Law firms and legal departments that are in a position to be more imaginative when hiring will end up with better people.

Unemployment is down. Was that you? Have you hired some people? If so well done – it’s been tough out there, and your new recruits, whatever their age, and whether professionals or support staff, will likely be very grateful.

A few conversations recently have left me wondering who is being hired and why – and also if it has anything at all to do with an increasingly hostile environment created by welfare policy and law.

First up, and most relevant, is a chat with a high-profile general counsel – a convivial pre-Christmas lunch in the City. She observed that even when a recession was on, finding good people to fill vacancies could be very tough. The question as to ‘why?’ had been occupying her.

Her conclusion was that in law and financial services, person specs – supposedly a tool to help with fair and efficient selection of candidates – were way too specific. Those hiring tended to write out a spec intended to deliver a carbon copy of a departing colleague.

What’s more, she noted, the failure of imagination extended to insisting on someone who was absolutely battle ready – rather than someone you’d expect to develop.

So even in a deep recession, positions went unfilled – sometimes over a length of time that could have been used to retrain a capable lawyer, paralegal or other staff member who was great, but never got past a recruiter because they failed the person spec.

She conceded that doing things otherwise – with the need for competent advice from a lawyer from day one – was a challenge. But a challenge, nevertheless, to which it was worth applying minds – though almost no one did. As she concluded: ‘Some people just have grip – they “get” stuff. It’s frustrating that the process can work against hiring them.’

This ties in with the business case on diversity and inclusion released by the Law Society this week – a reminder that ‘those responsible for recruitment in the legal profession should resist the urge to recruit only in their own image’.

A couple of subsequent conversations I had, albeit with non-lawyers, lent weight to the GC’s analysis and the argument made by Chancery Lane. The first was with someone who has a job – a shop assistant.

Despite the fact that, in an age of online shopping, physical shops can have the edge only through service and advice, the man couldn’t answer any of my questions about the basic recording device I wanted to purchase, right down to not knowing if it took, or even had, batteries; and went on to try and sell me insurance for on the grounds that, ‘if there’s anything wrong with it, we’d give you your money back, no questions asked’.

‘So, you’re selling me something that might, or might not, work – but will only give me my money back for a faulty product if I buy £20 of insurance for a £70 device?,’ I said rather loudly.

No grip, him, but probably previous retail experience.

A day later I bumped someone I knew who didn’t have a job – the ex-deputy manager at my daughter’s old nursery. Thanks to cuts, she’d been out of a job for months – but was willing to do almost anything. Things, she frankly admitted, had been pretty tough.

She’s always struck me as formidable – gregarious and well-organised, she taught my daughter ‘my manners’ and can pacify a room of screaming, stropping toddlers within seconds of coming through the door. (Can you do that? I can’t.)

The perfect person, it occurs to me, to handle tricky or upset clients. She has grip – but would probably fail any number of person specs for jobs filled by less good examples of the working-age labour force.

So unemployment’s coming down – but to go back to my conversation with the GC, I’ve been left feeling that there’s a lot of waste in the system. My suspicion is that law firms and legal departments that are in a position to be more imaginative when hiring will wind up with better people, and therefore a better business, in the long run.

What does any of this have to do with changes to welfare law and benefits, designed to, as Iain Duncan-Smith put it this week, ‘make Britain great again’ and end ‘Benefits Street’ Britain?

The answer, I fear is absolutely nothing. Final conversation – had this Monday with a stranger at a bus stop. Friendly guy with a wide experience of both the benefits system and attempts being made to get him into work. A former labourer, he has arthritis and severe dyslexia and, as he candidly put it, ‘I’m pissed most days’. In theory, lots to mind.

Atos (‘not even an English company – they’re French,’ he patriotically observed) had been on his case about finding work or training. Is he about to fall off the unemployment figures and start manning your firm’s reception? I suspect not – any of the steps government policy is asking of him would be very hard won, and I question if they would be sustainable wins.

Odd then that government policy is building such a formidable administrative and legal infrastructure, and legal bills that come with its imperfect execution, around the idea that, with a brushed up CV, he’d be in your reception area next Monday waiting to be onboarded.

This week’s good news is hugely welcome – but in so many ways, we could all be doing better.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor