What to look for when hiring a lawyer

Allan Gates, one of the presenters at the ABA Conference on Professional Responsibility, was on a panel which addressed the question of how to create a law firm culture that fosters ethical conduct. (There is no doubt that firm culture plays a crucial role in lawyer conduct.) It was a fascinating discussion.  Gates explained that when his firm hires lawyers one of the primary considerations is whether the applicant will fit into the firm culture.  No surprise there at all.  A related question was whether the applicant is and would be an ethical lawyer.  No surprise there either.  But how can one tell?  One thing Gates’ firm does is to ask whether the applicant is the kind of person, the kind of lawyer, who will make other lawyers in the firm better, or whether the applicant is the kind of person who will be trying to figure out how he can make more than the other guy.  This, of course, is a characteristic that sports teams look for: unselfishness – a natural inclination to put the team first.

As appealing at that notion is, how realistic is it, especially at larger firms?  There is a book entitled Tournament of Lawyers: The Transformation of the Big Law Firm, by Marc Galanter and Thomas Palay, which describes life in a large firm is a competition among lawyers in which there will be few winners and in which the primary goal is, of course, not teamwork but personal survival in a professional sense.

Economic pressure is an ever present factor and often the driving force in firm culture.  One way to prevent it from having a negative and even destructive influence on lawyer conduct is to figure out a way to emphasize and to reward teamwork and unselfishness.  Not easy, but worth the effort not only in the compensation committee but also in the hiring process.