Most small law firms don’t to use job descriptions as part of their hiring process, and many large firms use job descriptions badly.
The primary advantage of creating a job description is that it forces the employer to articulate what they are looking for in a new hire. The process of creating a job description brings clarity, and law firms that hire lawyers and staff members without first drafting a job description tend to create generic job postings. These are the job postings that tend to list lots of traits, such as: We are looking for someone who is “detail oriented who works well in a fast-moving environment.”
A good job description explicitly state two things; (1) what do we want the successful candidate to know how to do on their first day on the job; and (2) what the successful candidate be doing on the job most of the time. In my experience consulting with law firms on human resources issues, many law firms who are hiring can’t answer these questions in a detailed way. Certain decision makers at the firm have a sense that they need to hire someone new, but don’t explicitly discuss what the person who fills the position should do. This is particularly likely to happen when a vacancy occurs and the hire is replacing a departing employee or contractor. There is a tendency to just want to replace the person who left without focusing on what specifically that means and how someone new might and should do the position better and differently.
What most law firms who use job descriptions fail to realize is that the job description is just a starting point. It’s the initial statement of what an employer desires. But it should be modified to accommodate the skills, strengths, and weaknesses of the people who will actually do the work. And when hiring lawyers and paralegals, it’s critical to negotiate the terms of the job description jointly with the person who is being hired. That will enable you to customize the position and to explicitly get their buy in. Otherwise, you are asking people to contort themselves to fit some preconceived notion of what a position entails. If law firms want to get serious about associate and staff retention and doing more than just paying lip service to the notion that people are their greatest asset, creating a customized job descriptions is a small but important step for them to take.
I’m not holding my breath waiting for law firms to make this to happen.