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Easy-to-use interview system guarantees a good match between secretary and attorney

For secretarial interviews, an Ohio administrator uses the approach that includes everything—attorney input, staff input and even observations from the receptionist.

At the 25-attorrney firm in Dayton, the administrator set up the system not only to make sure the applicant is qualified for the job but also to evaluate how well the secretary will work with the attorney and whether there will be a personality match with other staff.

What do the attorneys want?

The process begins with an interview with the attorney. The administrator asks what the attorney’s strengths and weaknesses are in work production. The purpose is to find out what skills the secretary needs to have. If the attorney is disorganized, for example, she looks for a secretary who shows good organizational skills and can keep track of that attorney. One attorney, for example, wanted a secretary who could help him with his electronics but didn’t care if the secretary was great typist.

Another wanted a secretary who wasn’t necessarily seasoned but who could work under pressure.

The administrator also tries to determine what personality the secretary needs to have. For example, an attorney who doesn’t show emotion or just doesn’t want to be bothered needs a secretary who has self-confidence and doesn’t need constant reassurance.

What do the staff think?

From there, the administrator turns to staff. She asks them what characteristics they think the new hire needs to have.

Staff are out on the front line. They know what it takes to do the job and also to get along with the rest of the office. She has found that staff mostly want team players who have a sense of humor and who are willing to share the workload.

First impressions

The interview itself begins with a phone call inviting the person in for an interview.

The administrator listens for a welcoming and caring tone of voice, good grammar, interest in the firm and knowledge of the position.

The interview continues when the applicant walks in. And that part is handled by someone else, the receptionist.

The receptionist’s job is to observe the candidate’s appearance and demeanor. Does the applicant make eye contact? Smile? Have a professional appearance?

After the interview, the receptionist discusses her impressions.

The receptionist is the director of first impressions. In fact the receptionist has a plaque on her desk with that title on it.

First impressions are what the clients see. The firm represents corporate clients and they expect staff who are welcoming and who treat them as guests in their home.

The expectations

The interview questions are designed to gauge the applicant’s attributes and faults, to show personality traits, and to uncover factors that may prevent success in the job. They begin with questions about what the applicant expects of the job.

• What appeals to you most about this job? What do you know about our firm?

The answer illustrates the applicant’s motivation and initiative. Someone who has taken time to learn about the firm and job is interested in joining the team.

• Why are you looking for another job?

Look for a positive and professional response, such as that the person wants more experience in some area of law.

But just as important, beware of negative remarks about previous employers, even if the comments are truthful. A law firm needs staff who are diplomatic and tactful.

The administrator finds that someone who criticizes a former employer in an interview is likely to talk about sensitive information, and in a law firm, elevator conversations can be ruinous.

• What are your career objectives?

That’s good information for both the firm and the applicant. If the goal is to be a paralegal and the firm has no plans to train that person to become a paralegal, the person will quit.

Matches and mismatches

Next, look for matches and mismatches between the candidates’ skills and personality and the firm and its needs.

• Which of your previous jobs did you enjoy most and why?

If the response is “I liked my last job because I didn’t have to type all day” and the vacant position requires a lot of typing, there may not be a fit. Or if the candidate says “I like my job because I was left alone” that person won’t do well in a multitask environment or in an office where teamwork is essential.

• What are your weaknesses?

Look for points of mismatch. If the answer is “I don’t like to get up in the morning” and the job requires a lot of morning work, that person isn’t suited for the job.

The mismatch can also be in personality traits such as “I have a tendency to talk too much” or “I have to come out of my shell.” Or it can be in skills. The client might say that technology is difficult to learn.

Work preferences and habits

• How much do you expect a supervisor to tell you about what’s going on?

That gives an indication of how much feedback the person requires. It’s a personality match question. If the secretary likes to get an abundance of communication and the attorney prefers to keep client information to himself or herself, the pairing won’t work.

• When you are assigned to a new attorney, how will you learn to know that attorney’s work habits and preferences?

Someone who says, “I want to talk with that attorney because I assume there’s a system for how she wants the mail opened, phone calls handled, clients dealt with, and so on.”

• How many attorneys have you worked for at a time?

In this administrator’s office, secretaries are assigned to several attorneys or paralegals, so someone who has worked with only one attorney in a small firm may not like the job.

Along with that question, ask how the candidate balances a varied work load. A good answer is “I go to the attorney and ask which is the top priority.” Not such a good response is “I try to figure it out.”

Working for more than one attorney is a balancing act.

Skills and non-skills

Next, look at the skills and training the candidate can bring to the job.

• What are your current duties? What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

You should compare the experience and preferences to the job description to determine if the candidate has enough day-to-day experience to do the work.

• Discuss your knowledge, skills, training and experience related to this type of position.

That question speaks right to the job and is predictive of success. Look for someone who is qualified for the actual work the position requires, such as whether the candidate will be able to use the firm’s software and equipment and handle the type and volume of work the attorney has. One candidate, for example, had worked in an attorney’s office as a general administrative assistant. She was well-qualified as a legal secretary but did not have experience putting together long briefs and did not know the firm`s software. For a larger firm, hiring that applicant was too risky an investment.

• What experience do you have in business law (or litigation, estate planning, or whatever)?

This question shows where the new secretary will need training. There’s a vast difference in the training needed for each area of law. Some areas require extensive training and the firm may prefer to hire someone who is already experienced.

Probing into personality

To find out about a candidate’s true personality in the office setting, ask these questions:

• Tell me about your accomplishments. How did other people help you achieve them?

The first part of that question reveals the candidate’s drive and initiative, such as the effort involved in working one’s way through college while caring for children.

The second part reveals the candidate’s ability to give credit to others. If the response is, “Oh, yes, there were other people involved, but I did this and I did that,” you have a person who won’t give credit to anyone else. And that’s a candidate who won’t be a team player.

• What was your biggest failure at your last job?

The purpose of that question is not to find out the failings, but whether the applicant takes responsibility for his or her actions.

Someone who cites a failure but doesn’t accept some of the blame or says, “It was really someone else’s fault“ won’t want to be held accountable for the work produced.

Tough questions on performance

From there, move on to some tough questions about job performance.

• How have you improved your inefficiencies?

The answer will show the ability to change approaches to get the work done more efficiently and be more productive. An applicant who answers, “I decided to do the filing twice a week instead of twice a month to lighten the workload” is someone who thinks about ways to be more efficient.

Beware of someone who hasn’t made any improvements or changes. Efficiencies in a law office are dollars.

• If you were to ask your supervisors over the past few years how dependable you were, how many unscheduled absences you had, and how often you were late to work, what would they tell me?

Phrased that way, the question generates a candid response, because it gives the impression that the administrator plans to call those supervisors.

The answer will give a good picture of the applicant’s dependability. Beware of someone who admits to being late more than rarely.

While it is okay to ask about absences and lateness, do not ask about the reasons. Doing so can invite a discrimination claim.

• What discipline have you received? Explain each instance in detail.

As with the question on lateness, the phrasing ensures an honest answer. The applicant can’t lie about it. It’s there; it’s done.

Don’t be unforgiving, however. An answer of “Yes there was a problem, but I learned from it” is worth consideration. That person has benefited from the experience.

By contrast, beware of the candidate who admits the problem but harps on the firm’s failure to appreciate him.

• What will your references say?

Once again, that gives the impression that the office will contact the references, and the truth comes out. This is where you might hear, “I am not so sure I’ll have good references.”

The wrapup

The last questions tie up loose ends.

• What hours or days are you available or unavailable to work? Are you available for overtime? When can you start?

The firm needs to know if the employee can fit into its hours and rotation schedule. In addition, the firm needs to know the candidate’s limitations.

• Is there any background information about you that we should consider?

That question often brings out experience and expertise that have not been covered. And the answer could make a difference in the hiring decision.

Sometimes applicants bring up points that affect their ability to work at the firm. For example, a candidate may say, “I really need to know that I have to leave at 5 p.m. each day.” Such a schedule might not work with your firm’s hours.

Law Office Manager pays $100 for each idea used in this column. If you have a tip to share about running the office better, contact the editor,

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