyers are often not known for their optimistic views. But when you’re hiring a new associate, you want to hire someone with a positive, can-do outlook. Law is a tough profession, the pressure of which has gotten greater with the competitive landscape for legal work. A positive associate is one who understands that the work is difficult yet engaging, and will be solution-oriented in approach. Practicing law is no longer about saying no, and positivity creates an openness to new possibilities, approaches and solutions to more effectively serve clients.


The legal market has changed tremendously over the last decade, and there’s no reason we should expect that the same criteria we used to hire associates twenty years ago would be just as applicable today. Hiring the right associates is vital to law firms and will become even more so in the coming decade as change accelerates. Rather than measuring potential by grades and law school, law firms need to reassess who they hire and the basis for doing so. The cost of not doing so is too high.