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Three Virtues of Your Perfect Employee

You know you are damn lucky to work with your star paralegal, “Betsy”. Betsy never lets you down—she stays late, cranks out tons of high quality work and will do anything to make your law firm work.  You can’t even think where you’d be without Betsy and just pray she never leaves.

Have you taken time to define the qualities that make your perfect employee?  As with most things, LESS IS MORE. You want to define the qualities of your perfect employee as simply as you can.

The Biggest Mistake Made By Lawyers

The biggest mistake made by lawyers is hiring for competency and technical skills.  You hire an “A+” secretary with loads of experience and skills and things are peachy for the first couple of months. But, inevitably, problems start to arise.  Your “A+” secretary complains that she has to do the work of other secretaries and the other secretaries are incompetent, lazy, smell bad and don’t park in the right parking space…hell, she even thinks you suck!  No one is worthy of your “A+” secretary.

You never saw this coming—your “A+” secretary is gossiping, complaining and telling everyone what to do.  Before long, your staff has had enough of your “A+” secretary and they make an ultimatum: it’s either you fire the “A+” secretary or they’re leaving.

Your “A+” secretary is ambitious, hard-working and has plenty of technical skills, and you put up with her character flaws because her technical skills are off the charts.  But you overlooked the most important virtue of a perfect employee: HUMILITY.

The Ultimate Prerequisite of a Perfect Employee

Humility is the lack of ego or the concern about status and the willingness to treat everyone as an equal.  A humble employee will do anything you ask, even if it’s not within the scope of her position. Humility is far more important than technical skills.

“More than anything else, a person needs humility to belong.”

Patrick Lencioni, The Ideal Team Player

Finding a humble employee begins with reference checks from former employers. Don’t call the senior partner or the managing partner—they won’t give you any real feedback. Instead, have a few informal discussions with administrative staff.  Check with people who worked below the candidate, the people who know her best.  The administrative staff will give you the inside scoop.

At the interview, pay attention to how the candidate treats your receptionist.  Did the candidate smile and interact with your receptionist?  Did the candidate call your receptionist by her name?  Ask your receptionist what she thinks of the candidate. If your receptionist gives a lukewarm review, there’s a good chance the candidate lacks humility.

The Beauty of a Hungry Employee

Hungry employees do much more than expected and go above and beyond what is required. Hungry employees are passionate about the work they do.  A hungry employee tends to work late and weekends until the job is done and sometimes has to be told to “go home”.

You do not have to motivate or punish “hungry” team members once they’re on board—they are self-motivated and do not need incentives to work harder.  You ask her to do something and you don’t have to check to make sure it’s done. Hell, you don’t need systems or policies because your “hungry” employee knows what to do and cranks out work.

Most job candidates know how to falsely project a sense of hunger during interviews.  This is where you turn to the administrative staff who worked with the candidate in a former job to ask:

  • Is she passionate about the work and the idea of doing great work?
  • Does she just do the minimum expected?
  • Does she leave at 5 p.m. every day?

A “hungry” employee does not work by the clock and is passionate about her work.  When you find an employee who possesses humility and hunger (a/k/a passion and commitment), pay her as much as you can and never let her go.

“Smart” Employees Who Can Read Your Mind

Smart people have good judgment and intuition about the impact of their words and actions. They don’t say or do things without knowing the likely responses of their colleagues.  A smart person has a person’s common sense about people or the ability to “read your mind”–do they know what you’re thinking before you say it?

A “smart” employee knows your systems and doesn’t have to ask what to do.  Let’s say the defense lawyer demands confidentiality as part of a settlement. Your trusty paralegal knows that a core value of your law firm is, “We never agree to confidentiality”, and she tells the defense lawyer that confidentiality will NEVER be considered.  The defense lawyer quickly backs down (he wants to settle more than you do).

The “No Jackass” Rule for Hiring and Firing

Most lawyers hire for talent alone and the long-term outcome will be intra-office politics, gossip and employees who can’t stand each other.  This is a recipe for failure.

Hiring team players is the goal. Team players have three simple virtues: Humility, Hunger and Street Smarts. You should hire only people who embody these three virtues and evaluate candidates on the “No Jackass” hiring rule: Is the candidate humble, hungry and smart?

“Team players have three things in common: They are humble, hungry and smart.”

Patrick Lencioni, The Ideal Team Player

Take a look at your current employees and evaluate them on each of the three virtues. If your employee only meets one or two of the virtues, she doesn’t fit the culture of your law firm and should be replaced.  Be ruthless in enforcing the culture of your firm and don’t hesitate to hire and fire based on the three virtues of an ideal team player…the future of your law firm depends on it.

photo credit: IBM introduces Spectrum Computing via photopin (license)

Leave a comment below telling me what surprised, inspired or taught you the most (I personally respond to every comment). And if you disagree with my take on running a personal injury law firm, or have a specific, actionable tip, I’d love to hear from you.