Relative to 2021’s unprecedented level of lateral hiring, the market has cooled somewhat this year. But it would be a mistake to conclude that law firms now have the upper hand. By historical standards, we are still in a supply-constrained market, and there remains imperative for firms to optimize their hiring processes to avoid self-inflicted errors. The biggest culprit in this category is unnecessary delay: the longer and more drawn out the interview process is, the less likely a firm is to hire its preferred candidate. As the saying goes, “time kills all deals,” and this rings especially true in the world of legal hiring.
The consequences of delay
Law firms don’t intentionally design an inefficient hiring funnel. But unless the process is managed with exceptional focus and discipline, it’s all too easy to end up in a bad place. Small decisions that individually seem reasonable can collectively accumulate into a bloated process that alienates candidates. Moreover, the longer the process, the greater the risk of losing a top candidate to your competition.
A good example is the number of interviewers. Firms have an understandable tendency to solicit input from a large cross-section of the candidate’s potential future colleagues. On the surface, allowing more lawyers to weigh in seems perfectly reasonable, and even good for the candidate, as it theoretically provides greater insight into firm culture. But by adding one more interviewer here and another one there, the firm can inadvertently end up with a daunting process that places an excessive burden on the candidate’s time. Moreover, the larger the group of interviewers, the more difficult it is to compile feedback internally, and the greater the potential for delay.
Firms tend to underestimate candidates’ propensity to abandon a slow hiring process. But we at Lateral Link see this happen routinely. The vast majority of candidates we work with tell us that the most frustrating part of their job search is the long wait after interviews to obtain feedback from a prospective new employer. If a candidate does not receive feedback within a week or two, they question a firm’s continued interest, and in turn, they lose interest in the firm. I recently worked with an attorney who was so offended by a firm’s long drawn-out process that they wrote the firm off completely and pursued other opportunities. By the time the firm got back to me expressing continued interest, I had to sadly let them know the candidate had accepted another role and was off the market. You snooze, you lose!
The consequences of a poorly managed process tend to extend beyond the individual candidate who goes through it. Lawyers talk to their friends about their experiences, and firms that drag out the hiring process risk reputational damage. It’s bad enough losing a candidate in the context of one particular search, but inadvertently dissuading potential future candidates from applying is even worse. What’s more, a firm is losing money with every hour that goes by with a job vacancy. As we all know, law firm attorneys are profit generators, so a limited number of attorneys doing the work translates to a ceiling on revenue. And with attorneys’ hourly rates where they are, that’s literally thousands of dollars in lost revenue every day. There’s also the negative impact a job vacancy has on a firm’s current employees. When a vacancy has been open for an extended period of time, the extra workload inevitably falls on others within the team. This added responsibility can lead to burnout, stress, and low morale. That in turn has a direct impact on retention rates as the burned out team members look for greener pastures with increasing urgency.
Tips for improving efficiency
So what can firms do to improve their efficiency and make it more likely that they’re able to hire their first-choice candidate? It isn’t rocket science. Think ahead. Stick to the plan. Be efficient. Communicate frequently. And quickly make the offer.
Sometimes long hiring processes are the result of misalignment in the firm about the type of candidate desired, or even about whether to hire at all. Any such disagreements must be resolved before launching the recruitment process. If there isn’t alignment among all relevant stakeholders about what it is the firm needs, don’t post a vacancy as a means of forcing the conversation. Have the debate internally and come to a collective decision. Only then should you solicit applications.
At the beginning of the process, map out precisely who the candidate is to meet with and book all interview slots in the interviewers’ calendars. If there is a high risk of an interviewer not being available in the necessary window, find a substitute interviewer ahead of time. Don’t let foreseeable delays derail the process. In addition, avoid the temptation to add extra interviewers partway through. Sometimes the logic for doing so really is compelling, but this should be an exceptional situation. Have the discussion upfront about who needs to participate, and stick to the plan. Then solicit feedback from the interviewers immediately after the interview while the conversations are fresh in their minds.
If the process is unreasonably long, the firm will lose candidates. But at the margin, proactive communication can be highly effective in keeping a candidate engaged. Tell candidates upfront what the process entails and how long it’s expected to take. If an unexpected complication arises, inform the candidate and/or recruiter promptly. Give a real explanation for the delay, along with assurances that the firm remains interested, and be sure to check in regularly to keep the candidate warm. But by no means should you string a candidate along. Job seekers strongly dislike that, and it can really sour the relationship before it even starts.
Finally, once the interviewers have collectively identified a first-choice candidate, make an offer as soon as you possibly can. It’s not a problem if the offer has various contingencies, such as conflicts and background checks. But a fast offer is a critical signal to the candidate that the firm is serious about making the hire.
Take advantage of what you can control
Many elements of the hiring process fall outside a firm’s control. At the height of the boom in 2021, when mid-level corporate lawyers seemed almost impossible to find, there was no magic wand a firm could wave to increase candidate supply. But firms do control the efficiency of their hiring process, and making an active effort to improve it can lead to a material improvement in the firm’s recruiting success. One law firm we work with regularly has mastered this process and typically makes associate hiring decisions within a matter of two to three weeks. They know what they want in a new hire, and when they find it, they don’t delay. Everyone is busy and no one has time to waste, so fast-tracking the hiring process and making it as efficient as possible will go a long way with prospective employees.
If your firm or law department has questions about how to improve the lateral hiring process and eliminate some pain points, please don’t hesitate to contact me or any of my Lateral Link colleagues.