LawNet Tackles Some Thorny Issues Facing I.T. Directors
Editor's Note: LawNet Inc. has just released its I.T. Staffing Survey 2000, under the direction of Tracey Baetzel of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn. The survey, which includes data from 113 firms, analyzes staffing; salaries and compensation; benefits; recruiting and retention. To order a copy of the survey, contact Randi Mayes, 2110 Slaughter Lane #115-149, Austin, Texas 78748.
JAKE Reichenstein, LawNet's immediate past president, posed the following questions at the request of LTN, on LawNet's listserv. The questions generated a fascinating discussion. Here are some highlights:
1. What's the biggest challenge to your firm in recruiting IT staff?
Tracey Baetzel: You have to know what you are looking for in the position, and interviewing takes a great deal of time.
We are starting to do second interviews with all managers in a group, and also with the staff to get a sense of the people "fit."
Randall Miller: Recruiting top people with consistently competitive salary and bonus packages and providng a good physical work environment.
Peter Baran: Retaining my senior talented staff.
It becomes a never-ending battle to fend off the whispered advice of friends, trade papers, etc., that tout astronomical compensation tools and packages.
I've tried to cope with this by trying, when possible, to illustrate the expectation/experience that is demanded of the people commanding that kind of money.
Director, Information Services
Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn
Director of Information Technology
Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth
Newport Beach, Calif.
Director of Applications
Sidley & Austin
Manager Information Technology
Siskind Cromarty Ivey & Dowler L.L.P.
London, Ontario, Canada
Director of Technology
Davis & Company
Vancouver, BC Canada
R. Bruce Johnson
Director - Information Services
Robinson Silverman Pearce Aronsohn & Berman LLP
New York City, N.Y.
Director of Information Technology
Altheimer & Gray
Jake M. Reichenstein
Cowles & Thompson, P.C.
David Hill: Keeping them.
Jake Reichenstein: Being able to pay (money and benefits) that are offered in the corporate world.
Joy Heath-Porter: Salary is an issue for all of us, at least in terms of recruiting highly skilled technical staff. You can get fabulous people, though, if you can afford to train them.
R. Bruce Johnson: Finding competent "help desk" staff.
Laurie Hause: Wage expectations. Competing with dot.com companies.
2. What's your #1 secret for recruiting I.T. staff?
Laurie Hause: Offer a blend of wage, variety of access to programs and a good professional development account.
R. Bruce Johnson: Engaging candidates as temps for three to four weeks before offering them a permanent position, particularly for "help desk" positions.
Jake Reichenstein: The personal interview, which includes other I.T. members in the process, because the new member must fit in with the existing members. We need a good communicator who can work as a member of a team.
Joy Heath-Porter: 1) Finding a recruiter you really trust and being patient with that recruiter.
2) Selling a quality of life; we feel very strongly here about offering an environment which offers challenge and opportunity and is human in terms of management.
David Hill: First, I have a good relationship with a local college and see their diploma students while they're in school, so I know of a good pool of talent when a positon opens.
Second, I treat my staff as professionals and I tell applicants that in the interview. I explain what I mean about professoinalism and the people I want to hire love the concept.
Peter Baran: To sell two key elements: quality of life and "toys." We live and work in a very nice enviroment, even compared to most non-legal corporations. That, coupled with the opportunity to work and "play" with many of the key technologies in use today, present and attractive package to a true technologist.
In a more rigid organizational structure at a larger company, a candidate might never get to work with technologies outside their direct sphere of responsibility. We can offer that opportunity.
Randall Miller: A recruit will go through with at least three interviews. One is pretty technical, with all interviewers paying attention to communications skills and personality.
Tracey Baetzel: Use all possible sources. Don't limit yourself to ads only, or one recruiter or networking.
3. What mistake will you never, ever repeat?
Tracey Baetzel: Letting Human Resources monitor background checks without my participation.
Randall Miller: Settling for someone because that is all we can afford.
Peter Baran: Hiring someone based on a recommendation that they simply worked here once (temp, etc.) This has happened a few times, with mostly poor results. After cursory checking, the candidate was hired. Only after the firm at large learned of their hiring did I hear the horror stories.
It taught me to trust my "system" that I've developed over the years, no matter how the candidate finds their way to me.
David Hill: Not paying attention to my gut reactions about an applicant. It wasn't so much that I didn't like him, but I had this uncomfortable feeling about his personality. He looked great on paper and in the interview.
Joy Heath-Porter: Hiring too fast. We have found a small cadre of consultants who fit beautifully in our environment. We have found it better to pay them to backfill open positions, then wait for what we feel is the exact fit, rather than rush to place "warm bodies" in positions.
Jake Reichenstein: Hiring someone who doesn't fit, just to fill the slot. It costs more in the long run, because you have to do it over again very soon.
R. Bruce Johnson: Taking the advice of others as to the qualifications of a candidate.
Laurie Hause: Hire a technical person with weak soft skills.
4. What's your biggest frustration?
Tracey Baetzel: Finding application support people. It's so specialized in law firms, and getting folks up to speed and tuned in to the culture is more difficult than with network types.
Randall Miller: There really is more than one. The tremendous focus in recent years on solely money; probably putting together a package that looks good to the candidate, our workspace needs significant improvement, and the constant turnover particularly among the technical staff which seems to result in almost constant recruiting.
Peter Baran: 1) Trying to educate the firm management about the realities of the I.T. staffing process.
2)Trying to offer competitive compensation packages (money plus benefits).
Getting management to think outside the class-bound structure of a two-tier system, i.e. attorneys versus everyone else.
To be fair, this has been a quantum leap in thinking on the part of the managment teams. they are quite comfortable with the multi-tiered system of progression that attorneys have used (partner, senior associate and associate) for years.
But it has been rather new and difficult challenge to begin thinking about the other part of the house in those terms.
David Hill: Staff turnover. If only there weren't so many other great jobs out there. It seems that just as I get things settled down and all positions filled and functional, someone is closing my office door.
Joy Heath-Porter: Trying to find candidates with law firm experience. For the network side positions, this is not such an issue.
However, on the applications side, we have so many products that are used exclusively or primarily by law firms.We have just resigned ourselves to training these folks.
Also, candidates who have no law firm experience often do not know what to expect, especially in a big, international firm.
Jake Reichenstein: Finding someone who can take the ball and run with it, but who knows how to communicate, and can put on a good front to attorneys when things change, as they always do.
It's also frustrating to lose a good performer because firm culture doesn't allow paying the extra bucks that ultimately have to be paid anyway to a new hire, who takes four to six months to come up to par with where the good performer already was (and that's only if you find another good performer.)
R. Bruce Johnson: Lack of talent in the "help desk" area.
Laurie Hause: Finding technical staff who will take charge; think outside the box.
5. What's the best question to ask when interviewing I.T. staff?
Laurie Hause: Where do you see yourself one year from now?
R. Bruce Johnson: Tell me what you have done lately. Describe the most siginificant projects or problems you've handled.
Jake Reichenstein: I have several I always ask:
1) Who was the best boss you ever had, and why? Who was the worst, and why?
2) What are your best assets? Your weakest?
3) Where do you want to be in five years?
These are more important in finding a compatible fit than all the technical questions that must be asked to ascertain if the applicant can handle the technical requirements of the job. If they don't fit, it doesn't matter how good they are technically?
Joy Heath-Porter: Understanding what the candidate wants to be when he or she grows up is number one. There are numerous ways to ask that question, but it is central to fit.
David Hill: 1) What do you think you'd be best at in this job?
2) What do you think you'd find hardest to do or you'd be least successful at?
Peter Baran: One is a question, the other a tool.
My favorite question is to ask what their favorite technology/software is that they might have worked with. I then follow it up with some questions about the item. This may seem loosely related, but it allows a candidate to speak passionately about something they have some comfort with. I am also able to find out why they liked it, what they liked about it, etc.
This has proved invaluable for me to predict how engaged they will stay on the job.
The other tool I use has been to start giving short tests. With the flood of recent "certification storms," these are becoming critical to gauge actual knowledge. These are subject specific, apply directly to the position and are very short.
This has enabled me to see how they perform under pressure, how well they grasp concepts and if they really do know some of the things that they put on their resumes!
Since instituting this, I've had candidates leave during the test, opt to cancel the interview when it started, etc.
Randall Miller: I like to find out what they liked and not liked about their most recent position.
Tracey Baetzel: There's no single best question. My favorite three are:
1) What are your three greatest strengths and weaknesses?
2) Why would you want to work for a company this size? and
3) What in your background prepares you to work in a chaotic and unstructured environment and get results.
6. What has been your biggest surprise in the recruiting process?
Randall Miller: While we have directly used the Internet and it generates more resumes, we aren't necessarily any more successful in our recruiting. So we have actually gone back to putting ads in the paper (which then is put on the Internet) and using headhunters.
Peter Baran: How misinformed some candidates are about their compensatory worth. With so many people flocking to I.T. simply for the money, we are often the first dose of reality that a recent graduate receives.
David Hill: The variation in people's preparation for interviews. Some have absolutely no clue about how to make themselves attractive; others are super-prepared and bowl me over with their knowledge of my firm and my employment practices.
Joy Heath-Porter: In a tight IT labor market, the sheer number of candidates we have had.
Jake Reichenstein: How fast salaries have jumped for good I.T. people in the last three years alone.
R. Bruce Johnson: Failure of employment and temporary agencies to screen the candidates.
7. What's #1 on your wish list for recruiting?
R. Bruce Johnson: No open positions.
Joy Heath-Porter: Better fit between candidates and position. We waste recruiting time by reviewing lots of resumes with poor matches. That's why having a recruiter you trust is so important.
Jake Reichenstein: Finding a good application support person who understands legal software and fits into the current salary structure for the firm. The job market is very tight right now, and the good ones are hard to come by.
David Hill: I wish I could find a more accurate way to pick out the good candidates from the mass of applicants.
Peter Baran: More people with legal-specific application experience. We have little trouble finding trainers, PC techs and network people. People with experience with the legal specific applications are few and far between.
Randall Miller: Retention and recruiting might be considered two sides of the same coin. So, my wish list would include having a good retention program to try to minimize the need to do recruiting.
8. What's the most common mistake made by candidates?
Tracey Baetzel: Talking about what they want to learn on the job, instead of what they have to offer us. It annoys me to no end.
Randall Miller: Overestimating their skills.
Peter Baran: Two that I see often: Not knowing their true compensatory worth, i.e. experience, certification, training, etc., and lying about skills/depth on a resume.
David Hill: Way too often candidates think they're applying for a job working with computers. All of ours are jobs working with people working with computers. Also showing up too early for appointments. I hate that.
Joy Heath-Porter: Trying to play the bidding war game with current employer. Bad-mouthing current employer.
Jake Reichenstein: They are too narrow in what they want in a job, and they don't have the needed people skills to survive in this environment. Thinking that if they have the technical skills, that's all they need.
R. Bruce Johnson: Writing poor resumes and cover letters.
Laurie Hause: Career path too narrowly focused.
9. What trait(s) do you most look for in candidates.
Laurie Hause: Outgoing but not abrasive. Very good communication skills both verbal and written.
R. Bruce Johnson: Good people skills and clinical problem diagnosis. (The latter is hard to determine until you see them in action.)
Jake Reichenstein: They must have good communications skills, and the ability to work as part of a team. They must be able to adapt quicly to change, and must be able to be pleasant to attorneys and staff even in the face of aggressive or uncalled for behavior on the other side.
Joy Heath-Porter: Native smarts (if someone is smart and motivated enough, you can teach them anything; and the technology in law firms tends to be so customized that you have to train them anyway). High energy level.
David Hill: All of my positions are customer service in one way or another, so they have to have people skills first of all. They have to fit into my team and make my clients happy. Then, technical aptitude; intelligence (an inquiring and open mind); background in law; technical training.
Tracey Baetzel: The supervising manager screens for technical skills, I screen for personality and whether I think they'll "fit." They need to be sort of high energy, good communicators, friendly, not high-and-mighty about themselves, but confident so they don't get eaten alive by the lawyers, etc. "Touchy feel-y" stuff.
Randall Miller: Team player, communications, meeting the technical requirements of the position. Must be willing to be on the front lines since nobody at any level can remain in the backroom all of the time working on cool stuff.
Peter Baran: Initiative and a love of technology. With these two traits, they can learn anything we might need, now and in the future. If you are just in it for the money, the job is going to be like pulling teeth!