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Your Litmus Test for Hiring

Job interviews are meaningless. At the interview, the secretarial candidate beams with smiles and optimism, wears her Sunday’s finest and couldn’t be nicer. Everyone leaves the interview with smiles and after getting rave reviews from her former employers, you have no doubt that you discovered your next super-star secretary.

But within just a few days of joining your firm, reality strikes—your new “superstar” secretary shows up late, wears a nose ring and surfs Facebook during work hours. You quickly realize that your new secretary is a train-wreck and you’re forced to fire her in her first week. You’re amazed that everything about your initial impression of your new secretary (including references and background checks) was dead wrong.

Create a Profile of Your Ideal Employee

The hiring process begins by creating a profile of your ideal employee. Give serious thought about the employment history and qualities that you want. Your criteria for the ideal candidate must be more objective than “optimistic, pleasant and hardworking”—virtually all candidates can deceive you with such vague standards.

Be as objective as possible in defining the qualities of your ideal secretary. To get started, there are 4 objective criteria you should consider for all job candidates:

  • Stability of Employment with Former Employers
  • No History of Employment with the Government
  • No Smokers Allowed!
  • Experience in Your Practice Area

Easy to meet all 4 criteria? Hell no! But who said hiring is easy. And when you rely on these 4 criteria, there’s a decent chance you won’t have to repeat the hiring process for the same position.

#1:  Stability of Employment with Former Employers

Stable employment shows a level of commitment to the job as well as some degree of success. An employer won’t keep the candidate for 5-10 years unless she’s doing something right, and the employee won’t stay at a job for years unless she is a team player who is committed to the success of the law firm. The ideal candidate should have 5-10 years of employment with former employers, with a minimum of 3 years at almost every job.

Resumes with sporadic and temporary employment (i.e., less than 3 years of employment at each job) should be a red flag. These candidates show that they have little commitment or dedication to their employers and have not demonstrated sustained success. If you hire a secretary with a checkered employment history, it’s a safe bet that history will repeat itself and she won’t be with you for long.

#2:  No History of Employment with the Government

A job candidate with a history of government employment should not be interviewed. PERIOD!

Government workers tend to be lazy, unmotivated and have a sense of entitlement (sorry, that’s been my experience). Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but make things easy by steering clear of government workers as well as those with former employment at not-for-profit organizations.

#3:  No Smoking Allowed!

Smokers send a strong message: “I don’t give a crap about my health”. If the candidate doesn’t care enough about her health to stop smoking, she has no place in your world-class law firm. And besides, the stench of cigarettes that radiates from the smoker is enough to make everyone sick.

#4:  Experience in Your Practice Area

Employees entering your practice area for the first time are usually just kicking the tires to find out what they want to do. The employee with no experience will discover that she hates your practice area and wants to do work that is less challenging/stressful. Your law firm is too important to give the job candidate their first experience.

Experienced candidates have proven that they have a passion for your work. When an experienced candidate tells you that she loves working for the seriously disabled, she’s not bluffing—she’s shown her commitment through her long-term employment with other plaintiffs’ personal injury law firms.

 Asking Tough Questions of Former Supervisors

When checking references, always speak with the supervising manager at the candidate’s former law firm. Don’t waste time speaking with the candidate’s best friends or co-workers who were equal in stature or worked beneath her. Friends and mid-level co-workers will always give glowing reviews that are never meaningful.

Be specific with your questions for the supervising manager:

  • Why did she leave your firm?
  • Did she volunteer to do work beyond her job title?
  • Did she frequently work after 5 p.m. or weekends?
  • If you could hire her again, would you hesitate for even a second?

Ask the supervising manager of the former employer about the candidate’s biggest weakness. You might be surprised by candor of the supervising manager, i.e., “She won’t stay a minute past 5 o’clock” or “She didn’t want to do more than answer the phone”. The supervising manager knows that she can’t BS because one day she will be calling you about a job candidate.

Make the Candidate Show Her Skills

Don’t assume the candidate can type. Have the candidate take a typing test online (i.e., TypingTest.com) to check her proficiency. If the candidate types less than 55 words per minute, her typing skills are subpar; you might be shocked to discover that the candidate finger pecks the keyboard. You just avoided catastrophe!

Before you offer the job, you should have the candidate take an online evaluation. Jay Henderson of “Real Talent” offers the “Hiring MRI”, which provides insights into the candidate’s ability to perform the job. As part of the $275 one-time fee, Jay explains the results with you and identifies problems that the candidate may have doing the job.

IBM provides a series of tests for staff, “Prove It”, with access to a thousand different tests, i.e., spelling, grammar, writing. The cost of “Prove It” is $1k/year. For higher level employees, you might consider the DISC test (cost is $65/per member).

How to Conduct a Meaningful Interview

Conduct a preliminary interview via videoconference (BlueJeans.com, Skype or FaceTime) to get a sense of the candidate’s interpersonal skills. With a quick videoconference, you might find out that the candidate is bizarre, complains about former bosses and talks incessantly. With brief videoconference interviews, you can eliminate bad candidates within 10-15 minutes.

At the office interview, make sure the candidate makes continual eye contact, smiles and dresses professionally. If the candidate wears flip flops, appears fidgety and looks down at the ground when speaking, you know that she lacks common sense and has no self-confidence.

Highly driven persons with strong organizational skills (i.e., the closet question) are a must for a secretary or paralegal. You want candidates who are ambitious and goal-driven. You might ask:

  • Describe how do you organize your closet?
  • What is your biggest weakness?
  • What is your five-year goal?

Sharing a weakness shows whether the candidate is willing to be vulnerable with you. Many candidates will not reveal real weaknesses, such as, “I care too much”, which shows that the candidate is unwilling to be vulnerable with you. Everyone has weaknesses (i.e., I am a technological ignoramus), but few are willing to be “naked” during the interview.

When in Doubt, Don’t Hire

Have your team meet with the candidate and have everyone anonymously grade the candidate from “A” to “F”. If the candidate is not a solid “A” (“Hell yeah, we should hire her right now”), take a pass. You are building a world class law firm and you should refuse to work with anyone who is not a superstar.


photo credit: kokoroe_ed_tech Décrocher un job grâce à Kokoroe 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.