By Marcus G. Ollig
For the past 20 years in the legal recruiting business, my firm, the Advocates, has focused on helping our clients land key lateral attorneys and improve retention through several unique processes designed to match candidates’ personalities to the right law firm and corporate cultures for them.
For us, the matching of people and culture is the point.
A client recently asked me why our firm is so focused on candidates’ feelings. The answer is because understanding people’s feelings—their “why” around work issues—matters in trying to improve employee satisfaction, engagement and retention. It is a core issue of viewing people as human beings first, and it starts during the interview process, where we help candidates sort through their best options.
Focusing on people in this way can be particularly difficult for our law firm clients, as their product is people’s time and expertise as measured in billable hours.
Low satisfaction and high attrition
These issues affect the entire workforce across all industries: Recent media coverage around “quiet quitting” (which I define as people still in their jobs but who are unengaged) and the record rate of law firm attrition are related issues that affect the entire workforce across all industries. Law firms and corporations, including the Advocates, have struggled with what to do. Over the past year, many of us have added pay, benefits and flextime work schedules with hopes of improving our employees’ quality of life.
However, it is not just the seemingly never-ending cascade of real-world stressors (e.g., war, pandemic, inflation and civil unrest) or what was previously seen as work-related issues (lack of equitable pay, flexibility or benefits) that are behind much of employees’ dissatisfaction and resulting turnover.
Instead, when talking to lawyers about their careers, we often hear stories that point to the same culprit: Employees don’t feel valued as people. An associate responding to ALM’s Midlevel Associate Survey said, “The messaging me and my fellow associates receive is that the partners don’t particularly like us.” Another quote from the same survey echoed a common sentiment: “Everyone is scared to take a moment to be a person at work, because you are being judged for that moment.”
Many times, lawyers—especially associates—feel like nothing more than cogs to produce legal work in an industrialized legal work production scheme rather than feeling like a professional or a full person. The recent layoffs at a few major Am Law 50 firms got a lot of press and echo the point. Six months ago, these firms were paying six-figure signing bonuses; now, at the first signs of a work slowdown, they are actively laying off those associates. It’s hard to feel like more than a number.
When people’s traits match work culture, they thrive and stay longer. But it turns out that there is more to it.
What are employees looking for?
According to a study cited in the Harvard Business Review of over 50,000 employees from a randomized sample of professions around the world, the top indicators of work engagement and satisfaction were not pay, work location, liking one’s colleagues or even a strong belief in the organization’s mission. While these were important, three things mattered more:
1. A feeling of excitement to go to work. (This includes but is not limited to feeling like a cultural fit, liking your colleagues, respecting your supervisor and having a good relationship with both.
2. Do I have a chance to use my strengths every day?
3. Getting to do at least some work that I truly love doing and am good at (at least 20% of my
The study showed that not only are employees who experience the above more productive, but they also stay longer.
Sadly, many of us in the position of hiring don’t focus on the human part of the equation in the interview process. When we do focus on personal things, it is about hobbies or family or other small talk.
So what is the basis for hiring decisions?
Perhaps more of our hiring decisions should be based on culture, including inquiring about what work our candidates are good at and feel good about, the parts of their jobs they get excited about and that use their key strengths (not always skills like organizing and communication, but rather traits-based strengths like empathy or drive). Perhaps the hiring decision should be based on more than a formulaic list of skills and our gut feeling about them as a person.
Our firm has developed and uses an interview process to help us assist our candidates as they identify answers to the above and develop the ideal job culture profile based on their traits. We focus on our candidates’ goals and their core personality traits to identify key indicators of what should make them happy in our clients’ environments. We have gleaned the traits of our clients’ most successful and long-term contributors through client-side interviews.
Employers can also use behavior-based interviewing, focusing on candidate personality traits and/or various personality testing to ensure better hiring results. Any hiring manager speaking with candidates needs to listen for when, where and why candidates were most fulfilled and happiest in their work lives, what skills they enjoy, how and when they learned best and what made them feel valued.
Does the position you’re interviewing for offer significant opportunities for your prospective candidates to learn, to be excited about what they do and to use their best skills? Doing that, in addition to understanding how their personality traits will fit into the target work environment and culture will help your candidates and your company thrive in these difficult times.
Here are 10 questions to help humanize your candidate interviews (most of these are behavioral questions):
1. What are your goals?
2. Why are those your goals, and what makes them important to you?
3. How do your professional goals impact your personal goals?
4. What do you look for or need from your employer to help you achieve these goals?
5. What work-related accomplishment are you most proud of? Why? What made you proud?
6. When was a time you were truly happy or satisfied at work? What was it about the work or the environment that caused that feeling?
7. What is the most important or exciting thing you have learned in the past year?
8. What do you like about your current role and current work environment? How does that impact you?
9. What are you looking to improve in your current situation?
10. What do you want to learn, and where in your legal practice do you wish to grow your skill set?
The above questions are starting points; the key is to be curious about the why behind the answer and ask follow-ups to clarify. This demonstrates that you care and helps both parties assess true long-term fit.
As an employer, if you understand the answers to the above early on and they match what you offer, you will land more prospective lateral attorneys and employees who will also want to stay longer.
Marcus G. Ollig is the president and founder of the Advocates and Targeted Legal Staffing Solutions. Founded in 2002, the Advocates, a premier legal search firm, assists law firms and corporations with their most strategic searches. Ollig works with law firm leaders on key lateral partner and group placements and strategic firm mergers. He regularly consults with law firms in the areas of talent acquisition and retention. The Advocates and TLSS utilize processes that dramatically increase recruiting success.
Mind Your Business is a series of columns written by lawyers, legal professionals and others within the legal industry. The purpose of these columns is to offer practical guidance for attorneys on how to run their practices, provide information about the latest trends in legal technology and how it can help lawyers work more efficiently and strategies for building a thriving business.
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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.