Building and Maintaining a Legal Team: Recruiting, Onboarding and Retaining Staff
By Meredith Linsky1
Since the rise of UIC entrants into the United States beginning in 2014, immigration legal service providers assisting unaccompanied children have dramatically increased their staffs (some doubling or tripling in size) to serve the influx of children. Suddenly, these organizations were expected to hire and train staff members while serving their ever-growing client base. Organizations have struggled to invest the time to recruit, train, and provide oversight. Managers responsible for hiring are generally promoted from within the ranks of direct service attorneys and few have a background in human resources or training in recruiting, interviewing, training, or retaining staff. The following is guidance on how to build and maintain a capable team.
Each organization has a distinct culture and seeks certain values and qualities in its employees. Qualities that UIC legal providers often prize include the ability to thrive in a team environment, willingness to accept feedback, aptitude for working with government stakeholders, and being comfortable working with children. An organization may identify qualities that do not relate directly to the job description but which may demonstrate a predisposition for this work. These sorts of qualities may include: experience abroad, volunteer experience, and work experience before law or graduate school. Equally important is identifying qualities to avoid. Candidates who may be ill-fitted for work at UIC legal service organizations could include those antagonistic toward some stakeholders (e.g. the government, law enforcement) or some potential clients (e.g. individuals with criminal histories), those who prefer to work autonomously, and those who demonstrate difficulty establishing boundaries.
Be as specific as possible in the job description. For example, will the individual provide “Know Your Rights” presentations? Is it an entry-level staff attorney position to represent non-detained children in applications for relief? Essential qualities for a paralegal working with people who are detained may include someone who is a skilled communicator and presenter, highly organized and self-motivated.
Few paralegals staffing UIC projects have had any previous background in legal work. Because the skills required to work with children in detention are more similar to those of a teacher or school counselor than those of many legal professionals, be open-minded about prospects and consider individuals with diverse employment histories.
Provide a realistic assessment of the job responsibilities as well as requirements and expectations for the position (specific experience, licensing requirements, and language skills, as well as the expected time commitment). If the organization is hiring for a position with restricted government funding, indicate those restrictions in the job description.
There are several national, regional and local options for promoting the job opportunity. Websites include: idealist.org; nonprofit-jobs.org; and listservs including the Detention Watch Network and ChildImmigration. Target recent law school graduates by sending announcements to law school career centers, or to career centers at universities or community colleges for non-lawyer positions. If the organization prefers to advertise the position locally, it might want to post them on a local jobs website, through a community paper, or through other local nonprofit agencies.
The increase in funding for UIC representation has resulted in the creation of many new positions for UIC legal advocates nationwide, which means competition among legal services organizations for strong candidates has increased. To appeal to potential candidates, outline the organization’s unique attributes in the job description. For example, highlight whether it is in an area with a low cost of living or close to a thriving metropolitan environment with frequent art and cultural events. Consider adding or publicizing additional benefits to attract potential candidates like flexible schedules, telecommuting options, or paid time off between Christmas and New Year’s. Other options may include establishing a paid (or unpaid) sabbatical policy or opportunities to travel after a certain number of months or years on the job.
Carefully consider who should be involved in the interview process and who has responsibility for vetting and selecting candidates. In some organizations the director or the director and a small task force has this responsibility. Often, larger organizations delegate staffing responsibilities to a supervisory team. When those who will supervise new staff play an active role in interviewing and selecting new hires, they likely will be more invested in the employee’s success and more willing to spend time training and mentoring.
Interviews are an opportunity to assess applicants (preferably in-person) and allow them to ask questions and interact with staff.
In advance of the interview or at the outset of the conversation, review the salary range available for the position and confirm that the candidate wishes to proceed. This is also a good time to test the candidate’s language skills if proficiency in another language is required. Since these two items can be deal-breakers, there is value in addressing them before all parties involved have invested time in the interview.
An effective interview requires preparation and good listening skills. Create standardized interview questions to ask each candidate. Questions should be mostly open-ended to elicit narrative responses. Include questions intended to draw out particular qualities. For example, if a candidate cannot articulate how she would balance her work and personal life, or if she cannot identify coping mechanisms to help deal with potential secondary trauma, this might raise a red flag. If a candidate is unable to articulate reasons why she wants to work with immigrant children or has no awareness of current issues facing immigrant youth, this demonstrates both that she is unprepared for the interview and likely ill-equipped for the job. Review the applicant’s resume thoroughly to develop specific questions related to the applicant’s academic and employment experience. Ask about her relationships with prior supervisors. What work structure worked well for her? What supervision style is challenging for her? Address observed weaknesses, such as poor grades in relevant classes or an inferior writing sample. How does she explain the deficiency or plan to compensate for it? Take careful notes during the interview, as these will be important when deciding whom to call back for a second interview or to select as the final candidate.
The best interviews include sample scenarios where the interviewer presents a work-related set of facts for the candidate to decipher, explain, or resolve. This form of interviewing requires the applicant to demonstrate practical skills and allows the interviewer(s) to get a sense of the applicant’s substantive knowledge, judgment, and professional demeanor. This could include asking the applicant to analyze relief options from a complicated set of facts or respond to an ethically challenging or frustrating scenario at a detention center. Consider asking the prospect to perform a simulated job-related activity, like translating a document or conducting an intake interview. For a position involving pro bono support, a candidate could give a proposed response to a pro bono attorney inquiry. These exercises can be quite revealing as to the candidate’s practical skills and how she responds under pressure or in an unfamiliar environment. Though these measures require more advance planning by the interviewer, this front-end investment will provide both parties with a more complete picture of each other and allow for more informed hiring decisions.
At the conclusion of the interview, discuss next steps and the hiring timeline. Provide a realistic estimate of when the candidate should expect to hear back about the position. If the candidate appears to be a good fit, invite her to reach back out if she receives other job offers before the hiring process has been completed. Use caution, however, and be sure that only individuals with authority to extend a job offer do so. Be clear about who within the organization (an executive director or human resources department, for example) can extend a formal offer.
Before making an offer to a candidate, check references and complete the vetting process. It is important to develop a standardized set of questions for references and use them consistently. Craft questions that elicit more than general, surface-level responses. For example, consider asking about an area for growth for the candidate or a time when the applicant struggled with a task assigned by one of her listed references. Call at least two or three references, and be sure that references are people with whom the candidate has studied or worked recently. Ensure the reference is prepared to discuss the candidate by using an initial email or call to schedule a time to speak more in depth about the candidate.
When extending an offer, make sure the applicant has no additional questions about the job description, understands the benefits package, and knows to whom she will report. Give the candidate a date by which she needs to respond to the offer so that if she declines, the hiring process can continue to move forward in a timely manner. Be prepared for applicants who wish to negotiate salary, benefits, and other aspects of the job offer. Be direct about the prospects for flexibility in these aspects now or in the future. It is important for a candidate to have realistic expectations about the position and that she be prepared to accept the job that is being offered as it has been defined. This is a final opportunity to ensure that the organization and the candidate are a mutually good fit.
Once a candidate accepts the job offer, it is time to onboard. This should be an intentional and planned process to most efficiently incorporate new staff into an existing team and help them contribute as quickly as possible. Provide each new staff with the following:
- organizational mission statement
- staff operations manual
- document that outlines the organization’s services
- an overview of work flow procedures
- a description of how to complete common duties
- a list of staffing responsibilities
- meeting schedules
- an organizational chart
- an overview of decision-making procedures
- guidance on funding and administration
Duties to include in a manual might be tasks like answering the phone, maintaining database and filing systems, and core work responsibilities like “Know Your Rights” presentations, client screenings, referrals, and case selection procedures. An operations manual also can include information on ethics, such as the receipt of gifts from clients, and emergency protocols. This information is important for all staff because uniform and universal notice and understanding of key policies and procedures is essential to a productive work environment.
When a new employee joins the organization, consider assigning her a mentor, who may be a senior staff member on the team. Have the new hire shadow and observe senior staff. Encourage note-taking and instruct the mentor and new staff member to hold debriefing meetings. Additionally, in the early weeks, instruct the supervisor to schedule frequent check-in meetings with the new hire. The supervisor and new hire should meet at the end of each week to review the previous week and plan for the week ahead. The ideal process for coaching a new hire and training on a particular skill includes:
- Explaining the what, why, and how related to a particular task
- Modeling the task for the new employee to observe
- Allowing the new employee to perform the task on her own with a trainer observing and taking notes
- Preparing a debriefing report highlighting strengths, weaknesses and recommendations
- Observing the task again to make sure the employee incorporates the recommendations
Following this process with all new staff will help set realistic expectations and ensure quality work. While each employee brings individual strengths to the organization, a consistent onboarding process establishes baseline expectations for all staff.
5. Staff Retention
After investing in hiring and training staff, retaining them is essential. When a staff member has performed her responsibilities well, provide opportunities for her to learn and develop additional professional skills. This can include participating in conferences and trainings; identifying or creating opportunities for staff to present at local, regional and national conferences and meetings; or assigning discrete tasks related to position and expertise, like writing an operations manual or creating standardized “Know Your Rights” presentations and intake materials. Having positions/opportunities to which staff can aspire is a good way to retain talented staff and maintain institutional knowledge. Promoting staff to middle management positions allows them to develop additional skills and diversify their job responsibilities.
Good managers invest the time and effort to hire the best and brightest staff. Yet even with the most committed staff, frequent turnover is common, especially for those who provide high-volume services to detained UICs. Managers should watch for signs of burnout and secondary trauma that are common when working with UICs. To help avoid burnout and related issues, managers can meet individually with their direct reports either weekly or bi-weekly to make sure they are up to date on their workload/caseload. Further, encouraging team-building through group activities and staff retreats can build relationships within a team(s).
Responsiveness to and support of valued staff will help promote retention. An organization composed of strong, motivated individuals will lead to an inspired, productive team and a positive working environment. Ultimately, clients will benefit from a carefully selected and supported staff.
1. Meredith Linsky is the Director of the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration. Previously, she was Director of ProBAR, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, in Harlingen, Texas. This chapter includes background and insights from Violeta Discua-Salamanca, Supervisory Paralegal at ProBAR.
2. While it is beyond the scope of this chapter, managers should understand that because hiring decisions often are fraught with employment law compliance issues, consultation with expert resources is critical. One basic resource is provided by the United States Department of Labor, elaws FirstStep Employment Law Advisor, available at webapps.dol.gov/elaws/firststep.