Getting it right on staff recruitment
Employing the right people is vital to any practice’s success but it isn’t always easy, particularly for small firms. Vicky Ling advises on how to recruit wisely.
Creating an effective staff team is one of the most important management activities in any legal aid practice; but like so many management issues, it won’t just happen, it needs to be planned and thought through.
If the practice is accredited to the Specialist Quality Mark (SQM), it needs to comply with requirement D1.4 for an ‘open’ recruitment process, which specifies that posts must be ‘offered to the most suitable individual on the basis of an objective and consistent assessment against requirements that you set relating to the role’s key tasks and responsibilities as well as any relevant personal attributes that you seek’. Lexcel requirement 4.4 calls for practices to ‘… list the tasks to be undertaken by all personnel within the practice usually in the form of a role profile,’ and also for clear and transparent selection procedures (Lexcel 4.5).
As the cuts introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 are biting harder, practices are changing the way they work, whether that is reducing the numbers of secretarial and support staff, or asking support staff to do more clientfacing work. So it makes sense to review job descriptions before conducting a recruitment exercise to ensure that you are recruiting to the job you need the person to do in future, rather than the way it has been done in the past.
In addition, equality and diversity requirements set out in the SQM, Lexcel and the Equality Act 2010 mean thinking about the new role and designing a fair and reasonable application process for candidates. However, these requirements do not necessarily mean that every vacancy has to be filled following public advertisement. Sometimes suitable candidates can come to a practice’s attention through observed performance at court, or the way they conduct a matter as the representative of the ‘other party’. However, it is important to carry out a frank comparison of a potential candidate against your requirements, otherwise you risk failing to find the best candidate for the job. Casting your recruitment net more widely can often result in applications from better candidates. The Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) website has a free jobs page and it publicises vacancies widely through Twitter. I have heard very positive feedback from firms about the candidates they have attracted through YLAL.
Smaller firms of solicitors can lack experience of recruitment, as people tend to stay with them for long periods of time. If you do not recruit very often, you may not know how to spot embellishments or omissions in a CV. It can be better to use an application form rather than asking for CVs, as getting candidates to fill out your form makes it easier to compare the information provided by different people. Asking applicants to address some specific questions about their suitability for the role also helps to identify the stronger candidates who should be asked for interview.
‘You may think you know someone from your professional dealings with them, but a good litigator may not be good at following systems, or may add a gloss to their achievements in terms of fees generated. It is essential to check references.’
Some people feel awkward asking probing questions at recruitment interviews. For example, one practice told me that they had recruited a senior solicitor from a firm with a good reputation. They took his CV at face value and he impressed at interview. It soon transpired that he had not been as senior as they thought and his legal knowledge fell far short of their expectations. If only they had asked him for his views on some typical scenarios, or asked his opinion on recent case-law.
If you carry out an assessment, shortlisted candidates must be offered feedback at their request and records of why you did or did not shortlist candidates must be kept for 12 months. The records can also act as useful evidence if an unsuccessful candidate believes that you discriminated against him/her on unlawful grounds.
In Lexcel, the requirements in relation to recruitment are more detailed than the SQM and include taking up references and checking disciplinary records. It makes sense to do this, regardless of the quality standard you hold. Solicitors Regulation Authority disciplinary records can be checked via its website; Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal decisions can also be checked online. I know a firm that did not check the practising certificate and did not ask about a candidate’s disciplinary record, and only discovered after employing a solicitor for some time that he had conditions attached to his practising certificate.
You may think you know someone from your professional dealings with them; but a good advocate or litigator may not be good at following systems or procedures and may add a gloss to their achievements in relation to fees generated. So it is essential to take up formal references.
Another option could be to use recruitment consultants. This might seem like a luxury and their fees may seem high; but they are only paid when the practice is entirely satisfied with the new member of staff.
Recruitment consultants are well aware of market rates for the category of law and level of seniority being sought. They can also provide valuable advice about how to make the vacancy attractive to potential candidates, for example, by offering family friendly flexible working arrangements. They can help by clarifying issues between the parties and negotiating any difficult areas such as salary.
If the fees are considered against the amount of time that could be wasted on a failed recruitment exercise, not to mention the catastrophic effects of a bad appointment, it could be money well spent.