In the solosmall world, it often isn’t as necessary to think about checking references as it is at a BigLaw firm or out in the non-law business arena. By and large, if solosmall firms are going to expand, it will be by bringing aboard a person who is a known quantity. Someone with a book of business in the same practice area and same location or an individual who previously worked for you as a clerk are good examples of these types of people.

What this generally means, of course, is that we rely a lot on our gut feeling and our informal discussions when making a decision about hiring someone or partnering with them. We can do better than that, and we should.

First, don’t treat reference checking like a perfunctory exercise. Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm, recommends setting aside an hour for each reference call. It might not take that long, but you need to have enough of your schedule cleared that it could. It’s important to have an open-ended and far-ranging conversation, and that can’t happen if you’ve tried to cram the reference call in a fifteen-minute break between two meetings.

Next, as with every type of meaningful conversation, ask open-ended questions so that the other person has an opportunity to give detailed answers. Don’t make those inquiries so broad that you will just get vague platitudes, though.

Avoid asking broad questions such as, “‘What can you tell me about Mary?’” says [Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder]. These questions tend to elicit vague answers that focus on Mary’s “best traits rather than the ones most relevant to the job.”[…] Claman recommends referring to information gleaned from the candidate during the interview process. Say something like, “I understand Nancy helped implement a new payroll system. Can you tell me more about Nancy’s role in that?”

Combining specificity—asking about particular projects—with an open and encouraging invitation for the reference to keep talking can help ensure you get a comprehensive view of the candidate.

Fernández-Aráoz also points out that it is important to focus on what we typically think of as “soft” skills: social and emotional intelligence. This is crucial for a small organization like a small firm where you will be working very closely with someone. People that have emotional intelligence can recognize and manage their own emotions and those of others. People that have high emotional intelligence have high levels of both empathy and curiosity. Their desire to build meaningful connections can be a key ingredient in fostering repeat clients. To get an understanding of whether your prospective hire has those characteristics, Fernández-Aráoz recommends asking questions like

“What can you tell me about Mary’s self-awareness and self-regulation? How motivated is she? Does she exhibit empathy? Is she flexible? “There are no right or wrong answers,” he says. But what you learn will help you get a sense for whether the candidate is “a cultural fit” for your organization. “Try to understand the type of culture that this candidate has worked in and her ability to learn and adapt to a new ones,” he says.

Taking enough time, asking the right questions, and making sure you don’t just focus on “traditional” job skills will help ensure that you do the best reference check possible and get the best candidate for your firm.

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