A New Approach to Interviewing for Law firms: Humanizing the Interview Process

(4-minute read – Includes 10 sample questions to add to your repertoire)

A client recently asked me why our firm is so focused on candidates’ feelings. The answer is because understanding people’s feelings – their WHY around work issues matters in trying to improve employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention. It is a core issue of viewing people as human beings first, and it starts during the interview process where we help candidates sort through their best options. Focusing on people in this way can be particularly difficult for our law firm clients as their product is people’s time and expertise as measured in billable hours.


Recent articles about “Quiet Quitting” (which I will define as people still in their job but who are unengaged), and the record rate of law firm attrition are related issues that affect the entire workforce across all industries. Law firms and corporations (including ours) have struggled with what to do. Over the past year, we have added pay, benefits and flex time work schedules which hopefully improve our employees’ quality of life.


However, as two recent articles point out, it is not just the seemingly never-ending cascade of real-world stressors (war, pandemic, inflation, civil unrest, etc.), or what was previously seen as work-related issues (lack of equitable pay, flexibility, or benefits) that are behind much of employees’ dissatisfaction and resulting turnover.


Often, it is about how employers view their people. When talking to lawyers about their careers, we often hear stories that point to the same culprit: They don’t feel valued as a person.  An associate responding to ALM’s Midlevel Associate Survey said “The messaging me and my fellow associates receive is that the partners don’t particularly like us.” “Everyone is scared to take a moment to be a person at work, because you are being judged for that moment.” Often, lawyers, especially associates, feel like nothing more than cogs to produce legal work in an industrialized legal work production scheme rather than a feeling like a professional or a full person.


This starts in the interview process where law firms cover the technical skills and practice area expertise but often fail to focus on the individual. We have clients who really work to focus on the whole person and try to listen to their employees. As a result, they enjoy much lower turnover than the industry average. Still, turnover is up for everyone, as is “quiet quitting” so there is room for improvement for all of us. However, many organizations and supervisors do not yet look at individual motivations and traits.


Clients and candidates of The Advocates know we believe in the long-proven theorem that when people’s traits match work culture, they thrive and stay longer. But it turns out that there is more to it according to a recent study in Harvard Business Review.


What are people looking for?

According to a study cited in The Harvard Business Review of over 50,000 employees from a randomized sample of professions around the world, the top indicators of work engagement and satisfaction were not pay, work location, liking one’s colleagues or even a strong belief in the organization’s mission. While these were important, three things mattered more:


  1. A feeling of excitement to go to work (being a cultural fit and liking your colleagues, respecting your supervisor and a good relationship with them are certainly a part of this but not all of it). The rest is based on numbers 2 & 3.


  1. Do I have a chance to use my strengths every day?


  1. Getting to do at least some work that I truly love doing and am good at (at least 20% of my day).


The study showed that not only are employees who experience the above more productive, but they stay longer as well.


People are the Point

Sadly, many of us don’t focus on the human part of the equation in the interview process. When we do focus on personal things, it is about hobbies or family or other “small talk.”


That bears asking the question: What are hiring decisions based on?

Should more of our hiring decisions be based on inquiring about what work our candidates are good at and feel good about, the parts of their jobs they get excited about, and that uses their key strengths (not always skills like organizing, communication, but also traits-based strengths like empathy or drive)?  Should the hiring decision be based on more than skills and our gut feeling about them as a person?


At The Advocates and Targeted Legal Staffing Solutions (TLSS), we have developed and use a tool called the Chronological Behavior-based Interview (CBI) to help us assist our candidates as they identify answers to the above and develop the ideal job profile based on their traits. This has helped us focus on our candidates’ goals and their core characteristics to identify key indicators of what should make them happy in our clients’ environments.


But we need to add to that.


We need to listen for when, where and why a candidate was most fulfilled and happiest in their work lives, what skills they enjoy, how and when they learned best and what made them feel valued.  


Does the position you’re interviewing for offer significant opportunities for your prospective candidate to learn, to be excited about what they do and to use their best skills? Doing that, in addition to understanding how their personality traits will fit into the target work environment and culture will help you thrive in these difficult times.


Here are some suggestions for areas of inquiry in your own interviews to humanize the hiring process and focus on the whole person:


  • What are your goals?


  • Why are those your goals – what makes them important to you?


  • How do your professional goals impact your personal goals?


  • What do you look for or need from your employer to help you achieve these goals?


  • What work related accomplishment are you most proud of? Why? What made you proud?


  • When was a time you were truly happy or satisfied at work? What was it about the work or the environment caused that feeling?


  • What is the most important or exciting thing you learned in the past year?


  • What do you like about your current role and current work environment? How does that impact you?


  • What are you looking to improve in your current situation?


  • What do you want to learn – where in your legal practice do you wish to grow your skillset?


The above questions are starting points – the key is to be curious about the ‘why’ behind the answer and ask follow ups to clarify. This demonstrates that you care and helps both parties assess true long-term fit.


As an employer, if you understand the answers to the above early on, and they match what you offer, you will land more prospective lateral attorneys and employees. They should also stay longer.


I hope these questions prove helpful in building your organization with long term contributors who just happen to also be humans.


In our next post, we will discuss ways to humanize your workplace with practical insights that will change your culture for the better by increasing engagement and reducing turnover.


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