When Solo/Small Firms Hire, Always Look for a Good Fit

Legal professional liability insurance underwriters look at the rate of attorney turnover at firms (including solos who hire associates) they are considering underwriting. The reason is that a higher than normal rate of turnover can be a concern. It hints that something might be amiss within the firm. Management, or even the complete lack thereof, might be a problem. High overhead, personality mismatches, or internal politics could also be to blame. Regardless, if associate turnover seems to be a regular event at your firm, you too should be concerned. Not only can this lead to an increased risk of a malpractice claim, but the cost in terms of unrecoverable expenses, credibility with clients, and the harm resulting from the internal friction that often accompanies a poor hiring decision can be significant.

Personally, I believe that a principal reason attorney hires fail is because no one took the time to try to determine if the incoming attorney would culturally fit within the practice. Reasons often voiced for adding additional attorneys include statements along the lines of, “We heard good things about them,” “We were short staffed and needed the help ASAP,” “We were looking to expand into that market,” “We wanted their clients and the increase in income that would come with them,” or, “We didn’t have anyone who had any expertise in that practice area.” While valid, such reasons should not be determinative in and of themselves and, unfortunately, they often are. If attorney turnover has been a problem at your firm, here are a few additional thought provokers that if properly addressed prior to making a hiring decision may help assure that future attorney hires will stay for the long-term. Why? Because this list is intended to help you determine whether the inbound attorney will be a good fit.

  • Begin by defining the firm. What do you do well? Why do clients come to you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What do current attorneys find personally and professionally fulfilling? Where are you making your money? (It’s important that you know what work is profitable and what work isn’t.) With this information in hand, now try to define the needs of your firm and any business opportunities with clients or potential new clients that are currently being unmet. Then look for an attorney or group of attorneys whose answers to similar questions are compatible and in line with your firm’s answers and who also have the skill set to meet the identified needs and opportunities.
  • Be open and honest about the expectations of both the incoming attorney and the firm. How will the new attorney be marketed to clients? What role will the new attorney have in the firm? What will the expectations be in terms of revenue generation? Is the new attorney comfortable with the hiring lawyer’s management style? What is the firm’s vision for the next five and ten years and is this vision compatible with the vision of the new attorney? If the new attorney is bringing along staff (even their own paralegal), how will they be integrated into the firm? What is the history and collectability of the new attorney’s accounts receivable and of the firm’s? Jointly review the malpractice and disciplinary complaint history of the new attorney and the firm because there should be no surprises after a new hire comes on board.
  • Look at firm processes and procedures focusing on how your firm is run. If the firm requires that all attorneys use a firm wide computerized calendar, participate in monthly peer review and file review, and prohibits attorneys from handling mail until processed by staff, then don’t bring in an attorney who is fiercely independent and unable or unwilling to adapt to how your firm is run. Of course, the converse would be just as true. Complimentary styles as to how a law practice should be run are important!
  • Determine who will be responsible for integrating the attorney into the firm. (As a solo or small firm chances are it’s you!) Have an integration plan that includes marketing what the new attorney will bring to the firm in terms of experience and opportunities both internally and externally. Periodically check in to see if there are any problems, especially problems with staff or other associates or partners and your clients, and respond as appropriate. Understand and remember that this integration process may take a year or more to complete.
  • Prior to making any final decision to bring an attorney on board, review the list of clients and cases the attorney will bring to the firm looking for potential conflict problems and determine how any identified conflicts might be best resolved. Waiting to do this until after the new attorney has accepted is playing with fire.
  • Make certain that the practice areas of the new attorney are compatible or complementary because the practice areas and client base of any incoming attorney could significantly increase the firm’s exposure to malpractice claims as well as bring about an unexpected and significant increase in your malpractice insurance premium if they are not.
  • Look at the individuals involved. Will any incoming attorney’s personality fit with everyone else’s? The working relationships of all attorneys and staff (including virtual staff) need to be supportive, respectful, collegial, and professional. If personalities clash, the odds of a successful integration drop significantly.

Following through with these suggestions will require a significant investment of time and energy; but if we define cost of hiring as the amount of time and energy invested in the process, then when it comes to evaluating the likelihood of a new attorney hire successfully integrating with a firm, you will get what you pay for. Take the time to do it right. Otherwise you may find that you are in the market for new attorneys more than you would like to be, not to mention also on the radar screen of an underwriter, and squandering a very valuable resources, your time.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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