Since I gave up running a legal caseload of my own to concentrate on running my law firm, and in particular growing it to increase profitability, I have read a lot of management books – probably far too many.

But there are a number of incredibly useful lessons from one of the very first I read – the excellent “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.

The thing that impressed me most about this was that it wasn’t just some academic’s pet unproven theory. It was based on solid research – 21 researchers spending a remarkable 15,000 hours of research to work out the differences between the merely good companies and the genuinely great.

And they found, to their surprise, that there were a number of differences that came up again and again. And one of them relates to staff.

When it comes to picking the right people (or to use Jim Collins own expression “letting the right people on the bus”), they found the following;

Great businesses get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus, before deciding where to drive it. Sound a bit too trendy? Not at all.

The principle is that you need the right people – and when it comes to law firms, the right people aren’t necessarily those with the most experience all the best qualifications. Experience can be gained, and exams passed – but you can’t change someone’s basic abilities and personalities.

Who is the right person? In short, whether someone is “the right person” has less to do with their specific knowledge and skill set, and more to do with their “character traits and innate capabilities”. I think that applies particularly well to law firms, where the right people aren’t necessarily those with the most experience, or the best qualifications from the posher universities. Experience can be gained, and exams passed – but you can’t change someone’s basic abilities and personality.

“When in doubt – don’t hire, keep looking”. Sometimes law firms can be desperate to recruit. At the time of writing this blog, we have been trying to recruit the right commercial property lawyer for 12 months – yes 12 months! I’ve never had such difficulty in recruiting a team member, but nonetheless, I have resisted all temptation to simply take on someone to fill the vacancy, even if I know they are not quite right.

“When you know you need to make people change, act”. This was one of the hardest lessons for us to learn. As a firm we have always been very supportive of our staff. If someone, perhaps, was underperforming, we spent years working with them, even hiring in coaches to work with them (quite a cost for a relatively small law firm like ours). It simply didn’t work.

To be blunt, the old phrase you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear comes to mind. Since then, I’m afraid to say we have become much more rigorous with staff performance – we pay particular attention to the first few months. We have concluded that on most occasions, you really can tell in the first three months whether you’ve got a Premier league player or someone more suited to the relegation zone.

However my take is that I think some of these lessons also apply to candidates. In fact we saw a potential candidate last week who after a very stable job history, had gone to work for a new firm but just three months later was thinking about moving. She was still undecided, but to me she was a really good example, in reverse, of Jim Collins theory about “when in doubt – don’t hire”. If after just a few months you think you might not be in the right job, my advice is to move on – and move on ASAP.

So with credit to Jim Collins, here are my two simple bits of advice to lawyers looking for a new firm;

• “When in doubt – don’t accept a job offer”

• “When you know you’re at the wrong firm – look for the right firm”

AUTHOR – Tim Bishop, Senior Partner of Andover and Salisbury solicitors, Bonallack and Bishop [link to http://www.bishopslaw.co.uk] , who also run a number of specialist law firm websites, including http://military-lawyer.co.uk and http://www.enfranchisementsolicitors.co.uk