When it comes to hiring an in-house lawyer, often clients’ starting point, and rightly so, is to find the “ideal candidate”. However, sometimes such a person is a Unicorn – a mythical creature that doesn’t exist. It is the role of a recruiter to ensure that clients are briefed on the legal recruitment market, to provide an overview of the type (and cost) of lawyers available and to really help clients assess what is most important to them in their recruitment to ensure that they achieve a good long-term fit for their team. In this article our lead consultant for the Retail/FMCG and Pharmaceutical sectors in London, Kathryn Earle, considers the importance of ensuring appropriate personality fit as well as skillset when hiring, when clients should consider prioritising one over the other and how skills and personality can be assessed.


Why are personality and skillset important?

Recruiting someone with the right personality fit for your organisation is crucial. It has been estimated that the result of “poor culture fit can cost an organisation between 50-60% of the person’s annual salary”, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)*. People who have the ability to fit into an organisation culturally will be more likely to be effective in influencing and affecting others and have better prospects of future growth potential within a company. This is particularly important when hiring on a permanent basis (our next article will highlight this topic within the interim market) as the recruitment is a longer term investment.

The importance placed on recruiting a precise skillset can vary depending on the role. It is more important when candidates are required to “hit the ground running” very quickly or to occupy a niche specialism such as competition, litigation, IP, data protection or employment law for example. However, we have seen many examples of lawyers being able to readily adapt their existing skillset to a very different role in-house. Those with a background in litigation or corporate law, for example, can often quickly adapt to the demands of a general company commercial role. Litigators benefit from a heightened awareness of contractual risk, while corporate lawyers are often favoured for their strength in drafting and ability to project manage. The demand for good mid-level commercial lawyers outstrips supply so it’s important that clients can be open-minded and consider the advantages of being open-minded on existing skillset when hiring.


When to choose personality over skillset?

As Richard Branson says, “Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality”. There are times when we recommend clients consider the importance of personality fit over and above precise skillset.

For example:

1) Seniority of the role

When recruiting for General Counsel/Head of Legal roles, technical skillset can be less relevant as there is more importance placed on transferable skills, in particular the candidate’s ability to lead a team successfully, interact with senior management and whether their approach to risk suits the organisation. Technical legal skills are arguably less important as such knowledge gaps can be filled by the other individuals in the team.

Conversely, when hiring junior candidates, they are often highly malleable and able to adapt quickly to the demands of a role, although not yet an expert in their field. We encourage clients to be more open-minded on technical skillset and instead focus on ensuring good cultural fit, to recruit someone who is going to be able to pick up new areas of law quickly and have the long term potential to grow and develop in the organisation.

2) Budget

When a client’s budget is not high enough to attract their “ideal candidate” it is recommended they “cut their coat according to their cloth” as it were. All singing, all dancing candidates often command corresponding all singing, all dancing salaries and packages. If budget is tight then clients need to be pragmatic and open-minded. We have helped many clients across the FTSE 100 and 250 make successful long term hires by prioritising personality over skillset.

By way of example, a large telecommunications company we act for regularly hires lawyers keen to move away from an existing specialism such as banking law and into a commercial role. The organisation’s flexibility on skillset ensures they are entirely focused on getting the right fit personality wise for their team and as a result they have built a team of bright, former Magic Circle trained lawyers (on a relatively low budget). They reap the rewards of a grateful candidate who is often prepared to take a salary reduction and work hard to prove themselves.

3) Location

We regularly recruit for clients located outside London where often there is a smaller pool of potentially suitable candidates. In such cases, we encourage clients to be more relaxed on skillset and thus increase the pool of potential candidates.

4) Sector/strength of brand

It is important that companies can objectively appreciate the market’s perception of their business. Industry sectors such as tobacco, gaming and the media often polarise opinion. We encourage clients in such sectors to prioritise personality fit over and above skillset, ensuring they hire people who really buy into the brand.


How do you assess skillset and personality?

Usually, a candidate’s technical ability is assessed by clients during a competency based interview, discussing a recent deal or matter the candidate has worked on. Sometimes clients ask more structured technical questions or they might give a scenario to a candidate and ask them to then flag the issues they can identify.

Increasingly, candidates are being asked to review and amend a commercial contract; this exercise is then used as a discussion point in the interview. Alternatively, a drafting exercise might be used to assess written style.

During interviews with the business, particularly the CEO or CFO, we see more importance placed on assessment of personality fit – for example, whether the lawyer will be commercial, has common sense and an appropriate approach to risk for their organisation.

To objectively assess personality type, clients can make use of psychometric testing. At SSQ we have a partnership with a leading supplier in the industry and offer clients this service when considering their final shortlist. Psychometric testing can be a useful tool when assessing a candidate’s potential to learn new skills.


Achieving the right balance

Ideally, when hiring, clients will achieve the best fit from both a technical and personality perspective. However, when a compromise needs to be made, it’s worth considering the advantages of being open-minded on skillset and assessing whether it’s possible for a bright candidate to pick up new areas of law quickly. If you recruit a bright, driven individual with the right personality fit for your team, is there any reason why not? There are niche areas of law which require a technician. A commercial lawyer or a corporate lawyer is unlikely to readily adapt to a competition role. But a corporate lawyer or litigator can transition into a commercial legal role. Companies will need to accept that candidates might need a longer time to bed in to the role and organisation, but the investment in upskilling can be well worth the new perspectives and ideas that such candidates might bring.

At SSQ we ensure that shortlists are comprised of candidates who have been selected because we are confident that they are a strong fit for our client, in terms of both personality and skillset. We look beyond a CV and interview a candidate thoroughly before they are shortlisted for any role. We recommend that our clients find a balance and build out their teams based on the right personalities and skillsets in order to be as successful as possible.

In our next article focussing on personality v skillset we look at these in the context of the interim market and how these make a difference when hiring on a temporary basis.

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