Level up: 6 tips for hiring and retention | The American Association For Justice Archive

Level up: 6 tips for hiring and retention

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March 2020 - Kristen Law Sagafi


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Hiring the right people is critical for any law firm. Here are some tips to move you in the right direction—and to help keep great employees once you have them.

One of the universal challenges of running a law firm is figuring out how to attract and retain excellent lawyers. Whether you’re in a big urban market or a small town, the best way to recruit and retain top talent is to make your office the type of place where outstanding, motivated people can thrive. Simple enough, right? But making that goal a reality can be difficult. Here are a few lessons I learned during my years as the hiring partner at a nationwide class action firm with more than 50 lawyers and throughout my tenure as the managing partner of a satellite office for a boutique firm.

Own Your Brand

Whether we like it or not, recruiting starts long before we meet the candidate. Law firms, like people, have personalities and reputations. One firm might be viewed as especially brainy, another as especially creative. One might be known for its victories at trial, another revered for its creative settlements. One firm might be seen as aggressive and demanding, another might have a reputation for work-life balance.

None of these traits is necessarily better or worse than the others, and most firms have a mix of these characteristics. Whatever makes your firm unique can help draw in extraordinary candidates—if you know how to harness those characteristics.

Regardless of how you might describe your firm’s personality, law students and other candidates probably have formulated some opinions about your firm based on whatever information is ­available to them before they ever step foot in your office. Be sure that your website and any outward-facing communications—such as your social media strategy—reflect your firm and its values accurately. For example, if work-life balance is a key component of your firm’s brand, consider highlighting extracurricular activities or hobbies in your lawyers’ bios online.

If you fear there’s a disconnect between your firm’s reputation and the reality of life within the firm, address it in the recruiting process. For example, if your firm has had negative media coverage, it’s worth asking candidates whether they have questions about how the firm was portrayed in the press and then take the opportunity to provide a more fulsome explanation of the circumstances. One key to making great hires is ensuring candidates know what they’re signing up for.

Strive for Transparency

In addition to building an accurate brand identity for your firm, it’s important to be clear with candidates about the work they will be doing if they join the team. Many candidates come into the interview process with unrealistic hopes about what their job will entail. While it’s hard to burst their bubbles, there’s no point in allowing them to think they’ll spend all of their time in a particular practice area when that won’t be the case.

Similarly, provide plenty of opportunity for a candidate to speak privately with associates about the realities of life at the firm. Deputize your associates to gather critical information about what the candidate truly wants and needs from the job. For example: Is the candidate invested in the type of work you do? Is that person  independent or collaborative in the way your practice requires? Does he or she have experience that is particularly relevant to the work?

And perhaps most important: Is this candidate someone you want on your team? Because sometimes the person who looks best on paper isn’t the right fit, and sometimes the underdog is the only one with the grit and determination that a particular position requires.

Maintain a Healthy Culture

While each firm should embrace its uniqueness, firms also should be uniform in their commitment to fairness and inclusion. It’s critical for firms to be scrupulous in their efforts to maintain a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment, as well as milder forms of bullying and microaggression (such as excluding parents with small children from ­after-work gatherings or confusing the names of two employees who have the same or similar racial identity).

Also be mindful that cultural norms shift over time. A quip or comment that may have passed for office humor 25 years ago might be offensive to a new generation of legal talent. Consider hosting an internal CLE session to learn about unconscious bias. And as a recruiter, check yourself for bias as you evaluate candidates. If you find yourself drawn to the same type of candidate over and over—especially if that type is a lot like you—it’s possible that unconscious bias is affecting your decision-making. Of course, learning about unconscious bias doesn’t make it go away, but increased awareness helps limit its effects.1

Your firm also might consider blind screening: Someone uninvolved in recruiting decisions redacts name, gender, and other identifying information from candidates’ cover letters and resumes. Doing this can help curb the effects of unconscious bias. If you want to take it a step further, set specific diversity goals, such as recruiting two minority students into each summer associate class or bringing the number of women in the partnership to 50% within five years. Let candidates know that your firm is committed to attracting and retaining a more diverse team of attorneys.

Beyond recruiting, the best firms walk the talk of their antidiscrimination policies. If someone violates the policy, the best practice is to take the difficult action of holding the wrongdoer accountable. Doing so sends a message to colleagues that they are valued and that the firm will enforce the antidiscrimination policy, even if the wrongdoer enjoys a position of power within the firm. Of course, there’s also a strong business reason to curtail inappropriate behavior, as it can expose the firm to lawsuits, sanctions, and lasting public embarrassment if left unchecked.

Develop Good Management Protocols

Once a new attorney joins the firm, the focus shifts from hiring to retention. This is where good management is essential. No one teaches law students to be managers, and most practitioners lack any specific management skills or training. Yet, the first day on the job, young associates often are expected to manage paralegals and administrative staff, many of whom have far more experience than the new lawyer. This dynamic can lead to inefficiency and discomfort for the whole team. But a few simple practices can help.

I strongly recommend that firms invest in management training for lawyers at all levels. This can be as simple as a daylong seminar on best practices for managing workflow and staying ahead of deadlines. But many lawyers with management responsibility enjoy and benefit from a deeper dive into the psychology of team dynamics. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs personality assessment or the Enneagram can provide valuable insight into how individual team members approach their ­assignments, where each person’s strengths lie, and where there are opportunities for growth.2 Regardless of what tools you decide to use, knowledge is power, and any effort to improve management will improve efficiency, productivity, and job satisfaction.

In my experience, managing junior colleagues is a lot like coaching a team. For the most part, clear rules, well-defined expectations, interesting work, appropriate delegation of responsibility, and time to blow off steam are the critical elements for success and ­sustainability. Bonus points go to those rare and excellent managers who can identify their players’ strengths and weaknesses and then use what they know about their players to leverage strengths and provide additional training opportunities to shore up weak spots.

Provide Meaningful, Timely Feedback

One of the counterintuitive things about retention is the value of constructive feedback, including criticism. But just like everything in the law, the procedure matters as much as the substance. Every law student or new lawyer I’ve ever met was ravenously hungry for feedback that would help them improve. As a rule, it’s best to provide feedback in real time, as soon as a project is over. An employee never should be surprised by negative feedback in an annual review. You owe it to your team members to give them the tough feedback and a chance to learn and improve. Tell your employees in a calm, straightforward way exactly where they fell short, especially if you can provide specific guidance about how to improve.

Something unexpected that I have observed about lawyers over the last 20 years is that as much as we may enjoy the fight against our opponents, many of us will go to great lengths to avoid direct conflict, especially with our colleagues. To be good managers, we need to overcome the instinct to protect our employees’ feelings. Calmly sharing honest feedback at the right time is always the best way to go. Your employees will thank you for it, and they will pay you back for your candor in loyalty and improved skill, especially if you abide by one cardinal rule: private criticism; public praise.

Invite Upward Reviews and Offer Incentives

Firms that feel strongly about creating and maintaining a culture of good management might consider providing financial incentives designed to reward good managers. Firms can implement a mentorship program, and partners can track the time they spend on mentorship, providing feedback, coaching, and associate development. The firm could then count the mentorship hours toward the partners’ billable minimum or even create a special bonus pool for partners who meet a specific mentorship goal, such as 50 hours of one-on-one coaching.

Another way to measure the quality of management is to invite upward or 360-degree reviews, allowing junior lawyers and staff to provide anonymous feedback about their supervising attorneys. These reviews can be daunting for the managers and junior team members alike, but the process, if conducted and received in good faith by everyone, provides information that might remain undisclosed otherwise.

I have seen firms embrace annual upward reviews by making them part of the regular review cycle. While managers are completing evaluation surveys for their direct reports, junior attorneys and staff complete evaluation surveys for their managers. ­Feedback is collected electronically, then compiled and randomized into a report for each employee. After the employee has a chance to review the evaluation report privately, the managing partner or human resources director meets with the employee to answer any questions and create a plan to address any areas for growth in the year ahead.

Regardless of which incentives and review processes firms put in place, you will learn important information about your team that you may have missed otherwise. After all, wouldn’t it be useful to know which partners are providing timely feedback and helping their associates grow? Wouldn’t it be better to see an associate’s discontent in black and white before she leaves rather than speculate about the reasons for her departure after she’s gone? In the end, managers are a lot like the colleagues they manage: We all want constructive feedback and the chance to improve.

As you embark on the search for that perfect candidate, strive to foster trust by insisting on fairness, inviting honesty, and treating all recruits and employees with respect. By doing so, your firm will attract the top talent and inspire them to devote their best efforts to your cause for years to come.

Kristen Law Sagafi was the hiring partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco and launched the West Coast office of Tycko & Zavareei in Oakland, Calif., in 2016. She teaches at University of California, Berkeley School of Law and can be reached at klaw74@gmail.com.


  1. For more on overcoming unconscious bias, see Wendell Y. Tong, Looking Within for Implicit Bias, Trial 28 (June 2017).
  2. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram are designed to assess personality, work style, and personal strengths. For more information, visit www.myersbriggs.org and www.enneagraminstitute.com.