Business of Law

Partner Uses Reality Show Approach to Small-Firm Hiring, Gets 'Incredible' Top Associates


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Matthew Mellen loves reality television shows like Project Runway, Top Chef and Top Shot. So, when it came to hiring associates for his small foreclosure-defense law firm, the California attorney decided to take an unusual approach.

Each time there’s a new attorney position to fill at the Mellen Law Firm, he runs an ad like one that could be seen on Craigslist last week. Then, when five or 10 recent law grads apply, he puts them through a one- or two-week group tryout, for which they’re paid $20 per hour, to determine who is “Top Associate,” Mellen tells the ABA Journal.

Throughout the tryout, applicants participate in law firm work and are given actual litigation-related assignments to complete, working together in a packed environment at Mellen’s office in San Mateo. Those who do well move forward to the next assignment. Every day or two, the one who has done the worst gets the boot, he explains. The last man or woman remaining at the end of the experience gets the job.

“It’s brutal, but everyone knows it’s going to be brutal, so nobody’s feelings are hurt,” Mellen says, and the firm winds up with an “incredible” group of associates.

His hiring process also gives the job to the best-qualified individual regardless of professional pedigree or how he or she comes across personally, notes Mellen, who said he earned his own law degree from the University of California-Los Angeles after graduating from Harvard University. His only requirement, aside from aptitude for and interest in the work, is that the applicant have already taken the state bar exam.

“For my business to work, I have to have super-productive people,” he says, explaining that clients who retain foreclosure defense counsel can afford to pay, at most, $1,000 per month. The Mellen Law Firm actually sues banks and takes cases to trial within that budget rather than simply negotiating.

“It’s written work exclusively,” he said of what he talent he looks for in associates. “I don’t care if they’re drooling when they write it, as long as it comes out good.”

For those who don’t get hired, the tryout gives them a lot of paid litigation experience in a very short time, Mellen said. Meanwhile, the reality TV show approach offers a benefit to his law firm.

“It perks up my existing associates,” he said. “Everybody sees how competitive it is right now for existing law jobs.”

As a new round of would-be associates began their tryouts this week, Mellen said he had never seen a better group. He thinks that may be, in part, due to his explaining expressly in his advertisement, for the first time, that the session would be like a reality TV show. Previously, he said, he has explained this once applicants arrived.

By Tuesday afternoon, four “super gung-ho” front-runners were drafting complaints he expects to actually use in real-life cases, after further review and fine-tuning, and by Wednesday morning he will have made the difficult decision of which one to cut, he told the ABA Journal.

However, he found it easier to winnow the field earlier on. Of 12 applicants who said they would be ready to start the tryout on Monday, only nine came and only seven came on time, Mellen noted. And of those one hadn’t yet taken the bar exam, another was “totally disheveled” and “looked like he had just come from a bachelor party.” Another, when asked who might want to start later, instantly shot his hand up in the air.

That, the partner thinks, is a telling sign. “People who really do well in the job want to start right then,” he said. “The people that I like, it’s not because of their resumes,” he said, noting that one is from a law school he never heard of, or other extraneous qualities. “It’s because of their enthusiasm to get started right now and draft.”

Having the right associates helped him pull through a rough patch earlier this year, he noted, when his law license was briefly suspended due to the aggressive manner in which he had defended a driving-under-the-influence case in which he was a defendant.

He might have been able to defend his handling of the case further, especially since an evidentiary tape wasn’t, he said, promptly turned over by the state. However, Mellen felt, once he realized that he’d made an ethical error himself, that he was best-served to simply apologize and take a plea in the attorney disciplinary case that resulted.

Since the DUI, he’s stopped drinking, and while his driver’s license was suspended, he moved a block from his law office so he wouldn’t have any transportation issues, Mellen said. He found he enjoyed the new location, and, he says, “everything is better since the DUI.”

Hat tip: Above the Law.

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