The Brief Notes: A General Counsel’s Guide to Hiring the Very Best Legal Talent

By Princeton Legal Search Group, LLC

This is an abridged version of the must-have legal talent acquisition and retention guide in rapidly changing legal markets. It provides essential strategies on crafting a vision and plan for recruiting a high performing legal team, interviewing techniques for you and your team, suggestions for creating a diverse team, and developing a succession structure to retain and develop the very best legal talent, among other key topics.

Establish a Comprehensive, Long-Term Vision for Your Legal Team

Here are some questions you may want to ask during the planning process. While this may not be a complete list, it should get you started on a path and give you the foundation for additional questions:

  • What core competencies and skills will you need today, tomorrow and beyond? What roles will business management, technological and other nonlegal expertise play?
  • What changes or trends may impact the business? For example, are proposed mergers and acquisitions in the picture? What new or changing technologies might affect the business and your department? Is your organization growing organically or through acquisition? The answers will influence the type of lawyer you need to hire today and the talent you will need down the road.
  • What legal competencies will you develop internally, compared with the cost-benefit analysis of purchasing law firm competencies or expertise? For example, some companies want their litigation work done in house, and other companies prefer that the heavy lifting for litigation be handled by outside law firms. What are your organization’s preferences? What is the turnover in your legal department, and is it lower or higher than that of the rest of the organization? Do you know the organization's average turnover for professionals? How will you factor turnover into your succession planning?
  • What is your current outside counsel spend? Are there pressures from management to reduce it? Often, such spending can be greatly reduced by hiring additional talent for your own legal department at a fraction of the cost.
  • What does the succession plan look like for the existing C-suite or senior-level management team? Are there individuals who may be exiting the workforce, or have prescribed or term employment contracts? The answers will impact the types of core competencies, practice areas and skills you need today, compared with those needed in the future.
  • What is your legal team's current makeup? Are there individuals who may be ready for a stretch assignment, promotion, additional responsibilities, special project or other changes? Can these individuals be positioned now for your future needs?

Know Your Legal Hiring Plan and Create a Proven Communication Strategy

Clear communication is essential.

The communication process becomes matrixed very quickly, and there are multiple ways and places for communication to become muddled. Your requirements for a new hire should be fully defined and embrace all of the following:

  • A detailed position description
  • Reporting structure and securing stakeholder buy-in
  • Compensation details: salary, bonus, equity and signing bonus
  • Summary plan descriptions for benefits and 401(k) plans
  • PTO, vacation and related items (such as flextime, telecommuting ect.)
  • Relocation program

Recruit to Your Official Legal Team Plan

Two of the most frequently changing dynamics we encounter are as follows:

One, an organization will have a compensation plan ready for execution and will bring it to market when a search is launched. The organization comes to realize it does not have accurate compensation data for its market, the search stalls and the organization needs to adjust the compensation (salary and/or bonus) to be more competitive. When this happens, momentum may be lost in building the talent pipeline, and the talent often moves on to other more attractive opportunities.

Two, and this issue can actually be more challenging than the first, an organization has unrealistic expectations of the market in terms of the availability of unique, specialized legal talent. For example, if a company is looking for very specific experience in a regulated environment in a very specific industry and will not consider non-industry experience, the pool of qualified individuals is likely to be very small. Having the flexibility to consider experience outside the industry or industry experience coupled with related practice area experience will broaden the search and yield more options.

Doing homework upfront regarding compensation in your geographic market and the availability of specialized legal talent in your market will help lessen the need for radical changes during the process. However, some adaptation to the market's changing dynamics may be required during the course of a search.

Hiring Attorneys as a Reliable, Ongoing Process

A broad and diverse legal network is especially helpful during the recruiting process.

Those professional contacts are an excellent resource for:

  • benchmarking compensation
  • obtaining referrals
  • benchmarking practice area expertise – to learn who has it and how it is marketed
  • evaluating the lessons learned from other hiring experiences. For example, is the group interview more effective than a slate of interviews? What tracking methodologies are used to gather and organize feedback? What tools are used in the decision-making process?
  • gaining sage advice in general and about legal and business trends and how they might impact your hiring needs today as well as in the future

Strategies for a Successful Legal Succession Plan: Part I, Cross-Training


If you are looking for a highly fruitful way to create succession plan threads or tenets in your legal department, cross-training is an excellent route.

It broadens skills by teaching professionals how to handle someone else's responsibilities, temporarily or permanently. Contrary to the experience during traditional law firm training, in-house lawyers can be trained in all or part of a colleague's tasks or in other competencies, possibly outside the legal department.

Think about when you were hired by a law firm and had no practice area concentration; you learned at least one practice area in depth and possibly others, too. In-house legal departments do not follow the model where a partner may have chosen you based on his or her need, rather than based on your interest or practice area. We know many lawyers who listed practice area interests when hired by a law firm, and never were given the opportunity to acquire those competencies. Generally speaking, in-house legal departments will hire for a particular practice area expertise, but there is a far greater chance to develop additional practice areas in-house than in a law firm.

Formal and informal cross-training programs may be created so legal professionals can develop the critical competencies you have identified as lacking, now or down the road. Legal department cross-training may have an additional upside; it may also be a means toward creating pathways to the general counsel role.

What are the core practice areas necessary to be a successful GC in your organization? Can cross-training programs be formulated to develop such competencies or practice areas? Are you open to grooming a legal professional who may need to leave your organization if he or she is successful, and the GC role is occupied by you or another professional has been identified as the successor?

Cross-training also protects your ability to manage your department's functions should someone leave. Having more than one individual trained in a practice area, or with knowledge of the legal operation processes, will minimize disruption and enhance your team's performance.

Strategies for a Successful Legal Succession Plan: Part II; Stretch Assignment, Special Project and Developmental Opportunities

Stretch Assignments and Special Projects

Stretch assignments and special project opportunities allow legal professionals to develop competencies or practice areas that make them more valuable to the organization. These opportunities strategically position professionals for growth, based on current competencies that may be lacking or on future company needs. Possible stretch assignments or special projects may include presenting at a board meeting or preparing documents outside the scope of the professionals' responsibilities, such as work on the annual report or participation in an employment investigation.

Developmental Programs

Developmental programs may be broader, varied or general learning opportunities that could propel a lawyer's career, add to his or her general marketability, or be part of a formal succession plan. Examples of developmental programs include securing a certificate; undergoing training, such as computer instruction, 'understanding financials for the non-financial executive' or other non-CLE programs; participating on a task force or ad hoc group to learn a skill or be exposed to a different group of professionals, or creating a training manual.

Building Key Stakeholder Buy-in: Don't Hire Lawyers Without It

How To Determine Who Is a Key Stakeholder

Your role, in this regard, is deciding on the key stakeholders to be consulted and the scope of the input you are seeking. These questions are helpful in identifying those to be contacted:

  • Do they have input on the candidate’s performance or evaluation?
  • Can they influence the candidate’s ability to be promoted or determine his or her bonus?
  • Does your department's success or evaluation depend in part on the candidate's performance?
  • Which client groups or teams would the candidate support? Typical examples include accounting, finance, sales, business development, human resources and business units.
  • What is the onboarding process in your organization? And which stakeholders share responsibility for that role in your department?
  • Is this a replacement or a newly created position, or somewhere in between? If it is a replacement, seeking input from key stakeholders about their experience with the lawyer who left can be very instructive and can inform your hiring, particularly if the lawyer was well-regarded and there are expectations about who will succeed best in the role.

Master the Art of the Interview: Tactics for Hiring the Right Lawyer

Imagine a scenario where you need to hire an attorney, and your team is confident and organized in its interview process. After the interview, you collectively debrief on common sets of competencies, skills, practice areas and traits. That would be an ideal situation.

However, in most instances, the process is far less structured. So how might you create your process? A smooth process is important for external as well as internal reasons; lawyers are far more impressed when the process is well-organized. We have lawyers say they were pleased to see that the interviewer was genuine in her/his attention and took time to write notes on their resume, showing a level of interest. And we have lawyers say, 'that was the worst interview I ever had. They didn't ask me anything relevant to the position. They talked about a deal or a transaction.' Most candidates can tell whether the process is well-oiled—or not.

Our goal here is to give you a process and sample questions that may be useful in vetting candidates.

“Stretching the Norms”: Diversity as a Recruiting Strategy for Exceptional Legal Talent

Diversity in the legal profession is a challenge.

Do you dare stretch beyond your comfort zone? If you are recruiting the same way, employing old pathways, you will find more of what you currently may have on your team. But what if you dared to execute new recruiting strategies with possibly new sources or resources? We'd say bravo. You would have a greater chance of success in achieving not just business diversity, but diversity of thought and resources.

Savvy and successful General Counsels realize the value, on many levels, of a diverse team.

Comprehensive Strategies for Building Synergies With Human Resource Professionals

Here are some HR questions to consider before embarking on the process:

  • What is your working relationship with the HR function? Does the department have experience recruiting legal professionals and will there be an ongoing need to do so? Perhaps the department is willing and able to create a pipeline of legal professionals.
  • Who will screen candidates, a process that includes a focus on cultural fit and qualifications? If HR is screening for legal competencies, does the department have deep and nuanced knowledge of those competencies and how they may be applicable? Take intellectual property as an example. This might involve a lawyer who prepares and prosecutes patents. Or it can mean a lawyer who is focused on trademark, copyright and licensing. These are vastly different roles and competencies. We have seen HR be very effective in screening for cultural fit and offering astute perceptions that assess fit within the department and/or the larger organization.
  • What will the interview process look like? Who will conduct the interviews? How many interviewers will there be, and will multiple on-site visits be required? This may depend in part on the level of the position. Are your team members or the interviewers trained in how to organize and conduct an interview?
  • Will interviewers ask common questions of all candidates? How will the interviewers rate or give feedback to you or the HR department? Who will have the final decision in the selection process? Who has to sign off on the legal hire? (It is critical to understand the decision-making process.)
  • Who has the authority, and what are the necessary steps, to make the offer to a candidate? For, we have seen organizations where it is the HR department's responsibility to determine starting pay, bonus and equity incentives (LTI or stock options). We have also seen organizations where the HR department has been notified once a candidate has accepted the offer. These are two extremes, but they illustrate the range of experiences we have encountered. One is not right; it is a question of understanding the role of HR within your organization.

Maintaining Momentum: Definitive Strategies To Keep Your Legal Recruiting Process on Track

Here are tactical mistakes we have seen organizations make that have derailed momentum. If you avoid these mistakes, you will maintain momentum and vastly improve the likelihood of hiring the lawyer of your choice:

Scheduling: Make sure that there is a scheduler or system in place from the beginning of the recruiting process. Momentum is easily lost when companies do not have a process for timely scheduling of interviews and follow up meetings with candidates. Check in with that person along the way to ensure buy-in and to clarify expectations.

Encountering Inertia: If a disagreement occurs or a non-decisive team member can't make up his or her mind, keep the process moving forward. Ask yourself, is it worth losing the candidate? The lift to bring the candidate back into the process is a far greater effort than keeping the candidate engaged.

Running Out of Steam: We've seen this when a candidate has been chosen but it is unclear who will make the offer, how it will be made or who is the primary point person or negotiator. This scenario happens more frequently than you think. This is also a pivotal point for the candidate; the idea for counteroffers is born here