When & How to Hire Your First Associate

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It can be difficult (and stressful) determining when the time is right to hire your first associate. Complicating matters further, most lawyers were never taught as law students how to effectively recruit, hire, and onboard new employees. Law firm hiring can seem daunting but it is critical to the long-term success of your business and practice of law.

At LAWCLERK, we’re here to help your law firm grow with ease and success. We know that running a law practice is hard and it can be expensive to hire help. Our platform connects hiring attorneys with qualified freelance lawyers – letting you hire exactly who you need when you need them.

In this article, we’ll discuss when to hire your first associate, as well as how to pull it off as smoothly as possible. We’ll start with the basics of hiring for law firms, then dive into more specific considerations – like whether outsourcing is right for you and how you can ensure the long-term success of your team (and your firm).

When Should You Consider Hiring?

Before you consider posting that “Help Wanted” ad, you should take a long hard look at the current state of your business. If your firm is not on solid footing when you make your first hire, you could run into significant problems and potentially damage your reputation as a great place to work – compromising your chances of finding high-caliber employees.

Before you consider hiring an associate attorney:

  1. Make sure your business plan is solid,
  2. Know what you need in an associate,
  3. Be prepared to train your new hire, and
  4. Consider your short and long-term team goals.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these pre-hire considerations and how they factor into a successful relationship with your new associate.

Make Sure Your Business Plan is Solid

Even if you’re currently struggling to get by, hiring an associate attorney before your business is stable could be a huge mistake. If you need more revenue than expected to pay for the new hire and their benefits package (and we know that many law firms do), this will only add stress to your financial situation. And even if you can afford to make payroll, hiring an associate before your firm is in a position to support them could leave the new hire struggling.

We suggest making sure you are clear on the trust cost of hiring an associate.  This blog details the fully loaded cost of hiring a traditional in-office associate factoring in all the overhead expenses.

Know What You Need in An Associate

Make sure you know what an ideal candidate looks like in terms of background, practice area focus, and personality. If you’ve ever worked with someone who was a model employee it may help to keep that person in mind when evaluating the traits, personality and skill set you want in hiring the right candidate.

Remember that there are many variables to consider when hiring your first associate – including experience level, prior employers, practice area expertise, office space and more. You also need to carefully think through the types of work and tasks that you would likely delegate to an associate to help with your own workload. This is why it’s important to know what you need in an associate before hiring anyone – so that you can ensure the new hire will be a good fit for your firm, and vice versa.

Be Prepared to Train Your New Hire

The foremost area where many small-firm owners fail when bringing on their first employee (and sometimes second) is that they don’t fully understand how much time (and money) goes into onboarding someone new at their business. Yes, there are plenty of young lawyers out there who want nothing more than to make partner one day; however, motivation alone doesn’t guarantee success when starting with a blank slate. There’s no way around this reality: training takes time.

It’s an unfortunate fact that people often leave managers, not law firms. The best way to get a new hire up to speed is by communicating effectively and training them in all aspects of their role. They’re going to be an integral part of the puzzle that is your law firm, so they’ll need to see the whole picture in order to be successful.

The best way for you to ensure a successful training period is by being as transparent as possible with the new hire and setting clear expectations, preferably in writing as often as possible. While this may be time consuming the first time or two you go through the training process, in the long run it will be a huge time saver as it will stream line your hiring process and improve productivity for the legal services your firm offers.

The new staff member will appreciate knowing what they can expect from their first few months at your firm, which will help them settle in more quickly and start logging those billable hours – making everyone happy!

Consider Your Short and Long-Term Team Goals

Finally, it’s important to consider whether you need an associate right now (and this rings true for both sole practitioners and law firms alike). If you’re running on empty financially or simply don’t have enough work to keep someone busy full-time, trying to hire someone despite these obstacles could put more strain on your business than hiring would fix. If your workflow is ebbs and flows throughout the year, outsourcing to freelance lawyers to get help from time to time when you need it may be a better option than a full time hire.

Remember: always weigh your options before you consider hiring an associate. If your business is not ready, the new hire won’t be a good fit for your firm or team in the long-term, this could cause more problems than it solves.

Bad hires are expensive. The average cost of a bad hire runs around $15,000, while the average cost of losing a good hire is a staggering $30,000. This means a poor hiring decision, shoddy onboarding, or low retention can have a significant impact on your firm’s bottom line. One way to prevent these issues is by getting clear on your firm’s values and ideal culture. When employees feel like they “fit in” and have the opportunity for career growth in a firm, they feel more valued – which translates to job satisfaction and productivity.

On the flip side, also be smart so that you don’t wait too long to hire.  This is a common problem we see with solo attorneys in that they delay hiring because they are “too busy” or can’t find the time to go through the job posting and interview process.  To stay ahead of your caseload, you really need to hire the team members you envision you will need six months or even a year from now.  The reason for this is so that you have ample time to train and onboard them before the caseload increases and you are all slammed with work.

Outsourcing vs. Hiring an Associate: Which is Right for You?

Now that you know what to consider before hiring an associate, let’s take a closer look at the differences between outsourcing and bringing someone on board in a traditional role.

Outsourcing to a freelance remote attorney is generally less expensive than hiring an in-house employee – making it easier to pay for their services up-front without cutting into your company’s bottom line. Plus, if you need help with tasks outside of the law (e.g. administrative tasks, law firm marketing), this can be even more cost-effective because you won’t have to hire multiple people or keep them on full-time just for these extra duties.

Outsourcing to talented freelance attorneys can also be a great way to tap into specific expertise you need for a certain case or client.  You can often collaborate with a more seasoned attorney via an outsourced working relationship than hiring a first-year fresh out of law school. Working with a more experienced attorney will allow you more time to focus on doing your own client work and business development.

The main downside of contracting work out instead of hiring someone new?  Some attorneys think delegating takes too much time or that the freelance lawyers may not be as qualified.  These are two of the most common myths and misperceptions about outsourcing.  Overall the benefits of outsourcing to get them help you need far exceed any potential downside. All things considered, this can be a great solution for smaller law firms who want to grow into hiring their own associates but need time to phase in the process of adding to the team.

At LAWCLERK, we mitigate the loss of control typically associated with outsourcing by letting you hire freelance lawyers for one-off project based services where you specify the work you need completed, set the price you are willing to pay, as well as set your own deadlines. You get to review the applicants and select the best remote attorney for the work.

Our flexible remote legal outsourcing platform helps connect lawyers with qualified associates, without the risks and costs of hiring full-time, in-house. You can opt to work with freelance attorneys on a one-off basis, “test-driving” their skills to see if they are a good fit for your needs or you can scale up with our virtual associate subscription program.

Most importantly, you might not need to hire full-time once you start utilizing project work! You can get help right when you need it, so this on-demand help may work much better for your practice.

Ensure Long-Term Productivity & Success

Remember, before you decide to hire an associate (whether virtual or in-house), it’s important to take your time and consider the pros and cons of both options – as well as all that this means for your business. This is not just about hiring someone new, but rather thinking ahead about how they will function within your team in the long-term…and what effect this could have on the success of your company moving forward too.

At the end of the day, it’s imperative that you establish a hiring and staffing process that benefits your firm as well as new hires. To pull this off successfully, you should take stock of your values as a firm to ensure any new associates fit well within your practice model. When you find an associate whose values align with your firm’s, onboarding is likely to be much more efficient and effective over the long term.

Regular training and ongoing performance evaluations (with a focus on the new hire’s growth as a professional) go a long way toward solidifying a rapport with your new associate – whether they are in-office or remote. Many managing partners find themselves in a role as mentors to their new hires – and this mentality can help both the new hire and your firm grow together successfully. Performance feedback leads to higher levels of engagement, and engaged employees tend to be more productive than those who are unhappy with their careers. The time and money you invest in proper training, evaluations, and promotions are typically way less than the cost of replacing an unhappy associate.

LAWCLERK Offers Innovative Solutions to Help Your Law Firm Grow

Whether you need occasional help from a freelance lawyer or on-going help via our subscription associate program, thousands of law firms rely on us to bill more hours and reduce overhead. You’ll have complete control over who you hire, the work to be done, and how much you’re willing to pay for help. We’ll take care of the administrative work and tax reporting so you can focus on growing your firm.

Learn more at lawclerk.legal or schedule a demo HERE.

Kristin Tyler, Co-Founder Lawclerk

Kristin Tyler, Co-Founder Lawclerk

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