Keith Lee

What do you need when starting a solo practice or a small firm? A huge office in the middle of downtown? The most cutting edge computer? A paralegal and an associate?

You don’t actually need any of those things, but the one that often costs small firms the most headaches in terms of time and money is hiring staff. Many times, new solos or small firms feel the need to staff up right away — they’re lawyers! They have to have a secretary, an assistant, a paralegal, etc. It’s expected. Clients won’t feel comfortable coming into an office without a secretary. But after six months of a low volume caseload, becoming familiar with case management software, and discovering that clients don’t particularly care if you have a secretary, lawyers realize they are wasting money on unnecessary people. Even worse, lawyers might find they hired the wrong people. In a rush to get their office started, they took on whoever first came in the door. Or they only spend a cursory time with the interview process, relying on people’s résumé or referrals. After which they discover hiring the wrong person pulls everyone else down.

So when is the right time to hire someone? And how do you know if they are the right fit?

It is a difficult thing for small firms to know when to hire someone, whether it be an assistant, a paralegal, or a new associate. But there does come a time when it is necessary to take on support staff or another attorney. The old mantra in startup circles is that you should “hire slow, fire fast.” For a small firm, this may seem especially true. When you’ve got a small ship, you need to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction. Someone who is not committed can cost the firm time and money. That’s also why you often hear the advice to “hire when it hurts,” or to “hire one person when you need them to do the job of two,” i.e., wait until you are so overwhelmed with work that you cannot complete it all without hiring someone. But when this happens, it is also difficult to “hire slow.” So how should you hire people?

Earlier this week, I posed that question to a lawyer who has had his own firm for over 30 years. He has hired countless staff and dozens of lawyers during this time. His answer was the same for both groups of people, it all came down to one thing: “culture.” I asked if he hired laterals or brought in lawyers who had worked at other firms. “I did so in the past, and every time it was a mistake. I always ended up having to fire them. Now I only hire lawyers who have clerked for us.” I asked him to elaborate.

“Lawyers who worked at other firms could never fit our firm’s culture. They didn’t have the same level of commitment of client service as we did. And that is incredibly important to me. Before I used to try and get people to change their habits. It never worked. Now I know that the only way I can find people who fit our culture is to shape them from the ground up. Let me show you something.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his phone. After scrolling for a minute, he tapped and handed me the phone. “Read that email, my secretary forwarded it me from a client.”

The email was in regards to one of the associates at the lawyer’s firm. It was filled with glowing praise of the work the associate had done for her. It was clear that the client was truly moved by the level of service that she had been provided. “That’s a great email to receive,” I told him.

“Here’s the thing,” he responded. “I don’t know that client at all. I don’t know anything about her case. But because I hire for culture and make sure that my associates understand that I expect the level of service they deliver to be of exactingly high levels, I can trust them to handle matters like this. And then I get emails like this one from the client. If someone doesn’t fit in with our firm’s culture, it brings everyone down. They’re like a boulder in a stream, everyone has to work around them. Doesn’t matter if they’re a lawyer or a runner. They learn to do things our way or they don’t last long.”

Ultimately, the goal of culture in the workplace is to be aligned. When you hire for culture, you are making sure that your staff is focused on the same goals as you are. Make the time to do so.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.


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