How To Hire Your First Associate Attorney

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Thinking about hiring your first associate for your solo or small firm can be exciting. The good news is it probably means you have so much work you can justify the added expense and effort a new associate demands. It can also be the first step to creating a bigger presence in the legal community.

Affording a New Associate Attorney

Before posting a job ad on Craigslist, consider other hiring options such as a paralegal—even if your burgeoning caseload is screaming for help.

If that’s not an option, remember you aren’t just paying an associate’s salary. There are many ways to calculate the actual financial cost of an employee, but it is “typically in the 1.25 to 1.4 times base salary” range. That means paying an associate attorney $50,000 a year will actually cost you up to $70,000 a year.

Scott Seiler, an attorney who mostly represents organizations, estimates that he has hired nearly a dozen associates. He states that it’s important to plot out exactly how you will pay for the new position. Whether you have the income already secured with existing clients or the new income you think you can generate with the new associate on board, you have to figure out how you’ll be able to pay them.

The Fallacy of More Time

If you think that you’ll automatically have more time the minute you hire the new associate, that’s almost certainly wrong. Seiler pointed out that you’ll be “inheriting new tasks.” You are now management, which means you have to supervise and train the new associates.

Some associates are more capable than others, but it’s a safe bet that the time you spend training and supervising the new associate will, at least briefly, affect your firm’s overall production. You will have less time to work on your own cases, at least until your new hire is comfortable in the new position.

But assuming that you’ve made all the calculations and want to go ahead with hiring your first associate, what do you do next? When you hire any employee, you have to consider a whole new range of issues.

The Logistics of a New Hire

There are a lot of different ways to start hiring, but a sensible first step might be to find out some of the technical logistics that you should think about before trying to find your new associate. In most ways, an associate is just one of many types of new employees. For small employers, the Small Business Association offers a useful checklist for basic compliance. This isn’t a complete list, but you’ll want to make sure you’re complying with all regulations concerning:

  • Federal income tax withholding
  • Federal wage and tax statements
  • State taxes
  • Employment eligibility verification (I-9 forms)
  • Register new hires with the state
  • Worker’s compensation insurance
  • Posting of required employment-related notices
  • Notify your accountant or bookkeeper about the new employee
  • Tax consequences
  • OSHA compliance
  • Unemployment insurance requirements
  • Malpractice insurance
  • Employee manual (whether you should have one or not and what it should include)

You may be able to find someone to help you work through this type of checklist. Gloria Contreras Edin, who practices primarily in immigration, family, and criminal law, recommends looking into working through an EDC (Economic Development Corporation). These regional, private, non-profits may be able to help answer some of the “new hire” questions you hadn’t yet considered.

When your firm is just starting to grow, you probably can’t justify a formal HR department. Contreras Edin recommends working through a payroll consulting firm, like Paychex or Intuit. These firms will help with payroll and work you through most of the tasks on the checklist.

Attracting Talent

Even with a tight job market, you still have to convince a good applicant to work for you. You’ll have to offer a competitive wage. You may not decide to state the salary before the first interview, but the question will eventually come up. There are sites that can help you figure out what the going rate is in your area.

Seiler points out that even things like a workspace can matter: “If you want someone who wants to work for you and bring in business, you better not put them in the basement of a C-class building.”

Finding the Right Associate Attorney

Once you have the logistics worked out, it’s time to think past how to hire and move on to who to hire.

“Our most successful hires have been law students at the beginning,” said Seiler. “We know we’ll have a need for a growing part of our practice in two years or even one year. If you know you’ll need their help…you get to develop them. Work on their skills.”

Contreras Edin, who estimates that she has hired ten associates in her practice, said there are three versions of law student help:

  1. Hourly wage
  2. Volunteer positions
  3. Grades for class

Contreras Edin’s preference is hourly wage law students. “[Law students] are usually looking for a position after law school and seem dedicated,” said Edin. “They’re trying to impress us.”

If the law school route seems too slow, there are other methods to find your first associate. Seiler mentioned that ads and headhunting services haven’t been very effective. Edin echoes this advice: “The lawyers we have been most pleased with are usually referred by judges or colleagues.”

Once again, Seiler recommends a patient approach. “Make calls. Talk to people at medium or large firms—ask if they know people. It’s not fast. It takes time. But the phone rings. Use relationships with colleagues. Be direct, tell people exactly what you are looking for.”

Whatever route you choose, make sure to target the right applicants by being as clear as possible in what you are looking for in an associate. If you advertise, ask for a cover letter along with the resume. You may be surprised how many people will fail to follow basic instructions in applying. Chances are they won’t be the detail-oriented associate you were hoping for.

The Interview Process

Winnow your list of resumes down to candidates you think you might actually hire. Contreras Edin mentioned she once interviewed seven different candidates for one position. Now she tries to limit it to two or three at the most.

There are some basics in the interview process. “You need to know what you can’t ask. For instance, Do you have children?” Contreras Edin said. To get to know your applicant, Seiler suggests asking, “What books do you read?” and “What sort of stuff do you watch on Netflix?”. He also introduces an applicant to as many staff members as possible to gauge their reaction.

It can also be helpful to have two people conduct the interview. Contreras Edin has a senior paralegal in the room during the first interview. One asks the questions while the other is both listening to the answers and watching for body language. The majority of her practice is serving clients who speak Spanish with limited or no English proficiency. In the interview, Contreras Edin will flow from Spanish to English, a good test to see if the applicant is fluent in both languages.

Once you get an applicant through the door, how many times should you interview them? Some people are comfortable with one interview while others will do several. Seiler invites candidates for coffee or some other setting that’s outside of the office after the initial interview. Meeting outside of the office in a less formal spot can give you a more thorough glimpse into the applicant’s personality.

Last, you will want to check your applicant’s references. While most references will offer glowing praise, occasionally you can learn something useful. One method to get references to offer something more candid is to describe the position the person applied for. Ask how the reference thinks the applicant will do in that specific job or if they would have any concerns picturing them doing that type of work.

Pulling the Trigger

Once you have gone through the interview process, checked references, and made your decision, make the offer. Don’t wait. Whether they are a law student or a practicing lawyer, a good applicant might be interviewing for other positions while you try to decide. You can lose them by deciding to take your time in the hiring decision.

When you do call to offer the position, you need to present a clear offer. Obviously, the applicant will want to know their new salary. But they will also probably ask about sick leave, vacation time, health, dental, 401(k), expenses and other specifics. It may have come up in the interview, but if you have a billable-hour requirement, you should state it explicitly here.

Even in this tight job market, you have to convince the applicant to say yes. There are few things as frustrating in the hiring process as offering the job to an applicant and getting turned down. Offering a competitive salary and understanding the benefits you’re offering can be the difference between a “No” and “When do I start?”

Originally published January 4, 2016. Republished July 15, 2016.

Featured image: “Business colleagues shaking hands at desk in office” from Shutterstock.

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  • David Weiner

    Thanks. This is very helpful information.