But great grades don’t always make for a great lawyer, and hires based on impressive academic qualifications alone can be a mistake. So what should you look for as a legal recruiter to help you make better hires?
There are many qualities that make a great lawyer, but having supervised many a graduate myself, I believe a few are key to great hires. Having good legal knowledge is just one small part of the picture – plenty of other skills will determine how successful the hire is for the firm.
A client-first approach
Clients are price sensitive and they like to shop around. A study by the SRA revealed that 66% of people will consider more than one conveyancing solicitor and 71% will spend more than an hour researching their options.
However, great client care generates repeat business. In fact, according to a study by Aspect, 52% of consumers will pay more for “good” customer service and 66% will pay more for “great” customer service. Perhaps even more astonishing is that 75% will pay more for “exceptional” service. The takeaway from this is, look after your clients and they’ll be less likely to be swayed by a cheaper firm.
Too many lawyers see client care as a regulatory obligation rather than the most powerful marketing tool your firm has. It’s important that new hires really understand what client care means. Great client care isn’t about simply giving the client what they’ve asked for. It’s about offering better, smarter, quicker and cheaper solutions. It’s about getting back to the client promptly, offering clear advice, meeting deadlines and charging what has been agreed. It’s about overdelivering on your client’s expectations, and it’s not rocket science - but if your new hires don’t have this client-first approach, you can wave goodbye to client retention and development.
It’s important for lawyers to be aware of not only legal developments, but also political and commercial developments that may affect the client’s individual circumstances. Advising in our niche area of expertise is only part of our job – we are problem solvers, solution finders and sometimes even life counsellors. To be effective, we have to know what’s happening in the news, what legislation is on the horizon, what the stock market is doing, how societal attitudes are changing and so much more. If we don’t have a basic understanding of what affects our clients’ daily lives, we cannot provide the pragmatic and proactive advice that our clients expect.
Good commercial awareness is often evident on the candidate’s CV and may also be found in their social media accounts, if they’ve provided them (or if they can be found). What are they tweeting about? What are they sharing? Do their comments show an understanding of today’s challenging political landscape and volatile commercial environment? Do they network with industry giants and thought leaders? Are they blogging themselves? If the only thing they’re interested in is Love Island, clients will quickly spot that they’re blagging it when it comes to professional, contextual advice.
The ability to close
Every firm is a business operating in a competitive marketplace and we do want to close sales. For the fee earner, this means knowing and selling the firm’s strengths and attributes. Too many lawyers shrink at thought of ‘selling’ to their clients. If their attitude is that sales have no place in a law firm, they don’t understand the commercial realities of the industry and they’re not going to strive to increase your turnover.
Since we operate to SRA, CILEX or CLC standards, we would never suggest something to our clients that isn’t absolutely in their best interests. However, we do want them to walk out of the door with as many of our services as are appropriate for them. Call it ‘business development’ if it makes you feel more comfortable but the bottom line is that your lawyers need the ability to persuade clients to use your firm – not only for their initial enquiry but for every aspect of their life requiring legal services.
Evidence of ‘sales’ skills starts on the candidate’s CV and cover letter – do they sell themselves well? At the interview stage, it’s worth probing the candidate for how they feel about sales. The correct approach is to maximise the value of every client to the firm, within the parameters of acting in the client’s best interests. If a candidate doesn’t share this view, direct them out the door and to their nearest pro bono office.
Professionalism covers both appearances and behaviour, and appearances start with the CV. This should be beautifully presented and printed on high quality paper without any errors (just as you’d expect your lawyers’ letters and documents to be). A professional CV template should be used and it should be clear that the applicant has customised it for your job specification, highlighting the key requirements that you’ve asked for. If a candidate can’t take the time to get these fundamentals right, move on – you have no reason to believe they’ll take any more care preparing work for your clients.
At the interview, look for candidates who present themselves neatly and cleanly. Again, if a candidate can’t take the time to perfect their personal appearance, it’s unlikely they’ll show a higher standard of care to your clients.
Likeability plays a huge role in client acquisition and retention. Clients want to connect with their lawyers and unless the lawyer in question is so niche that nobody else can do the job, clients will be fickle enough to take their business elsewhere if the lawyer is hard to tolerate.
Of course, different personalities may thrive in different areas of law – a caring and sensitive person may do very well in private client, where a high energy, focused and confident individual may repel elderly clients (and would perhaps suit a commercial environment more). But likeability is not the same as personality – quiet people can be just as likeable as confident people. Likeability in the context of legal services is about taking a genuine warm interest in the client so that they feel valued and cared for. It isn’t a mysterious natural talent that some people have and others don’t - it’s easy enough to be likeable by following a few key rules. If candidates haven’t learned those yet, they’re not ready to work for you.
Jen Wiss-Carline was admitted as a Chartered Legal Executive in 2006. She has worked with several sizeable companies and firms, providing legal services and dealing with various aspects of staff recruitment, training and management. She now provides consultancy services and runs a busy careers website.