Ten steps to finding the perfect legal assistant by Spencer Aronfeld
June 10, 2007
Some people say choosing to spend the rest of your life with another person is one of the most significant decisions you ever make. I do not disagree, but picking the right legal assistant, also a major decision, sometimes seems far more difficult. In 15 years of practicing law, I have had dozens of assistants. I have hired from temporary agencies and head hunters, and I’ve stolen assistants from opposing counsel and friends. I have employed people I met as tennis instructors, waiters, nurses, clients, coffee baristas, and even a professional dancer. I have tried it all. Most people I have hired lasted three to six months in the job. Then, they either quit or I finally summoned the courage to let them go.
I realize this is not a record to be proud of. I often hired too fast because I was so busy that I did not want to spend time looking—I just wanted to get back to work. Other times, I had an office manager or secretary do the initial screening and select three or four candidates. By delegating, I relied on their hiring skills instead of mine. Still other times, I just chose wrong. My instincts let me down, as when I’ve picked the wrong juror in a trial or, worse, ignored the inner voice whispering that I was making a mistake.
Once I hired an assistant who dressed inappropriately for her interview. Her clothes were not too casual or revealing, but they were just plain weird—almost like a Halloween costume. I ignored that warning sign, thinking it didn’t matter what she wore as long as she could do the work. In truth, the clothing was quite telling:
She was strange. I was embarrassed to introduce her to clients and opposing counsel, and I couldn’t take her to court with me. This mistake cost me time, money, and stress that could easily have been avoided if I had listened to the one who knows me best: me.
Thankfully, I now have several employees who have been with me for a couple of years and one for almost four years. Here are some lessons I’ve learned— the hard way—about making better hiring decisions. I hope they will spare you the pain, embarrassment, and expense of high staff turnover.
Step 1: Visualize the person you want
This is tough. It takes time and some peace and quiet. Go somewhere you can think for an hour or so without interruption. Write down what your ideal assistant would be like. What job experience, work ethic, smoking habits, and other characteristics should he or she have? Will your assistant need special skills— for example, an ability to speak another language or operate particular software programs? How close to the office should he or she ideally live? Be as specific as possible. No detail is irrelevant, even if it might be considered politically incorrect. This list is for your own private use.
Once you have a list, identify the five characteristics that are most important to you. This will be your starting point.
Step 2: Know yourself
Now comes the hard part. Write down how you see yourself as an employer. Are you detail-oriented, a workaholic, laid- back, sarcastic, demanding, ungrateful, or a procrastinator? Be as honest as you can about yourself. Remember, you will not share this with anyone else.
If you are disorganized, perhaps you need an assistant whose strength is organization. If you dislike speaking with clients on a daily basis and need help holding their hands, maybe you need someone who can do that for you. Perhaps you like to work quietly without interruption; then you need someone who can screen calls and put out fires for you.
Also think about where you are in your career. Are you a beginner or a veteran? If you’re just starting out, you may want an assistant with substantial experience to help you get organized and guide you through the thicket of administrative details involved in running a personal injury practice. On the other hand, candidates with a lot of experience don’t necessarily make the best assistants, even for young lawyers just starting out.
When I started practicing law, I would advertise in the local legal newspaper for a legal assistant with a minimum of 10 to 15 years of personal injury experience. I normally found candidates who knew the civil justice system and understood personal injury practice but were so set in their ways that they took no joy in experimenting with different methods of achieving goals that I set. I also found that some of these candidates were burned out. They were tired of the job and the stress that comes with litigation, which clashed with my youthful enthusiasm for practicing law.
These are generalities—each candidate should be assessed individually— but they can help you start thinking about who you are and whom you will work with most effectively.
Step 3: Envision the job
What do you expect from your assistant? Put it in a detailed job description. Do you expect your assistant to speak to your clients, set and confirm dates, schedule flights, cancel lunches, call your spouse, pick up your dry cleaning, order lunch, and answer pleadings? Whatever the job involves, write it down so you will have a visual list of your needs.
Don’t share everything you have written with the candidate. Instead, keep the job description as a checklist that you can use to make sure you have covered your expectations.
Step 4: Look In the right places
Where do you look for qualified candidates? First, a few caveats. Temp agencies charge a huge premium for their services. And while they claim to screen candidates, some applicants they have sent me have been disasters. Often, both the agency and the candidate overstate his or her qualifications and experience.
Hiring friends or family of existing staff has been a bad decision for me, too. You can jeopardize an excellent relationship with the existing staff member if the recommended hire doesn’t work out. I urge you not to do it.
Hiring someone from a defense firm can also be dangerous. Before you do so, make absolutely sure the hire will present no conflict of interest in a case your firm is handling.
I was once removed from an important case when my office manager hired a secretary from the firm that was de fending it. The secretary promised and later testified that she had no involvement in the pending case, but the judge decided the situation presented a conflict of interest. The only way to ensure there is no conflict is to have the defense firm and its client sign a conflict waiver.
I’ve also learned from experience that legal assistants who have worked for a defense firm often have difficulty making the transition to a plaintiff practice. A plaintiff firm works to drive a case forward, not to just bill hours, and assistants in plaintiff firms usually have far more client contact than most defense assistants ever have. Also, most defense firms have more resources than plaintiff firms have, and a legal assistant new to a plaintiff firm may not be happy about having more responsibilities, such as making copies, getting coffee, calling your client a taxi, or scheduling your travel plans.
So where should you look for candidates? I recommend local colleges, law schools, technical and paralegal schools, and high schools. In fact, some of my best employees have come right from high school. Often, they are from a background where further education is simply not considered or not an option. They may need to earn money right away and generally have a great work ethic.
Look for someone who has already expressed an interest in the legal profession. Posting an ad at the school’s career placement office and on its Web site is usually free and will probably yield a lot of responses.
Step 5: Heed the signs
When you have a stack of résumés in hand, take the time to review them carefully. Look for things like spelling errors and font selection, which can tell a lot about a candidate—for instance whether he or she is detail-oriented, educated, and knows good grammar. Font selection can show whether a candidate is aware of how things look—I like my correspondence to look good on the page, and someone who gives you a résumé with a funky gothic font should garner closer review. Of course, look at the substance, too. What has this person done with his or her life so far? Frequent job changes are a red flag: They may indicate that a person is either unable or unwilling to stay in one place for more than a short time. Also watch out for long periods of unemployment that the candidate can’t explain. They usually signify that the person can’t get a job, doesn’t need a job, or has an experience that he or she would rather not tell prospective employers about. Of course, the candidate may have a good explanation for a gap in his or her work history, such as the birth of a child, a return to school, an illness, or extensive travel. Gaps on a résumé should not be a deal buster, but they should be carefully reviewed and discussed with the applicant. You have to be analytical in hiring, but you should also trust your gut. If you do not like the person when you meet, take a pass, no matter how good he or she looks on paper.
This is more difficult when you like the person, but his or her résumé is weak. In this situation, invite a firm colleague whom you respect to give a second opinion. Have that person interview the candidate for a while in your presence and then privately. Get his or her feed back before continuing the process.
Step 6: Look for ‘inner spirit’
I once asked Butch Davis, when he was head football coach at the University of Miami, how he assembled such a talented and competent team of athletes and staff. He told me that he values a person’s “inner spirit” more than his or her past accomplishments. I have tried to use that advice when hiring assistants. But what does that mean? I believe you’ll see a candidate’s inner spirit when you understand why the person wants the job. You can determine this by asking outright: “Why do you want to work here? How can you help me serve my clients? Why my one-lawyer office in stead of a large corporate firm?” You want to hear answers that come from the heart. Most candidates have prepared answers to the canned questions they hear in every interview. These “why me” questions tailor the interview to your particular job opening and can reveal what kind of person the candidate is.
Step 7: Investigate
After the interview, check references. Remember that some former employers will say anything to get a fired employee off their unemployment rolls, so take all references with a grain of salt. Be skeptical when an employer raves without reserve about a former employee and says he or she was let go due to “downsizing.” Get references from other sources, such as the secretary of opposing counsel on a case the candidate worked on. Ask how the candidate was to work with. Was he or she respectful? Honest? The kind of person the secretary would want working for his or her firm? This is always a good question, because you can learn a lot from a “yes” or “no” answer. Always follow up by asking why.
Step 8: Take a road trip
Take the candidate to lunch, as it helps to make the interview process more informal and loosens up both you and the candidate. He or she will talk more easily outside the office with limited distractions. Stop talking about yourself and your firm, and focus on the candidate. Listen and watch. Ask yourself whether this is the kind of person you could work with on a daily basis. Think about your five-item list from Step 1 and see how many of the requirements the candidate fills. Take your time. Ask why he or she wants to be an assistant and what he or she likes or dislikes about the job. What are the candidate’s expectations for salary, bonuses, and benefits? Do they match yours? Listen, listen, listen.
Step 9: Do a dry run
Give the candidate an assignment similar to what he or she would do on the job: send a letter, copy documents, or make a phone call. You can give him or her real or imaginary work, depending on your needs. If you need to get out a notice of hearing quickly or set a date for an upcoming mediation, have the candidate do it and watch how he or she handles the assignment. If you are concerned about the candidate’s abilities, assign a mock pleading or two.
Step 10: Make your best choice
My Grandma Annie always said that every pot has a cover—in other words, you can always find a lid for any pot, even if it does not fit perfectly. Accept that there are no perfect legal assistants, only those who can meet most of your needs most of the time. Also accept that for most assistants, working for you is a job—just one part, and not necessarily the most important part, of their life.
If you remember these truths when you make your hiring decision, your expectations of your new assistant will be reasonable, and your working relation ship is more likely to be productive and generally happy. It’s not easy to hire good staff, especially in a business as aggressive and adversarial as ours. Finding the right teammates is the best way to minimize stress and maximize the success of your practice.
SpencerAronfeld practices with Spencer Aronfeld & Associates in Coral Gables, Florida.