The talent search, redefined and prioritized

Invariably, the best place to look for innovative perspectives and good ideas on legal management is outside the legal sphere altogether. Here are a couple of thought-provoking blog entries that apply to the recruitment of lawyers. Penelope Trunk says the era of the job listing is ending and identifies five new ways to find great candidates, while Seth Godin thinks “Human Resources” is an archaic term for a compromised department and recommends rebranding HR as your Talent Division.

I like all of Penelope’s suggestions, but especially this one: tell people where they’ll go next. Advertise all the successful high-profile gigs to which previous occupants of the available position have moved. I’m going to try exactly that as we look to fill a Managing Editor position with National here in Ottawa. I’ve had two very talented professionals work with me as Senior Editor of the magazine: Gaëtane is now a Committee Clerk with the Senate of Canada, while Mélanie is a judge with the Immigration & Refugee Board. You could be next!

What Penelope and Seth are really talking about is rethinking your entire strategy for securing talent, both because the old methods aren’t working very well and because the consequences of missing out on the best talent from now on could be fatal:

–> If you’re hiring new law graduates, I’d love to hear your advanced, rational talent assessment model, but I don’t think you have one. There are a very few notable exceptions, but many firms hire new lawyers on the basis of second-year grades and less than an hour of actual face time. No firm can reliably pick winners with this approach.

–> If you’re still placing job ads for associates in the local legal periodicals, either directly or through a recruiting firm, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get any satisfactory candidates — in fact, some firms that go this route wind up with no candidates to interview at all. Young lawyers today look to their networks first, the job pages much later.

–> And if you’re simply hiring a big-name partner with a book of business away from a competitor, well … they don’t talk about it much, but a lot of firms that go this route find that the revenues the partner brings in do not outweigh the partner’s purchase price, including importing the partner’s favourite associates and secretary (Bruce MacEwen has the authoritative word on superstar recruitment).

In addition to what’s in the linked articles, here are a few other thoughts to consider about successfully recruiting legal talent in 2008 and beyond.

1. Use alumni networks. A lot of firms talk big about “keeping in touch” with lawyers who’ve moved on, but few really do much with it. Nobody knows your operation better than your former employees, and if you treated them well, nobody can sell you better, because people trust recommendations (and warnings) from friends above all else. Start thinking of every lawyer who leaves your firm as an ex officio member of your Recruitment Committee, and stay in touch with them accordingly. Like it or not, they are part of your recruitment effort, for good or ill. You might as well make it for good.

2. Sort for leadership. What are you really looking for in a new recruit? Smarts? All lawyers are brainy. Fit? Unless you’re administering detailed psychological tests, you have no idea how a person will really integrate into your culture. A book of business? See above — and don’t assume clients are permanently attached to a given lawyer. You need to be looking for exceptional traits that are in short supply and will raise the performance of your entire team. For my money, that means placing a premium on leadership skills, and looking for their indicia in both the business CV and the off-résumé life this lawyer is leading.

3. It’s not about you. The same weaknesses that plague law firm marketing — e.g., every firm is “dedicated to excellent client service,” “a leader in our field,” etc. — also mar recruitment efforts. Firms sell themselves to recruits in terms of their work, their clients, their top lawyers. The recruits hear the same things from all the other firms, and they know better than anyone how almost all firms are indistinguishable. So sell them on what’s in it for them: the skills they’ll learn, the contacts they’ll make and the mentoring they’ll receive. (If your associates don’t get any of these things, you have bigger problems than recruitment.)

4. Devote more resources to talent. Whatever you’re dedicating to the talent search, it’s not enough. Across the board, you need more key people working on it, more money channeled to financing the search process and paying the best candidates, and a higher priority on the partnership meeting agenda. I’m neither the first nor the last to say this, but it still bears repeating: if your workplace doesn’t attract tremendous people and inspire them to come to work every day, you’re heading for trouble. Talent is all you’ve got. Understand what makes and motivates great lawyers, and transform your office culture into their natural habitat.

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