While the legal profession remains in a state of change in today’s market, the ways that entry-level lawyers are hired has not really changed – until now! Traditionally, on the candidate side of the hiring process, law students primarily rely on working as either a summer associate or law clerk in hopes of being hired later as an associate, while entry-level lawyers seeking employment search job boards. On the employer side of entry-level lawyer hiring, some firms hire summer associates or law clerks in hopes of them becoming associates, some firms wait until post-law school to hire, and some firms don’t hire entry-level associates at all. The approaches to entry-level lawyer hiring vary and some reasons exist for the variation (i.e. firm size, practice areas, etc.). However, a new approach for hiring entry-level lawyers is needed – one that would benefit many firms and the lawyers they hire.
Let’s start by considering the summer associate hiring approach, which is actually instructive for hiring in general because it is designed to evaluate abilities and quality of work before extending employment offers. This approach is utilized primarily by big firms and some mid-sized firms that are able to determine their hiring needs one or two years in advance. But, what about all of the other firms (the majority of firms) that don’t have summer associate programs? And what about those lawyers for whom being a summer associate or law clerk did not result in employment as a lawyer?
Many firms hire law students as law clerks. Some firms end up hiring those law clerks later as lawyers, but many firms do not. Firms that need to hire entry-level lawyers, but do not have soon-to-be lawyers or law clerks, are required to start a search. They will need to conduct interviews and then extend employment offers. However, what’s not part of that process though is the very important opportunity for firms to evaluate those lawyers’ abilities and work quality before making employment offers. That’s where a new approach for hiring entry-level lawyers comes in.
The new approach for hiring entry-level lawyers is to incorporate project work as part of the hiring process. Project work is a great way to identify candidates for a lawyer position. By incorporating project work into the hiring process, hiring becomes an active, real-time process that truly reflects the position needing to be filled, as lawyers and firms have opportunities to actually work together like they would after hiring. By incorporating project work as part of the hiring process, firms can benefit from the competitive advantages inherent in hiring methods like summer associate programs.
What are those competitive advantages of incorporating project work into the hiring process? First, there’s the financial advantage that no long-term employment offer is involved. Whether the project goes well or not, the compensation commitment can be limited to just that project for starters. And if the firm wants to hire the lawyer as an associate, great! Project work is a very cost-effective hiring strategy for firms in general, but especially for firms with smaller budgets that cannot afford to make the wrong hiring decisions. Second, project work provides an evaluation test period (like summer associate programs) for firms that can’t determine their hiring needs in advance. Most firms cannot determine their hiring needs in advance. Thus, such firms hire when they need help. Project work provides firms with the unique advantages of getting help immediately on work that needs to get done anyways, ongoing and unlimited elasticity in capacity, and getting a test period to evaluate candidates for the position. As a result, firms can take their time with important hiring decisions knowing that their work is getting done in the meantime. Third, project work provides opportunities for the lawyer candidates to interact with others in the firm in an everyday setting, rather than just in an interview setting which is not indicative of an actual work environment. Fourth, project work can be structured any way that firms so choose before making hiring decisions. Fifth, for firms with a variety of practices, lawyers can experience those different practices via project work. By doing so, firms have the opportunity, if they so choose, to evaluate how the lawyers work throughout different areas of the firm with various projects.
Incorporating project work into the hiring process also provides important benefits to lawyer candidates as well. Much of the emphasis during the interview process is on firms deciding which lawyers they want to hire. For a firm hiring a lawyer who has not previously worked for the firm, the mainstream hiring process largely overlooks a very important consideration – whether the firm is a good fit for the lawyer. Firms used to compete to hire lawyers, but today, available lawyers abound. Thus, the role has changed as the lawyers have been competing for the firms. Over the years, with so many entry-level lawyers seeking work, there has been seemingly less emphasis on lawyers deciding whether firms are a good fit for them. In fact, entry-level lawyers are frequently advised to take whatever job they can get. Incorporating project work into the hiring process would help entry-level lawyers evaluate which firms are right for them and thus make more fully-informed decisions about which firms to work for.
Finally, there is another important consideration for hiring firms. They are busy. Hiring takes time. Hiring is an investment for firms. Lawyer turnover doesn’t help firms. Thus, it’s in firm’s’ best interests to hire the right lawyers who plan to work for those firms for some time. Project work is beneficial to the hiring process because by giving lawyers the chance to try-out working for the firms, it is likely more apparent which lawyers shows the most interest in and prove to be the best fit for the firms.
Incorporating project work as a new approach for hiring entry-level lawyers would benefit firms and lawyers alike. Identifying candidates for a position through the quality of the project work they complete can be a more reliable indicator for which lawyers to hire. Lawyers working in real-time on projects for firms may likely prove to demonstrate which lawyers are right for the jobs. Project work can improve the chances of firms hiring the right lawyers and lawyers accepting offers at the right firms for them.
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