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How to hire stellar staff for your law office

Law offices are busy places, with everyone running around at top speed trying to complete a multitude of tasks.

But if hiring law office employees is one of your tasks and you don’t take the time to do so properly, you are doing your firm a disservice, according to Diane Camacho, founder of DLC Consulting Services, LLC, in San Francisco.

Before sending out enquiries and posting job advertisements, you need to know exactly what you need so that you hire the right person in the right position. That begins with tracking your time and identifying the skill level required for each task you perform, says Camacho.

Time and skills

Track how much time you are spending on different tasks and then assign a skill level for each task, with one being the lowest skill requirement and three being the highest. Next, place the tasks into groups based on the skill levels you have assigned.

“If I know that level threes are things that I have to take care of myself and there are not really that many level two items, then I could get someone in to do the level one items, which would be an administrative assistant. They would be distributing materials, scheduling interviews, doing some online posting for us, that kind of thing,” she says.

A level-one employee would require good communication skills, the ability to use email and the Internet, be trustworthy, have a high-school diploma, and be able to follow instructions with minimal direction.

A level-two employee would possess all the skills and experience needed for level-one tasks, along with the ability to use Microsoft Word, would have office experience and would possess good judgment.

Creating the job description

Now that you know what type of employee you need to hire, it’s time to craft the job description. Camacho says job descriptions often are not kept up-to-date or they are not seen as a priority.

“My suggestion is that you make them a priority and that you spend the time to create them. Job descriptions help you stay focused. When you’re looking for somebody (to hire), they make it more systematic and formulaic,” she says. “You don’t have to create the job every time you have an opening. There’s a description and that’s all ready for you when somebody leaves the position.”

Camacho recommends creating a job description for each type of position in your law firm, adding that it keeps you focused and in line with legalities. Having that information in writing can help protect your firm if someone later makes a complaint over discrimination, failure to accommodate a disability or failure to pay for overtime.

A job description is also a useful tool to use when conducting employee performance reviews. And Camacho says having job descriptions can also help maintain good morale by letting people feel they are being treated fairly.

Three-part description

A job description needs to consist of a summary, responsibilities associated with the job, and requirements of candidates.

Your summary should include:

  • The position title,
  • The job status (full or part-time),
  • The title of the person to whom the employee will report (for example the office manager),
  • The physical location of the job, and
  • A short description of the position.

Responsibilities of the job should follow the summary. They should be taken from your task list and the most difficult tasks should be placed at the top of the responsibilities section, according to Camacho.

The final part of the job description involves the requirements and experience necessary for the position. Does the person need to hold a college degree? Does he or she need to have previous law office experience?

Will you train?

Camacho says you need to think of areas where you are willing to train the person to perform certain tasks.

Other requirements listed in the job description might include excellent verbal and written communication skills, dependability, a high energy level and the ability to quickly learn software programs.

Now it’s time to recruit. Let everyone in your firm know you are recruiting for a position. That way, you may receive some excellent referrals.

In deciding where to advertise the position, Camacho suggests advertising junior positions on Craigslist. You can also place ads through associations for legal professionals or through your local bar association, junior colleges or Linkedin.

Regarding salary for a position, she says it’s important to know what you can pay and what the going rate is for that type of job. Camacho warns against asking candidates what they were paid in their previous jobs, because many people are underpaid and it’s unfair to continue that practice.

When the responses come in

Within a week of advertising a job position, your law firm has likely received several resumes and cover letters. Now the fun begins.

Camacho says the screening process begins with closing her door, printing off the resumes she has received and then sitting down and carefully reading them.

There is one exception. If you have requested a cover letter and the candidate has not provided one, don’t proceed any further with that person’s application.

As you read each resume, place it in a strong, medium or weak contender pile.

“For me personally, the (candidate’s) employment history is always important,” says Camacho, adding that if the person has a number of six-to-eight-month stints in various jobs, that indicates a lack of commitment to an employer.

The next step is to contact the top candidates. Camacho says she doesn’t do a lot of telephone screening and prefers to interview people face-to-face.

She highly recommends that promising candidates fill out job application forms before being interviewed as they can yield valuable information that will help you narrow down your best choices.

The interview

Before sitting down to interview potential employees, Camacho says you should have a consistent list of interview questions and a simple evaluation form you can fill in later to gauge how well each candidate handled the first interview.

During interviews, only ask questions that directly relate to the candidate’s ability to perform the job.

“Most questions now are competency-based questions,” says Camacho.

They are designed to determine a person’s knowledge and expertise, management skills, flexibility to adapt to change and switch tasks, and interpersonal and communication skills.

Questions can be either situational or behavioral. Situational questions pose a hypothetical situation and ask the candidate how he or she would deal with it, while behavioral questions delve into previous job experiences they have encountered and how they handled them.

Camacho says behavioral questions focus on the past, while situational ones provide a glimpse into future performance.

It’s also important to ask verification questions to ensure that the candidate actually has the knowledge and experience he or she has advertised in the resume and cover letter.

Sample questions can begin with “describe a time when…” or “what if you found yourself in a situation where…”

It’s important to ask follow-up questions such as “how did that (situation) turn out?” or “what did you learn and what would you do differently now?”

Camacho recommends asking your interview questions first before talking about your firm and the position. If you do it in reverse, you might provide information that the candidate can use to tell you what he or she thinks you want to hear.

After asking your interview questions and discussing your firm and the job, ask the applicant if he or she has any questions.

Your best candidates should be brought back for second face-to-face interviews. Doing so allows you to make further observations into how they dress and act and can provide additional information that can help you make your best possible hiring choices.

Don’t go it alone

Camacho says it can be beneficial to have another person, such as someone who will be working directly with the successful candidate, to participate in interviews. Your co-worker can ask some valuable questions that you may not have thought of and also give a valuable second opinion on his or her impression of the interviewee.

It can also be useful to speak to the receptionist—the applicant’s first line of contact—about the demeanor of that person. If the receptionist was not treated well or the person exhibited some strange behavior while in the waiting room, you’ll want to know about it.

Here are some additional tips from Camacho:

  • Be consistent. Apply the same standard of measure for everyone.
  • If others are involved in the hiring process, be prepared to defend your top candidate choice(s). Your interview evaluation forms can help you in that regard.
  • Be prepared that not everyone may agree with your choices. It’s not always your call.
  • Resist the urge to check out the applicant on Facebook. Camacho says she isn’t interested in knowing what the person is doing on his or her personal time. It’s what the person does during working time that’s important.
  • Ask for references who can attest to the candidate’s quality of work. Contact them only once you are in the final stages of the hiring process.
  • Call past managers, but don’t call current employers, who are not obligated to answer your questions.
  • When checking references, verify dates of employment, job title and role. Ask if the person would hire the candidate again. You can also ask about that person’s performance in relation to others doing the same type of job; whether the person is a team player; whether he or she is dependable; and whether there is anything else the person wants to mention.
  • Background checks are not expensive and can save you a lot of hassle. Always deal with a reputable company.
  • Once you have settled on the right person, draft a letter offering employment. It should outline the job position, hours of work, rate of pay, benefits and start date. Have the person sign the letter and return it to you.

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