Why We Don’t Alter Jobs To Fit Applicants – And Why Lawyers Shouldn’t Either

Today I’m going to pause my story about hiring my first law firm employees to address something unexpected.

On Wednesday, I wrote something that turned out to touch more of a nerve (and was more controversial) than I had imagined or intended. In a blog post about my early experiences hiring law firm employees, I touched on a rule that we have here at LawLytics when it comes to hiring. 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.”

In the post, I described how, as a young attorney and solo practitioner, I posted a job for my first legal assistant and ended up changing my plan and hiring an associate attorney based on what I saw as an opportunity to work with an individual candidate.

The reason why I think the post (and my articulation of the rule) touched a nerve in those individuals outside of LawLytics (primarily newer lawyers or lawyers migrating from employee-to-employer status), is that it could be (incorrectly) extrapolated from the rule that I’m implying everybody should fit neatly into (and be kept in) boxes — essentially, that it advocates treating people as commodities.

This is neither what I intended nor what we practice here at LawLytics.

The very fact that we don’t permanently limit people to the jobs that we originally hire them to do is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why LawLytics has become a successful business. At LawLytics, every employee has a voice. Some of our best ideas and innovations have come from employees who saw something a little differently — people who dared to, and were empowered to say, “what if we tried it this way?” — or who got inspired to learn and try something new, to seek additional education, or to teach themselves a new skill.

We promote based on merit and contributions, not based on the amount of time in a seat. And it’s produced some great results where people start in one function and rise up to be leaders, or traverse to a job function that interests them. Proactive people naturally create their own career movement by choosing to work in organizations that encourage and reward their merit, voice, and contribution. And, I believe that organizations that don’t encourage and reward merit will always struggle to attract and retain the best people.

But having discipline as an employer and hiring per a job plan and description is different than creating a post-hire culture that encourages and rewards employee success, ambitions, and attainment of new skills or levels of competence.

If, as an employer (whether you’re a solo practitioner, own a small law firm, or run a large firm or company) you are flexible enough to alter a job to fit a candidate (as I did in my story), it may be a signal that you lack conviction about what the role you are hiring for or what the business really needs at the moment.

Here’s what I tell new job candidates when I interview them.

As the CEO of LawLytics, my job is to hire the right top-level leaders and to set the company culture. Their job is to make sure that, as we grow, there is a cascade of the right leaders and team members throughout the organization who propagate and reinforce our culture.

Even though I’m not directly involved or the primary decision-maker in most new hires, I still frequently speak with candidates as part of the hiring process. When I do, I ask them questions and give them equal time to ask me questions about the company history, mission, vision, values, and culture.

The most frequent question I get is “What are the opportunities to advance?” The subtext of that question, which is usually unspoken, is “What should I be doing to make sure that my talents and contributions are recognized and rewarded? What should I avoid doing to make sure that I don’t get fired?”

The more frequent advice that I give them is this:

1) Do the job you were hired to do extremely well and make your impact felt in that role. The company hired you for that role, so make sure you give the company what you’ve agreed to give it for as long as that is required.

2) Be bold and assertive (but not a jerk) with your ideas. Even with me. In fact, especially with me. Companies thrive when there is a healthy culture of challenging the status quo, and there is nothing more empowering than seeing top-level leaders listening to contributors at all levels, and sometimes implementing their ideas.

3) Read Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Ideal Team Player” and watch his TEDx Talk video.

Everybody is entitled to be treated with fairness, dignity, and equality. Everybody deserves to work in a meritocracy. But nobody is entitled to a certain position, set of job duties, or title.

If you are a solo practitioner (or want to stay one) and all you’ll need to hire is a single paralegal or legal admin, creating an environment of advancement can be tricky. You’ll always be the attorney, and they’ll always be there supporting you as long as they work in your practice. You’ll always be legally and ethically responsible for their actions, and you’ll always have a duty to supervise them. But there are other ways to support them. (Note: About 50 percent of all solos I know want to remain solo, and that number goes up significantly for solos who have experienced small firm partnerships but who have never worked in a medium or large-sized firm, whereas those who have worked in medium or large firms — and then find themselves solo — often want to work with other lawyers again)

For example, I found that asking my law firm’s admin staff for their thoughts on my firm’s business planning and growth not only got them more involved in and excited about the business of running a small law firm, but also produced some great ideas.

I’ve always encouraged employees to pursue additional education and other life-enriching pursuits. Some examples include finishing college, getting an MBA, or becoming a lawyer.

Doing this means that they will likely (eventually) leave your law firm. And when employees leave because you’ve helped them grow, and vice versa, that’s something to celebrate. But it can also bring up serious succession anxiety when you’re a small firm owner or solo practitioner. While each employee you hire introduces into your law firm an infinite set of potential outcomes and timelines, understanding how you treat your employees while they are with you makes all of the difference for their careers and for the success of your law firm. When you treat them well, most employees are good and decent people who will return the favor by giving you an ample heads-up when they intend to leave and will make sure that you’re not left scrambling or holding the bag.

Creating, and sticking to a job description anchored by the needs of the business during the hiring process creates predictability for you, for your future employees, and for your current employees and clients as well.

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.