Assembling a legal team from the ground up can feel like building a house without the blueprints. While there’s no surefire instruction manual for building a legal team, there are many seasoned professionals in the field with a host of lessons to offer. The location and style may differ for your own project, but the core requirements—the nuts and bolts—remain the same.
In this guide, we break down the key things to consider when assembling your team:
Building a foundation
Before you begin aggressively hiring, you have to focus on the foundation. According to Bjarne Tellmann, General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer at Pearson plc, there are three cornerstones that outstanding teams are built upon: hardware, software, and threads.
Hardware is the measurable and calculable components of a legal firm—the operational needs of running a firm. What sort of cases are you currently working on, and what do you expect or hope to be working on in the near future? Calculate how large a team you need to operate the company now with some room for growth.
But don’t get too ambitious—another critical component of hardware is budget. How much are you currently spending on outside counsel? You may think that you’re saving money by not having a full-time employee, but in-house employees are cheaper in the long run and tend to be more invested in other aspects of your business.
The hardware of your firm also includes technology. But while tech solutions and digital tools can often make your job easier, it’s important not to fetishize the idea of tech.
“You need to think about the role it should play,” says Tellmann. “Many of us get seduced by it and think of it as a solution, when in fact technology is a tool to help you arrive at a solution.”
And while you don’t want to exceed your budget with these tools, you should also make sure you aren’t missing anything that could accelerate your processes and augment your team.
Pro-tip: With the advent of technology like video conferencing, law firms have more freedom than ever when it comes to interviewing and hiring candidates from a wider geographical region. For example, instead of flying candidates in, why not have the conversation over a video conference call?
The second cornerstone of a high-functioning team is the software. Think of the software as the less tangible aspects of a successful firm, which, according to Tellmann, include “culture, managing generational distance, [and] building leadership skills on your team for the 21st century.”
What kinds of communication tools will you use?
Will you need a unified communication as a service (UCaaS) platform? (Probably.)
Would you like to be able to use your personal cell phone for work—while shielding your personal number with a business phone number that’ll show up when clients ring you? (It’s possible!)
Having the right software will do wonders (and can even help you cut costs) if you want to set off on the path toward becoming a virtual law firm.
The last cornerstone of an excellent team are threads: what brings your hardware and software together, including such assets as mission, vision, and strategy. Namely, the why of your firm.
Threads become especially important when your company needs to navigate change. Answering why lends purpose to work and helps teams to better digest future decisions.
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Who to hire, and when
It’s tempting to make the budget-conscious move of hiring a junior associate first and building from there. This decision, however, can come back to bite you. Junior associates will require a lot of your time because they operate best with direction, often requiring both of you to spend time checking off tasks from your list. Hiring students or recent graduates who are highly motivated is a smart move only if you have the resources to train them.
Plus, identifying a key senior partner from the get-go will lend credibility and gravitas to your business, making everything easier down the line—from getting more clients, to making non-legal business decisions, to hiring junior associates with the resources to help them grow.
That means you can’t rush the hiring process. Senior hires can take longer to identify and are certainly more expensive, but they’ll act as force multipliers for your firm. They’ll bolster your culture and carry out more functions, along with operating as strategic partners for you and the firm. Consider this first hire an investment in the future, one that needs to be considered very carefully.
Plain and simple, even though it’s appealing, it’s a mistake to hire the first individual that’s available to you. Rely on outside counsel until you know for certain that you’re making a great hiring decision. The strength of your leadership depends on the strength of your team, after all.
From here, you and your senior partners can begin to define company culture and assess future hiring needs together. Once your firm is either taking on more work than it can handle (or is on the verge of doing so) and relying on outside counsel more than you’d like, you’ll know that your team is ready to make an additional internal hire.
As for making a marketing or business development hire, there are a few signals that’ll let you know the firm is ready. Initial signals may stem from the top, including a decline in market position, less upcoming business in the pipeline, or departing senior partners with an aptitude for business development.
Other signals can come from outside leadership as well: lawyers or partners who are acting on business development independently (without a unified strategy), lawyers or partners who are discussing marketing needs but lacking expertise, and team members that are enacting some marketing duties without a strategy to guide them.
How to hire
How you hire affects your firm’s reputation. People you interview will talk about you, and if you have a poor hiring process, you may get a reputation that you don’t want, namely as a firm that doesn’t have its act together. This could make it difficult for you to attract talent later on. But if your firm is ready to take on a thorough process, you should consider three primary criteria when making hires: cultural fit, seniority, and recruiting strategy.
Culture is a cornerstone of your company that can’t be ignored when you’re bringing new players into the fold. Much like the often-cited quote by Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”—when hiring, we recommend that culture dine on expertise as well.
A firm’s culture is rooted in the environment you build for your team. As a leader, you need to define culture early. The earlier the better—but especially before you make any hires. What do you want your firm to feel like? Define it. Write it down on paper, and then apply your cultural code as a lens for all personnel decisions: hiring, firing, and promotions. Without a clearly defined culture, it’s unlikely that your firm will be an effective and motivated team.
Your team can’t ignore expertise entirely, of course. That said, you’ll never get the most out of an employee who doesn’t share your firm’s values. For example, your firm may encourage highly entrepreneurial work, or it may foster a competitive, hierarchical structure.
Whatever the case, make sure your hire is a fit, because those who identify with your culture will also stick around longer. Gaps in knowledge can be filled with training—gaps in cultural fit are harder to fix.
There are four levels of seniority to consider when hiring: junior, mid-level professional, senior visionary, and change agent. Junior associates are best for support roles: they need to be guided and will take time away from other staff. Mid-level professionals can take direction while also acting independently.
Senior visionaries are adept at devising strategy and convincing leadership to take a course of action. Change agents can manage functional shifts and elevate a department. When making any hire, you need to know which level you are hiring for. This helps to establish expectations for you and the new employee.
Starting with the cornerstones of a high performance team will give your firm a solid foundation to build on. Leaders should act with clarity—assessing operational needs, defining culture before hiring, and identifying those initial senior hires that will set their firm off on the right course.
Once you’re ready to do so, hire additional players well and with patience. Know what you’re looking for in a potential candidate. Make sure your team is in agreement with each hire, assess cultural fit, and don’t forget to make offers that are industry-competitive relative to your geography.
Before you get started…
Software, hardware, and threads are all integral to your foundation, but you’ll have a hard time putting these to use without a strong team. Make sure those three are in place before beginning the hiring process, as they’ll each be critical guides for determining how to hire.
Starting a legal firm from scratch doesn’t have to be a complete mystery. Powered with the above steps and insights from seasoned professionals, you now have the blueprints for kickstarting a firm of your very own.