HOW TO HIRE YOUR FIRST EMPLOYEE
Your solo practice is flourishing, but your clients are starting to get a bit cranky. The call back time to clients is growing. Your paperwork threatens to topple over and crush you. For some time you have been juggling lots of oranges and spinning a dinner plate on your nose while riding a tiny bicycle in a figure eight. Now someone has thrown the flaming torches for you to add to the juggling act. It’s time to hire your first employee.
Your first stop is the analyst’s couch. Know yourself. Are you a certifiable control freak? Or are you able to delegate tasks and let someone else exercise their own judgment? Hire someone whose personality and work style is complimentary to your own. If you are “Type A”, find someone with patience; if you’re more laid back, hire a nit-picker with the vigilance to keep you on track. If you are needy, find a caregiver. If you are aloof, find someone who can work independently.
One employee will not be able to satisfy all of your employment requirements so you will have to prioritize your needs. Your first hire will need to be flexible. Either an administrative assistant with the ability to learn sophisticated paralegal tasks and whom you can trust with clients, or an associate willing to answer the phone and fetch copies and coffee when you are with clients.
In any event, the qualities and skills you are interested in include the following:
Administrative skills: typing, knowledge of various software packages, telephone personality, computer repair and other “information technology skills”, organizational skills, knowledge of office procedures.
General skills: the willingness and ability to learn new things, problem solving abilities, persuasiveness, tenacity, loyalty, “people skills” including communication skills, maturity, enthusiasm, judgment, autonomy, focus, and professionalism.
Legal Skills: knowledge of legal procedures in your specialty.
Look for the potential in your candidate to learn skills she doesn’t yet have. For example, an employee who knows only the basics in computers but loves to learn could become your pc guru with some encouragement and a few bucks for training courses.
Typically, the first hire is a receptionist/paralegal. Paralegal schools are excellent sources of new hires. You will find graduates who are bright, enthusiastic and willing to learn, but inexperienced. As a trade-off for the low starting salary, you will have to invest significant time in training. And you will have to weed out the candidates carefully. Because you are offering an entry-level position, you will get many responses but only a few people that will be suited to your firm. One posting at a paralegal school will result in 2 score resumes on your desk, of which about 10% will be of interest. Be patient and thorough.
A new and inexperienced hire may accept an offer without a good benefits package. This isn’t unusual for an entry-level position. Even though there is no legal requirement to provide employment benefits, the market place eventually requires that you give back to your employees or they will move on to greener pastures. The ideal benefit package includes vacation time, sick time, personal days, a medical flex plan, health insurance, 401k plan, education benefits, and transit checks.
Determine what you can afford in a benefit package before you start interviewing candidates. If you cannot afford benefits such as health insurance and a 401k plan, more generosity in vacation time and flexible work hours will compensate and keep your candidate pool stocked. The small business standard accounting programs will keep track of vacation and sick time. Additionally, require your employee to submit timesheets recording sick time and vacation time. This will prevent any confusion about accrued time off.
Put your employment policies in writing and give a copy to your newly hired employee. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Buy the ABA publication Law Office Procedures Manual for Solos and Small Firms
Set up several interviews for the position. Don’t start with your best candidates, because you will need to hone your interviewing skills and get used to rejecting candidates. Indeed, be prepared to reject all candidates if none meets your needs.
If the employee will be in contact with clients, court personnel, colleagues in the profession, consider how the potential employee will represent your firm. Does she communicate clearly? Make eye contact? Dress neatly? Carry herself with confidence?
Find ways to test your candidates for the skills that you need. Give a typing test if appropriate. Simulate a conversation with an insurance adjuster if you expect the hire to engage in telephone negotiations. If the employee will need to be able to deal with challenging clients, simulate a difficult client interaction and have the candidate react in role. Show the candidate how in your case management program works and then ask her to perform a task using the skills you just demonstrated. This will give you a valuable opportunity to evaluate the candidate’s ability to learn new skills as well as gauge her comfort with the computer.
If you plan to hire a “receptionist/paralegal” and want her to go to court, meet clients out of the office and do other legwork, make sure your potential candidates know this is part of the job. Many office workers do not expect to be running around and will not want to do such work. Even if a candidate indicates that she is prepared for such work, size her up for yourself on this issue. Sturdy shoes help.
Correlate the job requirements with the skills and personality of the candidate. If the job involves mostly filing and typing, with little autonomous or creative thought, then a quick thinking go-getter will become bored and unhappy. If you really need someone to keep you organized, discuss this in detail with the candidate and assure yourself that, even if she is inexperienced, she has an innate need to be organized.
To this end, conduct at least two interviews with a candidate before you hire. During the second interview, provide the candidate with enough information to make an informed decision about the position. It is of no benefit to you to hire a skilled person who does not want to do the job you need, and then quits, leaving you to start all over again.
In describing the position, be very clear. Describe your work style and expectations in detail. Do you expect the employee to organize the office? Organize you? Will you closely supervise the employee? Do you want the employee to exercise independent judgment? Is the job mostly typing? Does the job involve a lot of running around outside of the office? How much overtime is expected? How much notice will be giving when overtime is required? Ask the candidate to respond to the job description and to explain in what ways the candidate thinks she is a good match for the job.
Carefully gage the candidate's response to your questions. Even if the candidate needs a job, and thinks she is telling you what you want to hear, you will be surprised how much you will learn by listening carefully. Whether or not they want to, candidates end up telling you who they are during an interview, if you are thorough, focused and prepared.
Of course, it is important that you like the person you hire. In a small firm, you may spend more time with your staff than you do with your family. Under close quarters, a grating personality will likely make you miserable and reduce your productivity.
Ask for three references and for your final candidates, call each reference. Find out from the reference how she knows the candidate. Ask the reference about the areas that are important to you. Ask each reference the same questions and take notes during each conversation, comparing results for consistency. Keep in mind that these are people that the candidate expects to give them a good review. “Take it with a grain of salt” and trust your impressions. Double check references whenever possible. For example, if a candidate provides a previous employer as a reference, contact the human resources department at that reference. You may be able to verify the candidates role and responsibilities and if she was considered an employee in good standing.
Hiring is difficult and anxiety producing, but remember, the more work someone else does, and the less you do, the more money you make by extracting the surplus value of your employee’s labor (See Capitalism Works on a Small Scale, NYLJ October 12, 2001). Adam Smith and Karl Marx understood this. You own a business, act like a businessperson.
With forethought, patience, and focus, the time invested in the hiring process will pay off. Now tell your new hire to schedule your long delayed vacation to the juggler’s convention in Baja.