In the legal industry there is an expectation that staff should have IT skills, because of the reliance on software packages to complete day to day tasks. These software packages include the usual Microsoft suite, all the way up to the more specialist legal applications such as Practice Management (PMS), Case Management (CMS) and Document Management (DMS) systems which are often uniquely configured for each firm’s needs.

I have been asked the question “Should IT skills be tested when hiring” many times when working both “inhouse” and as a consultant, and I still have the same answer as I did 5 – 6 years ago.

This is dependent on:

  • the job role;
  • time pressures of getting a role filled;
  • the expectations and demands the role has, in terms of its use of technology; and
  • the capability of the firm to train and support the incoming new member of staff as they learn the

If you were employing a secretary to concentrate on document production for a high-paced team that needs the support now, due to additional workload or unexpected absence of a member of staff leaving in the existing team, I would be advising the firm to ask the candidates to complete a Word test or a Word .  We know that, when a candidate is filling in a TNA, they can exaggerate their skills, but that is no different than them doing this in their CV. If it is vital for the role to have certain skills, a test is more beneficial because you can mark the test and see the outcome of the exercises given.

Whereas, if you were employing a secretary for a team that already has multiple secretaries but is planning for expansion or replacing an existing team member with the option for an overlap, I wouldn’t be too concerned with regards to the outcome of any tests or TNAs, as the new team member would have more access to support from the existing team. It would be nice for you as a law firm to know what skills are there and estimate the amount of time needed to invest in the candidate to get them fully up and running.

Another key factor in deciding whether your firm should test IT skills is whether you have an inhouse IT trainer, or similar role, to help all staff use the firm’s IT. If you do not have a role like this and rely on teams to train themselves and new starters, then knowing that new team members have the skills will be beneficial. If you are lucky enough to have an IT trainer, or support on hand, to help staff this will ensure that, if the skills are not there at the beginning, they can be taught. What we look for when taking on new staff is an aptitude for learning and an approach which embraces change.

IT has been designed and developed over the years to make the inner workings of a client matter to be streamlined and to support the legal process. Some firms have developed tasks which are now completed online using a plethora of IT systems, so we are in a never-ending process of improvement, staff skills need to grow with these developments.

It is very rare these days that a secretary just deals with transcriptions, they are often expected to operate the case management systems, update deal rooms, manipulate spreadsheets of data. With this evolution in the role as a secretary, the skills needed have dramatically increased and sometimes relying on experience in the role, is just not enough.  

So, employing someone who is not IT literate to work on these types of systems is a poor option for a law firm. Although, it is also important to remember that, certain skills can be taught but aptitude cannot.  So, if they don’t have the skills now, but are willing to apply themselves and learn, that might be a great option when recruiting.

Testing someone’s IT ability and their attitude to utilisation of IT systems during the employment process will give you, as the employer, a greater insight into what skills you will gain by employing them and what you will potentially have to invest in them to make them your “perfect employee”. Some skills you cannot test, but I would say the key areas to test a potential candidate would be Word, Outlook and Excel and the basic understandings of specialist solutions (Practice Management, Case Management Document Management etc). Given that law firms will all have different systems, and often systems are configured so differently across firms even using the same system, you cannot expect even the most skilled and experience candidates to have exposure to all of them.

You can test in many ways, as mentioned above you can do simple test online, asking the candidates to complete a TNA or even ask them to complete some task-based assessments during the interview phase either onsite or remote. Each of these testing methods have pros and cons to them.

Testing online, when you are using this method, you can have the candidates complete online. This test could include basic skills involved in using the software for example, taking highlight off a paragraph in Word to the more advanced skills for example, inserting section breaks and adding page numbering after the table of contents. When using this approach, you will receive the completed test, and you can assess how well the candidate has done and see any steps that they could not complete. This is a great way to see what their skills are and how you can utilise these in a work environment.

The downside to this method is, if they are completing the test online, you cannot see who is completing this, how long it took them and if they had any assistance from friends, family or Google. You will also have to dedicate some time to check each completed test and compare the skill gaps.

A Training Needs Analysis is a form that can be sent to the candidates where they fill out their confidence of the software, for certain tasks. This method is a good way to see their overall confidence in that software, but it does not test any skills, so you are relying on their answers and as I mentioned above, people can extend the truth. Another aspect to consider in using this approach is that some candidates may not feel confident but they can do the task so they may undersell their capabilities.

That being said it is a great way to know where the candidate thinks they need help, and a new starter training induction can be produced based on this.

Having tasks through the interview is a great way to see the candidate work in a real-life scenario. You could ask them to look at a spreadsheet and add in a totals row, meaning they will have to know the basics around Excel and formulas. Another thing depending on the job role, you could ask the candidates to “tidy” a document up and see how they navigate around Word.

This method allows you, as an employer to see their working methods and how they cope under pressure. The only downside is that you will need to arrange the resources for a computer/laptop to be available during the interview, taking into account any adaptations needed e.g. ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Also, spend some time creating the tasks to use during the interview, making sure that they contain no client or confidential information: although, once this has been set up you can reuse the test(s) across different roles, if applicable.

So, should IT skills be tested when hiring? That is a business decision, but there are a lot of positives to checking skills before hiring and it may also help with some of your decision making.

If you would like to discuss anything in this article, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you,