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Our Secret Sauce

Vivia Chen

April 21, 2011

Our guest blogger today is Jennifer Queen, the chief recruiting and development officer of McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Sauce By Jennifer Queen

The Careerist blogger, Vivia Chen, interviewed me recently regarding McKenna Long & Aldridge’s use of a hiring assessment. She dubbed our assessment the “recruiting couch.” Although I do not have a special couch in my office where candidates are interviewed, Chen was correct that the firm does use an online assessment tool with law students and lateral associate candidates. Since that post, numerous people (law schools, law firms, and headhunters) have reached out to us for additional information. This post will hopefully address their questions.    

As starting salaries spiraled upward in the spring of 2007, the firm formed a task force to take a closer look at our hiring and talent development practices. We focused on two questions: What is the return on investment of our hiring and talent development efforts? And, are we getting what we planned/hoped for when we hire associates into the firm?

Our attrition statistics were better than the national associate attrition rates published by NALP and the NALP Foundation. However, the disruption of a departing attorney is costly to our clients and their matters in terms of knowledge transfer, the learning curve, and time invested in the relationship. The cost of one bad hire can be as high as $250,000 in recruiting costs, salary and benefits, severance package, time spent managing the issues, and morale. Even one bad hire is one too many. Since the task force discussions started when the economy was booming, our decisions were not influenced by the downturn.    

 The task force studied the hiring models of accounting and consulting firms as well as those of our corporate clients. We found that six 30-minute interviews and a lunch are not the norm in their processes for hiring candidates who will earn a six-figure salary. Corporate America uses one-on-one interviews with psychologists; personality, leadership, and emotional intelligence assessments; simulations and case studies; written essays; and behavioral interviewing in making an informed hiring decision. We wanted to better align our process with how our clients conduct their operations.

To utilize an assessment tool effectively, you must know what you are trying to measure.  Understanding what success looks like in your firm is critical in defining who is best suited for your culture and environment for the long term. Once the task force identified our success factors/characteristics, we focused on finding an assessment to help us determine which candidates had these characteristics and provide an objective element to qualitative interviews. 

We looked at many products and companies to find the right assessment. The test we selected takes approximately 30 minutes to complete and is composed of Myers Briggs-type questions and some problem solving.  There is no perfect score. There are no right or wrong answers.  The assessment helps identify the “shades of gray.”

When candidates are hired, they receive their assessment results to help their career and personal development plan. We also use the success factors/characteristics as a framework in improving our talent development initiatives. We created firmwide and departmental core competencies that now provide a road map for our associates to progress toward partnership. Feedback during performance evaluations has improved, and we have eliminated “random acts of training.” 

How do we use the assessment in the interviewing process? Assume we want to probe further into whether the candidate has the attributes of a team player (being a “team player” is a characteristic of successful attorneys at the firm). If the assessment results show someone who strongly prefers to work independently and is extreme in the self-confidence trait as well as someone who is unconventional (ignores rules and authority), we would use our behavioral interview questions to probe into the candidate’s past behaviors to find out if he or she likes to collaborate or prefers to “run with the scissors.”  One behavioral-based series of questions includes: 

    - What teams have you been a part of? 

    - What role did you play in those teams? 

    - What did you do to fulfill your role? 

    - What did you do to develop productive relationships with others on the team? 

Our hiring committee would have concerns about the cultural fit of a potential hire if the responses indicate that he or she:

  Has avoided being a part of teams or groups where possible;

  Has held few or no leadership roles in any teams;

  Did not offer assistance to others on the teams;

  Did little to gather or consider input from other team members;

  Made little or no effort to get to know other team members or build rapport and relationships beyond what was absolutely necessary;

  Blamed other team members for the problems on the team without considering his/her own actions; and

  Continuously self-promoted.  

After three-and-a-half years of using the assessment, we are clear on the return on our investment.  Our hiring process has become more efficient and effective. Our process smokes out the subtle red flags that we might have ignored previously.

Hundreds of candidates have taken the assessment, and only one student has declined. The feedback from candidates has been overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate that we have put so much effort into the interview process to ensure a solid fit on both sides of the equation.

Now, how is that not a win-win for our clients, the firm, and the candidate?

Related post: The Careerist Goes on the Couch.


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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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