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Onboarding: How to make your new hire’s first day a success

The first day of working in a law firm can intimidate anyone, whether you’re a new receptionist or a new associate. It doesn’t matter how friendly your new co-workers are or how qualified you are for the job, it’s still uncomfortable. You’re stepping into a finely tuned machine and you need to get in sync with the moving parts, momentum, and direction. Fast. And how well you meet this challenge can be helped or hindered by the onboarding process.

The importance of proper onboarding

According to law management consultant Elizabeth Miller, bringing someone on board has to be more than just showing the new employee where their desk and computer are. “Allowing new employees to fly by the seat of their pants might work for some, but I do not believe that it is effective,” says Miller. “From my experience, this only makes the new employee feel more like a lost soul than part of the team from day one.”

HR consultant Sandra Hoyle-Smith agrees. “If a new hire’s first day is unorganized and unwelcoming the new employee may believe they’ve made the wrong decision. It would take some extra effort in order for them to feel a part of the team.”

How to prepare for a new hire

Successful onboarding begins long before the new employee’s first day at the office.

“If your new hire is an additional employee or a new position, you need to start preparing at least several weeks out, as an office, desk, computer, phone, etc. may need to be ordered,” says Hoyle-Smith. “It’s never pretty when someone starts and they have no place to sit or a computer to use. Also, you typically need to give IT a few days in which to get their email and computer set-up.”

You can save time by getting some of the paperwork done early, too.

“There is a lot of paperwork involved in onboarding a new employee,” says Miller. “There are W-4s to complete, I-9s, insurance documents, and plan choices to make, and it’s all a necessary part of the onboarding process. Imagine being the new employee and a pay period comes around and you don’t get paid, or you get sick and find out that you didn’t get onto the health insurance?”

To avoid this, Miller sends the necessary paperwork to new hires right away. “I have some firms where I have instituted this online and this cuts down on wasted time spent on the first day completing all the necessary forms.”

Miller also recommends that firms start planning the training right away. “If a firm knows that their new employee is not familiar with software the firm uses, line up the training right away. This will help smooth a transition rather than having an employee fiddle around trying to figure out how all the systems work and what the procedures are. That is definitely not cost effective.”

Be sure you know who you’ve hired

An important part of the onboarding process is reference checks and background checks— a step which if omitted can have serious consequences.

“A firm I worked with once hired an associate attorney who was very anxious to come join the firm,” says Miller. “When he was on the phone talking with his wife, he would yell and scream and be very irate with her, not even bothering to close his door. It made me suspicious of his temper and this volatile behavior made me worry.

“Sure enough, one day he returned from Court screaming about not getting a particular mediator on a case. I went to see what the problem was and it turns out there was a deadline to hold a mediation on a case. Due to the Court-imposed deadline, the mediator this associate wanted was not available. He came into the office, went to his desk, got the file, and threw it at the paralegal. The managing attorney locked herself in her office. We had to call security and take some steps to protect the employees who were present.

“Had references been checked by the HR department, they would have known that he had a propensity to be violent in the office and verbally abusive to the employees.”

How to do onboarding right

“A perfect first day on the job,” says Hoyle-Smith, “would include a tour of the building and being introduced to everyone at the firm. Often, the HR or office manager is the one to give them a tour, but with an associate, I think their immediate supervisor or even the managing partner should be the one to start off their day. Have them do a tour and make introductions. At some point you can transfer them over to another associate or the HR person. And no matter if the new hire is an experienced attorney or a receptionist, try to have the owner or managing partner meet with the new hire on their first day. It makes for a lasting impression.”

After the tour comes the introduction to the processes. Hoyle-Smith recommends having someone sit with the new employee at his desk to help him log-in and go through some of the important folders or applications. On his desk should be a list of all employees and their emails and who does what, as well as a list of important contacts that he will be working with.

How long you spend with the new hire at this stage will depend on the role.

“Some positions, such as the receptionist, IT or legal assistant positions, might require less hands-on, especially the first day,” says Miller. “For example, someone with office experience might already know how the computer system works or how to answer the telephone. For associates, it’s not that simple because there are a lot more things to learn especially about the client base, becoming familiar with client files, the billing system, what the online legal research program is, passwords and user names. Associates and other timekeepers, such as paralegals, need to become productive and bill quickly because they need to start carrying their weight almost immediately. So they need more help here.”

After a familiarization with the tools and procedures, the first day should also include a lunch with the new hire’s peers, and then wrap up with HR to go over the initial onboarding paperwork, discuss the important policies such as dress, schedule, etc., and allow the new hire to ask questions.

Keep this meeting brief, though, cautions Hoyle-Smith. “Don’t overwhelm the new employee on his first day. Instead, schedule a benefits orientation and an employee handbook orientation for another day in the following two weeks.”

Miller also recommends assigning a new employee a “buddy,” someone who is in a comparable position within the firm to show the new person around. The “buddy” system shouldn’t end the first day either, because a new employee isn’t really situated or acclimated to a new firm for a few weeks. “It is always easier to go to the same person and ask questions, rather than walk around asking whose time you can intrude on this time with another question,” says Miller.

New hires need direction. Literally.

A lot can go wrong if the onboarding process is not handled properly.

“We had hired a new associate right out of law school,” says Miller. “He stopped by my office one day to chat with a file in hand, which is when I realized he was heading to court. While he was chit chatting away, I looked at the day’s docket and realized he was due in court in about 30 minutes. I interrupted his story and asked why he hadn’t left for court. He stammered and then confessed that he didn’t know where the courthouse was. I resisted the urge to laugh, and instead took him to the window where I pointed out the courthouse five blocks away. This new associate’s embarrassing moment could have been avoided had he been assigned a “buddy.”


A lot of time and money is expended on recruiting and training new staff and the relationship is precarious for the first few months. A good onboarding process helps your new hire quickly become a successful part of your team and confirms to them that they chose wisely when they chose you.

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