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A Law Boutique’s Unusual Recruiting Tactic

June 30, 2017, 8:09 PM

For law boutiques, hiring the wrong lawyer can be costly, as one bad apple in a small team can do more damage than a swing-and-a-miss at a 3,000-lawyer global operation.

This truth has a number of small firms going to extra lengths to ensure that they attract the best lawyers who will jibe with the firm’s culture.

The most recent evidence can be witnessed over at the Washington, D.C. intellectual property boutique Fisch Sigler LLP, where founding partner Alan Fisch required applicants for a new position to write an essay.

The topic of Fisch’s essay prompt? Whether Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow deserved his 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The job posting was for an associate position with a feel for language, a wordsmith.

Fisch declined to share why the job required literary knowledge, but his job ad said the firm sought a lawyer who “savors persuasive writing.”

“We are looking for a literary artisan,” Fisch’s job posting read. “We are looking for someone versed in the classics. We are looking for a lawyer who savors persuasive writing as the best part of the job. Is this you?”

Fisch is an intellectual property lawyer who made his name as a partner at Kaye Scholer LLP, now Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, and Howrey LLP, before setting up shop with Bill Sigler and Jason Hoffman. The latter has since left for BakerHostetler LLP.

Fisch’s signature patent dispute wins include a $62.3 million jury verdict against Microsoft Corp., defense verdicts for Barnes & Noble Inc. and Gap Inc. in the Eastern District of Texas, and a defense win for Barry Fiala Inc. v. Stored Value Systems which protected the gift card systems of over 300 retailers.

The Nobel prize winner, Bellow, is 89 and known for Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift, along with a dozen or so other novels, a memoir, and collections of short stories, essays, and letters. The Nobel Committee said the prize was awarded to Bellow “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.”

In the job application, Fisch allowed each applicant three paragraphs to develop an argument either for or against Bellow as a Nobel Prize winner. Even though the essay section was optional, the instructions were accompanied by a clarifying remark: “If you are unfamiliar with Saul Bellow, this position may not be right for you.”

Plenty of candidates threw themselves into the task with gusto, and when it came time to sit down with them face to face, many showed an eagerness to talk Bellow that was at least equal to their interest in the nuts and bolts of firm life, Fisch said.

“They’d say, ‘Working till 2 am, sure I’m fine with that, but what I really want to talk about is my essay,’” he said. “We ended up spending a big portion of the time talking about Saul Bellow.”

What was the point of the task?

Fisch said that the question allowed the firm to sort out which candidates had the right mix of IQ and EQ.

“We’re not a big firm, we don’t have a formal recruiting department,” said Fisch, whose firm staffs 10 lawyers. “If we choose the wrong person, we’re just buying a problem.”

As a result of the job ad, Fisch is bringing onboard a lawyer from an Ivy League law school who also had a federal clerkship under his belt. He begins in July.

By that time, the firm may well have selected from the applicants for a new open position. This one requires a candidate comfortable with numbers. No essay for the candidates for this position, but a math problem:

“If Jesse takes public transportation to work at a rate of 20 miles per hour, and then takes the same route home using a ride-share at a rate of 40 miles per hour, what is Jesse’s average speed for the entire trip?”