Andrew Giacomini

Attracting and Retaining the Optimal Team

April 11, 2009

Case categories include: Human Resources   Leadership   Strategy & Planning   

By Robert Sher

It’s so easy to say that we should hire great people.  We should—but can we find and afford the great people that we need?  And who is to say they’ll stick?

In the midst of great competition, when other law firms were raising salaries and hourly requirements to unsustainable levels, Andrew Giacomini (Group 202), Managing Partner at Hanson Bridgett, embarked on a different strategy of identifying and hiring certain great lawyers in the Bay Area who were more in keeping with its client focused approach.  Hanson Bridgett decided to hold the line on compensation but reduce billable hour requirements.  Their goal was to focus on recruiting and hiring only those excellent lawyers who were willing to work hard, but who also wanted a more balanced life and were willing to accept lower compensation for the trade-off.  It may sound odd, but it worked, and this approach can work in any industry where competition for the best and brightest talent is fierce.

Andrew’s competition – big national and international law firms--wants lawyers that are willing to work themselves silly to get a big paycheck.  And the clients pay for it, both with high billable rates and stressed-out lawyers, who simply cannot be at their best when working with mega firm, bone-grinding billable hour requirements.  The mega firms (Hanson, in contrast, has about 150 lawyers) pay incredibly high salaries and expect unsustainable work hours from everyone they hire. New recruits often burn out in a few years.  Anyone on the partner track works a crushing schedule, generally sacrificing family life, leisure, and all other non-work pursuits.  The few that make partner earn a bundle, and those that don’t still do quite well.  Many great lawyers hate working for the mega firms for just this reason.

The bright, talented, hardworking lawyers at Hanson Bridgett like to coach soccer.  They like to take family vacations.  They want to lead a balanced life and offer balanced advice to their clients as well.  These lawyers aren’t happy at the mega firms, and the mega firms aren’t entirely happy with them because they don’t fit the mold.  Hanson Bridgett has created a haven for high performance lawyers who desire a balanced life.  Since these mega-firm refugees don’t have to bill crazy hours, they get paid less, but that’s okay with them—they get the life they want to lead.  And not just their personal life—their professional life too.  They believe that this model allows them to practice their craft in the way that they love and in the way their clients like best.  They believe well-rounded, balanced lawyers give well-rounded, balanced advice. 

We’re talking differentiation here.  Simply put, how can you make your workplace different in such a way that will attract a subset of the highly skilled people that you need most?  Got engineers?  Maybe for you, giving your engineers some freedom to be creative would make a difference.  Got scientists?  Maybe involving them more broadly in the development process will be a great attractor.  Perhaps allowing for flexible work environments (P/T, from home, etc.) is key?  Having truly green working conditions and a commitment to helping the environment might attract some top talent that would otherwise go someplace else.  You’ve got to figure out what’s right for your company in your industry.

While winning a “Best Places to Work” award is a great thing that will certainly help you retain your people, I’m talking about competitive differentiation.  Where the top talent in your field will know that your firm is a standout—an amazing place to work.  And unique in a way that addresses the pain that the key talent feels in your competitor’s workplaces.

Hanson Bridgett recruits in all the ways you’d expect.  They go to law schools, advertise, network with lawyers employed by the giant firms, and more.  But in every case, they put front and center how they are different.  That they represent a culture that doesn’t create burnout.  A firm that values high energy, a positive attitude and a balanced lifestyle.  They don’t hide the fact that they pay salaries that are about 20% lower than at the mega-firms.  They do make sure that new hires understand that they’ll be working hard and intensely, and that client service is everything, 24/7.  But over the course of a year, new hires are only expected to bill 1,800 hours, as compared to 2,100 hours or more at the mega firms, leaving time for a life.

Creating differentiation in your culture in order to attract top talent is not a short-term strategy.  It’s a permanent and long-term decision.  It’s not just a marketing message.  It’s about corporate culture and shared values.  The power of the strategy grows with time as you hire and retain people that value the unique shared value, and as word spreads in the talent pool.

An ideal time to start is when unemployment is high.  You may be looking at three or four qualified candidates, and you can hire the one who is most interested in and aligned with your unique shared value.  When talent is scarce and growing firms need people, firms often take anybody that can help get the work done.  That’s the point in time when a well-established and known differentiator can bring in refugees from your competition.

The temptation is great to allow company norms to slip back to the old ways.  In the case of Hanson Bridgett, lawyers, even those that seek balance, enjoy their work and sometimes start pulling too hard.  But Andrew manages that carefully, leading by example (he coaches and serves on charitable boards) and by talking with his entire leadership team about their values, which includes addressing any in his firm who are working too hard.

Getting started will take some deep internal discussions.  Assuming you have a need for top talent within a defined labor pool, identify all the common pain points those employees experience in other workplaces.  Second, choose one or two of those that you can solve in your workplace.  Third, solve it, in a sustainable way.  Make sure you’ve really solved it—faking it won’t work.  Fourth, in all your recruiting activities, put this differentiator up front, and back it up with testimonials and other evidence.  Fifth, make sure you don’t accidentally lose the differentiation (it will take tending), and watch the process work over the next several years.

Hiring great people is never easy.  But a solid long-term strategy will tip the balance in your favor, and Hanson Bridgett has shown us one long-term strategy that works quite well.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.

Key Takeaways:
1. Identify irritants or pain that the talent you’re targeting suffers from, and see if you could create a workplace that is different, that solves the pain.
2. Modify your workplace as needed, and its culture.  Dismiss those that don’t and won’t fit the new model, and hire only those that do.
3. Spread word about how your workplace is different, unique, and better, using it to attract talent from the competition.