Hiring My Law Firm’s First Employees – Part III – First Associate Attorney

This is the next post in my solo law practice story, which is an intro to a larger blog series about building a solo or small law firm that I plan to write. I’m sharing my story to provide context to my perspective.

This week I’m writing about my first experiences hiring and working with employees at my law firm:

Today I’ll explain why hiring an associate as my first law firm hire was a bad move despite my belief that I hired a very promising and smart attorney.

To pick up the story where we left off, I had posted the job description for a legal assistant on Craigslist and started receiving a range of applications.

One application was from a young attorney who has just graduated from law school at Berkeley and taken the bar. She was not yet sworn in. Her family lived in the Seattle area, and she had recently moved back.

The resume stood out to me because it seemed odd that a Berkeley Law grad would be applying for a job as a legal assistant (especially to work for the likes of me!). At the time, Berkeley Law was consistently in the top-10 law schools according to US News. The admission standards were rigorous, and even a grad near the bottom of the class should have been employable as an attorney during that era. The other thing that caught my eye about her application is that she spoke fluent Korean.

I was intrigued. The wheels were turning.

Because of my non-traditional path through law school, I wondered if she may also have been carving out her own way. And, having an employee who spoke fluent Korean would open up a significant local niche market to me that previously didn’t exist. I had received a few calls from potential clients asking if we spoke Korean, and I had turned them away. I looked it up and discovered that about 1% of the Seattle population was Korean-American. Bellevue, WA, where my office was located, had an even higher concentration.

At this point in my life, I had never hired an employee. I had no idea how to do it, so I fumbled my way through. I conducted about a dozen interviews for the position.

(I realized later that I conducted those interviews very poorly, having now done many hundreds of interviews of prospective employees. I’ll talk more in later posts about how to hire employees, as well as recommending some helpful hiring hacks, books, and other resources.)

When I interviewed the new attorney, I ended up breaking a rule that I now steadfastly enforce throughout every level of hiring at LawLytics. The rule is:

Never alter a job to fit an applicant. Know the “what” and the “why” first, and then exercise discipline and patience around finding the best “who.”

But at the time I didn’t know any better. As a frazzled attorney with the burden of seemingly more weighty things (my next trial, keeping my clients out of jail, and saving their families and careers), it was easy to engage in magical but flawed thinking. I thought that saying “You’re hired” would solve my problems and wouldn’t create new ones.

I decided I was hiring an associate attorney.

I decided during her interview that I was no longer hiring a legal assistant: I was hiring a junior associate who would carry paralegal and administrative duties.

I didn’t have a separate office for her — and none were available in the fully occupied building. So, instead, she would be stationed at an assistant’s station behind my office.

In the days before she started, I redefined what the division of labor would be after she was sworn into the bar. Instead of the legal assistant division of labor above, she would:

  • Cover routine hearings for the firm’s clients. That would save me from having to travel to and from courts for things like arraignments, motions to continue, and entry of negotiated plea bargains and deferred prosecutions.
  • Draft and file all routine motions.
  • Do initial phone intake screening if a potential client called and I was out of the office. Her job would be to get them scheduled for an office visit at a time when I was present so I could meet with them.
  • Maintain client communication including sending reminders for court and hearings.

Our first order of business was getting her sworn into the bar. The group swearing-in was far enough in the future that it didn’t make sense to wait. I asked a friend who was a judge at the King County Superior Court to swear her in. Once that was done, I figured I could start sending her to court immediately on my behalf based on my own experience covering for other attorneys in the area.

That assumption turned out to be overly ambitious. I had done it myself, but I had significant courtroom experience from my time at the Pima County Attorney’s Office, and my early court appearances in the Seattle area were on behalf of more experienced attorneys who likely gave me more guidance and confidence than I realized.

For several weeks, my job got even harder as she shadowed me on all of my court appearances. I took the time to show her the ropes, and introduce her to prosecutors, court staff, and other defense lawyers.

Once she was up to speed and felt comfortable enough making court appearances, I started assigning her hearings to cover. This also proved to be time-consuming and was likely initially a wash: I still needed to spend significant time briefing her on what to do at each individual hearing. I also had to spend some time with each client explaining that I would be sending my associate attorney instead of appearing personally.

This made many of my clients anxious. I realized that they were afraid because they didn’t understand the difference between a mechanical and inconsequential court appearance (such as an arraignment or a continuance), and a significant one (such as a motions hearing or trial). Once I understood this psychology, I found that it was easy to set expectations and set my clients’ mind at ease by doing the following:

  • For New Clients: During new client consultations, I clearly stated that the division of labor to my clients. I would handle the negotiations and all litigation, and either my associate or I would be there to guide them through all routine court hearings. I explained that having her cover routine hearings ensured my availability for them and their case for important hearings. If she was in the office at the time that the new client was retaining my firm, I brought her in at the end of the meeting to introduce the client to her. If she wasn’t in the office, I showed them a picture of her so they would have a visual reference when meeting her in court for the first time. (Her picture was also on my firm’s website.)  I gave them her background and assured them that I had trained her personally.
  • For Existing Clients: If the relationship with the client preexisted the hiring of my associate, I personally called the client once I knew that the associate was going to be covering the client’s hearing. This enabled me to explain why she would be covering the hearing instead of me and to outline the other things mentioned in the bullet point above.

For the most part, this went very well. There were curveballs here and there. For example, a prosecutor might offer an unexpected deal worth considering at a pretrial conference which we expected would be a simple motion to continue. Early on, my associate was not equipped to handle unexpected variables. Her lack of certainty or confidence was easily detected by our clients, which at times caused them to lose confidence in the firm. This was easily avoided when my associate could get ahold of me by phone. But at times when I was also tied up in court and therefore had to keep my cell phone ringer off (this was before text messaging became prevalent, and it was still done on a phone keypad), it caused problems. Still, we were able to work it out in most cases.

As she gained experience, I was able to offer her services to clients as the primary attorney. This allowed me to raise my rates. When a potential client could not afford to hire me, or where price was the major objection (and it was a matter that my associate was competent to handle), I offered her services as lead counsel at a reduced rate. When this proved successful, I started to consistently guide clients to her when they could be served just as well by her or me.

For example, for misdemeanors where there was realistically no risk of jail time, I would tell the potential client that they would get the same result using her or me (which was true unless the case needed to be tried), and that they could save money by hiring her. I could always jump in to make sure that the client got the best possible result, but rarely had to do so.

This worked well until my associate decided that the practice of law was not for her and went into the restaurant business. In retrospect, I was not the best first boss for a young lawyer. To my first-ever employee, all I can say is I wish I had more perspective at the time.

With her departure, the triage increased to levels above baseline at the time I hired her.

As my consolation prize for bending the job description to fit the applicant, I now had to work off a bunch of discounted cases. I also had to field a lot of calls from a now-useless Korean Yellow Pages ad with a frustrated individual on the other end of the line asking if I spoke Korean. All I could do was apologize: I no longer had any staff member who spoke Korean.

So, it was back to Plan A and back to the drawing board.

I reverted to my original job description with a determination not to mess it up this time, set out to hire my first real legal admin, which I’ll talk about tomorrow.

About The Author

Attorney Dan Jaffe previously built successful small law practices in WA and AZ. He currently serves as the CEO of LawLytics.

Other posts by Dan.