Hiring Holistically

Although David White works for a technology company, he prefers a more humanistic approach when hiring in-house and outside counsel

David White asks, “Did you ever see I, Robot (referring to the 2004 film)? Did you see how the robots were making the other robots? That is what our machines do. They make the machines that make the world.”

White is essentially describing DMG MORI USA, the stateside branch of the Japanese/German-based machine tool manufacturing and automation company where he serves as deputy general counsel. “We’re the world’s largest provider of advanced metal manufacturing equipment,” he continues, going on to describe CNC machines for industries from aerospace, automotive, and medical to other complex, larger-than-life pieces of technology manufactured on DMG MORI equipment.

On the manufacturing end, just about everything can be automated: “Robots lift the parts out of the box, run them through machines for machining, then run that through other machines for cleaning, drying, boxing, and packaging. The extra engineering can become pricey, but the results speak for themselves.”

White’s work in commercial transactions, however, has a decidedly more human touch, especially when it comes to engaging other attorneys. He credits this to his time with Lawyer Metrics, a company that provides evidence-based methods for identifying, selecting, and developing lawyers.

Lawyer Metrics was founded by William D. Henderson, one of White’s mentors and professors at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. In May 2010, he spent a year as Henderson’s associate, using Lawyer Metrics designing data-based talent management systems for several small to large law firms. Although DMG MORI doesn’t frequently hire many in-house counsel, White draws from his experience at Lawyer Metrics whenever the company does need to leverage other legal talent. That means clearly understanding and defining company culture, asking the right questions during the hiring process, and focusing on skills such as emotional intelligence, problem-solving, and initiative, as opposed to where they attended law school or where they were an associate.

In a conversation with Modern Counsel, White breaks down a few of his best practices—practices that other legal departments might want to keep in mind—for hiring humans, not robots.

Know What You Need

You have to figure out a few things before you even think about hiring. What we determined at Lawyer Metrics was, first you have to really think about what kind of lawyer is successful at your company. It’s not always about expertise in a certain area of law.

If a legal matter gets too complicated, we’re probably hiring an outside expert anyway, and so to hire someone and say, “I need you to be an expert in this or that” may not actually be the goal.

To pay for that specialized expertise in-house versus outsourcing it to a firm often makes no sense.  With so many daily matters, the legal department simply can’t sacrifice individuals to individual complex cases—no matter how interesting. So you have to think about, “What type of overall experience do I want my new hires to have?” Maybe I want someone with experience in contracts and maybe some  industry knowledge and experience working with management or a sales team. Those are the things I would like. But then you get to the more important part, which is, “What kind of person do I want?”

All of our attorneys that work with us have emotional intelligence.

Measure the Person

If a company is looking for a good communicator, you want to look at your interview sheet and think about what types of questions tell you something about that quality. I’m going to ask you things like, “Tell me about a time when you had a complicated legal matter and you had to simplify it for a decision-maker.”

At Lawyer Metrics, we found that you can really customize interview tools such as behavioral questions or standard scorecards. By scoring candidates, you can get an idea of who your top contenders are in terms of desired personality traits. Then, you can focus on what matters to your department: “I want somebody who is nice. I want somebody who communicates well, simplifies complicated ideas, and can embrace the different cultures at my company.”

When we start talking about behaviors and personality, you begin intentionally looking for something a little different than, “Where did you go to law school?” Ask yourself, “How much does my particular education actually affect your day-to-day work?” I hope not much. I hope your experience is what defines your peculiar qualifications.

After you sort résumés for key words and experience, you really have to consider how you are going to cut down the list. Assuming you have those top ten candidates, now is the time to think about the interview and think about the hiring process more in terms of what you call soft skills. I hesitate to use that term. If you quote me on that, quote me in that I hesitated to use that term.

Define Your Company Culture

How do you figure out your company culture, or even your working group culture? How do you give one set of traits priority over the others? A very simple method is using interdepartmental surveys. Just ask people about their experience with the company and what they think are the top qualities in people who are successful here. Then, look for themes and commonalities that seem to define your culture.

What you want to work out is what particular set of qualities make a person successful in your company, or especially in your department. Start by asking what your co-workers think is successful at the company. It should ring a bell, right? You should say, “They’re right. Successful people here are very nice and driven. People here do have a strong work ethic.”

Prioritize Emotional Intelligence

“All of our attorneys that work with us have emotional intelligence. They can empathize with different groups from our customers to our executives to
our employees.”

If I’m cold and I really don’t empathize with customers, I’ll say, “That’s not a legal issue. This is a legal department. You need to talk to management.” But that doesn’t always help us move forward as a company. The successful people in our company understand that and they offer more suggestions, recommendations, or just simply good, common sense solutions.

Can you engage other people? Are you emotionally intelligent? Can you read people? Can you empathize with their situation, and do you care about their situation? The final component is—and it sounds cliché—can you go beyond your job to help the company? These are the questions you need to ask.

Use Data First, Then Your Gut

Use data. Use survey data (recurring themes), behavioral testing (Meyers-Briggs), or performance evaluations to establish working knowledge of success at your organization. Use this data to help narrow the pool of qualified candidates and eliminate poor cultural fits, that is, the people who, in another environment, might be super-successful, whether it’s at a law firm or another company altogether, just not your company. At the end of the day, you want to narrow the selection down to the best candidates for the job. Now, it comes down to a gut check, to using your own emotional intelligence to find the best person for the job.