What Matters Most to Top-Tier Recruits and Laterals

Laura Dutt

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Laura Dutt is the Chief Talent Officer for Benesch. In this article, she describes how, with some serious flexibility and creativity, her team successfully recruited, interviewed and onboarded new team members during the pandemic.

Back in the “before times,” when no one could have imagined empty law firm offices and Zoom hiring committees, my firm Benesch created an ambitious strategic growth plan that focused in part on lateral hiring. Despite the challenges and limitations of the past two years, we continued pursuing our vision for the firm and eventually welcomed more than 30 lateral hires.

The need to recruit, interview and onboard new team members during the pandemic required us not just to rethink logistics but also to reevaluate which aspects of the conventional process were most meaningful for candidates and which ones didn’t matter as much as we had once believed. For instance, we initially worried that candidates who could not visit our offices in person might hesitate to commit to joining our firm, but that turned out to be less important than we expected. Instead, we learned that candidates cared far more about who they would be working with than the details of the office space.

That new understanding freed us to rethink our approach to interviewing candidates during this strange time. Not having to arrange travel and schedule in-person interviews and office tours saved us a lot of time. We reinvested those hours in designing remote meetings introducing candidates to key partners and leaders for substantive conversations, despite the distance. These efforts at connection paid off, as several candidates cited this personal touch as essential to their decision to join Benesch.

That’s just one example of the many things we learned in the past 15 months about what matters most to top-tier recruits and laterals. As we move out of the pandemic and into the future, firms that want to win the most sought-after talent may want to focus their strategy on four crucial areas:

Visibility of leadership

Candidates of course value conversations with practice group partners to get a sense of a firm’s key clients and work process, but they also understand that in order to gain visibility into firm organizational strategy, culture and policies, they need to connect with leadership during their interviews. Therefore, making folks at the top of your firm an integral part of the lateral recruiting experience can add tremendous value to the process.

Obviously, this access feels most authentic when it is a natural extension of the existing leadership style. We are fortunate that our managing partner Gregg Eisenberg has always made it a priority, before and during the pandemic, to remain visible inside our organization. After the shutdown, Gregg held more frequent town hall meetings and regularly checked in with various cohorts within the firm. That level of engagement means a lot to our existing talent and sets the tone for our culture. It also translates to a hands-on approach during the recruiting process.

And the engagement of our leaders extends into the onboarding phase. Our new offering “Leaders and Laterals” is a hosted interactive event that connects new lateral hires with leadership at the firm. This kind of focused opportunity to access leadership has been extremely successful and probably is not something we would have thought to develop before the pandemic.

Substantive vision for DEI

Our firm’s progressive culture has always self-selected for candidates who value diversity, equity and inclusion, but even given that fact we have seen increased interest in this topic across the interview process. It is crucial for firms to be prepared to talk about their approach to DEI. Top-tier talent wants to learn about specific ways the firm is putting this value into action, and how it is measuring its progress on key metrics. Candidates are attuned to the ways in which substantive engagement on DEI intersects with business development and client service. We take seriously our responsibility to lead on these initiatives, and we continuously look for ways to demonstrate our commitment to creating a more inclusive future across the industry.

Workplace strategy

While the physical office set-up has diminished in importance, candidates are eager to hear about our vision for the workplace experience going forward. Internally, we have stayed on top of this question with our existing team by soliciting input on the remote experience (what has worked and what has not) and expectations about returning to the office. Benesch has always been a forward-thinking firm willing to try new approaches, and the end of the pandemic provides another opportunity to shift policies to align with our values and the needs of our team.

As we talk about that workplace strategy with candidates, we are finding that expectations vary quite a bit across groups. And sometimes they defy generational stereotypes. While some coverage of Gen Z candidates has focused on their desire for remote work, we are hearing from this cohort that they value and look forward to the in-person work experience. They understand that physically being in the office will facilitate more effective mentorship opportunities and make a significant impact on their career development. They also derive satisfaction from professional relationships with colleagues. On the other hand, some of our laterals who are in a different life stage and need to balance work with outside responsibilities may continue to rely on the new flexible options we’ve adopted firmwide. We are committed to accommodating this array of needs as much as we possibly can and making our workplace a seamless experience across in-person and remote or hybrid schedules.

Intentional culture-building

Just as many candidates are eager to return to the office, they also want to know how our firm builds and nurtures our office culture. Answering this question in 2021 is complex. On the one hand, we continue to be very proud of the culture we built prior to the pandemic, and that friendly and collaborative ethos was a direct result of the many in-person social events we organized. Members of our firm socialized together outside work and supported each other through many important life milestones. Those meaningful bonds are what allowed us to stay connected throughout the pandemic.

On the other hand, we know that we cannot rely on in-person methods alone to continue building out culture. When some people return to work in the office, others will continue with hybrid arrangements, and all the hires who recently joined our firm will not have had the chance to participate in past relationship-building events. Throughout the pandemic and through this reopening period, we have reimagined how to create culture in new ways. Many of us with other job titles have transformed into part-time party planners, organizing outdoor events, small-group get-togethers and hybrid gatherings that ensure people working remotely feel fully included with the rest of the team. Whether it’s a virtual wine-tasting, a trivia contest or a sandwich-making class, we aim to provide as many opportunities as possible to help current and new members of the firm form the bonds that lead to collegial relationships, more fulfilling work experiences and true inclusion.

Despite the challenges of this extraordinary time, 2021 is an exciting moment for candidates looking to start or level up a career in the law. Firms that can use the interview process to communicate what they value — and how those values translate to the lived experience of their lawyers — will be best positioned to secure top-tier talent and build firms that are ready to take on the future.

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