Taking the mystery out of the hiring process

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Published on 9/4/06

Technology has conspired with traditional attitudes to make many solo practitioners think they truly can go it alone.

However, if you believe that the only things done right are the things you do yourself, you'll soon be doing many things wrong - in an overwhelmed practice that is either headed into the hands of the state bar disciplinary system or into insolvency.

The successful solo practice truly benefits from an assistant to whom you can delegate work that doesn't require your skill and personal attention. Delegation frees you to do the work that only you can do, and to market your practice to potential new clients.

And as you build your pipeline of work, new clients (with their cash flow) cover what you have to pay for the delegated service.

The benefit of adding help is tempered by the fact that hiring is a difficult challenge. There are many psychological tests to use, but they take a professional psychologist to administer them (a person different from a headhunter, who has a vested interest in the hiring process).

Ultimately, such tests are self-defeating because they imply that there is a "perfect" employee with a 100 percent score, and such persons simply do not exist. What you can and should try to find is the "ideal" employee - one who is competent, highly skilled, congenial and manageable.

The starting point for your search is defining what you need, by asking yourself what you do now that could effectively be delegated, and to whom you could delegate it.

Then list the characteristics of your ideal candidate. If it's a secretary, you should have precise standards for document and file management, technology and software literacy, communication skills and professionalism.

If it's a paralegal, you should define the precise areas to be handled (intakes, pleadings, research, deposition summaries) and the skills required to handle them.

Knowing what your needs are and what it takes to meet them is essential to finding the ideal employee.

The search process has changed with the advent of various online job search and job posting services. Many mid-size and large law firms now post their job opportunities and solicit resumes using their websites.

For solo practitioners, however, the optimum search process should be simpler and more direct, and should encompass these key elements:

  • Network by seeking referrals from colleagues, clients and bar associations;
  • Educate yourself on basic interviewing skills and key concerns of potential hires (such as family leave time or child care provisions);
  • Review your employment ad and your interviewing techniques with colleagues and friends to ensure their effectiveness, particularly if you've never hired someone before;
  • Check out all references, credentials and work history of the candidates you interview.

The hiring decision itself is ultimately a matter of gut feel. If you are honest in the interview about your requirements for integrity, initiative, professionalism and technical skills, the right candidate will emerge.

But don't cast your decision in stone. Give new hires enough rope to hang themselves. You'll know in the first 10 days whether the new hire is the ideal candidate you sought. If not, end the relationship and begin the search again for the right help you need.

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