There is no shortage of legal recruiters. Many firm partners report annoyance at too-frequent calls from headhunters, some who demonstrate only passing familiarity with the practices for which they purport to be recruiting. Accordingly, law firm partners are truly in the catbird seat when it comes to choosing a recruiter. The following are a few best practices that law firm partners should follow in selecting a professional recruiter to represent them in establishing relationships with prospective firms.
Be picky. Not all legal recruiters are created equal, and there is a vast difference between the best and the not-so-best. Just as one would perform due diligence before choosing a doctor, accountant, real estate agent, or any professional counselor, law firm partners should perform due diligence on recruiters too. Obviously, the fact that one may be considering a change is a sensitive matter, so most partners are quite reticent about asking their peers for recommendations. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to ask for references, explore LinkedIn profiles, check search engine results, and make discreet inquiry of friends who may have used recruiters to change firms. A few suggestions of where to start:
- Does the recruiter have substantial experience in the recruiting business?
- Has the recruiter actually placed partners, and if so, to which firm(s)?
- Does the recruiter have any testimonials posted, and if so, what do they say about his or her experience, responsiveness, and ease of working with? (Of course, people post only the most glowing of recommendations, so take them all with a grain of salt)
Look for relevant experience. Some recruiters have been in the recruiting business for their entire professional careers, some have backgrounds in legal practice, and some have experience in human resources and personnel management. Each of these backgrounds can be relevant, but one issue trumps all the others: Has this recruiter made other partner-level placements, and if so, how many and how recently? There is simply no substitute for real-world, recent experience placing partner-level candidates, ideally in the same firms or types of firms that the candidate is most interested to discover.
INSIDER TIP #1: Using LinkedIn to Research Recruiters
LinkedIn can be a valuable tool for learning about people and organizations, but it has its limits. In the legal recruiting sphere, most players are quite discreet—so do not expect to find many endorsements or lengthy testimonials by partners whom they may have placed. Likewise, few recruiters are keen to expose their own networks by linking in to the myriad attorneys with whom they deal. Nevertheless, astute partner-level candidates can use LinkedIn to get a general sense of the person on the other end of the phone.
Determine specialization. Some recruiters specialize by geography, some by practice area, and some not at all. While I do not have a strong opinion on whether specialization by geography or practice area is particularly important, I do have a strong opinion on the difference between recruiters who place partners and those who place associates: make sure that you are dealing with someone experienced in your own practice level, because the markets for associates and for partners are completely different. This is not to say that firms never seek partners to fill in gaps in their own practice coverage, or that they never specifically seek to build bench strength in particular areas; rather, it is simply uncommon for firms to need partner level candidates the same way they need to find experienced associates to service existing clients’ needs. Accordingly, partner candidates should make sure that they work with recruiters who truly understand the partner-level lateral lawyer process, and whose specialization is in closing partner-level deals.
Don’t be promiscuous! Just as there are reputational (and other) downsides to social promiscuity, dealing with too many recruiters can harm your professional career. This is not to say that one should avoid speaking with—and learning from—numerous recruiters while still in the initial phase of considering whether to make a move. Rather, once a partner has made a decision to explore opportunities at other law firms, he or she should do so through a single point of contact. Several factors militate in favor of this approach:
- Posture. Nothing undercuts your posture as “amenable, but not looking” more than having your resume submitted by more than one recruiter: virtual proof-positive that you are, indeed, actively looking
- Logistics. When interviewing with multiple firms, someone needs to handle the schedule-juggling, and unless you want that to be you, have a single recruiter handle those issues on your behalf
- Mutual assistance. If you give a single recruiter your full attention, he or she will be far more likely to reciprocate
Finally, candidates need to ask themselves: what is the potential benefit of dealing with more than one recruiter? I posit that there is none.
Inasmuch as partner-level candidates drive the recruiting process, it is not as if some recruiters have special access to information on unadvertised openings. (This is an arguable benefit that certain associate-level recruiters may be able to leverage). On the contrary, firms are generally quite transparent about their willingness—indeed, their eagerness—to see good partner-level candidates, so it is quite rare, if not outright unheard of, for legal recruiters to have some kind of unique access to law firms and firm decision-makers. Thus, partner-level candidates are well-advised to choose a single recruiter, and, absent a compelling reason to terminate the relationship with that person, pursue all potential introductions through that single source.
Probe for knowledge of the recruiting process, but do not expect complete familiarity with every detail of every law firm. One common mistake that partner-level candidates often make when choosing a recruiter is to believe that recruiters must (or even can) have comprehensive knowledge of every prospective firm. Such knowledge may seem valuable—after all, a recruiter who drops names, statistics, and other information may seem to have the inside track on making a successful placement. However, as I always inform my candidates, making a successful placement depends more on knowledge of the recruiting process than on knowledge of particular law firms—which, it turns out, are almost always in a state of flux.
What a partner-level candidate most needs to know about a prospective new firm is not even knowable ab initio: how well his or her practice would mesh with a new firm’s practice, culture, and client base. Learning about these factors depends, more than anything else, on getting to know firms during the recruiting process, not on any one recruiter’s purported expertise on particular firms. Furthermore, one may well wonder whether a recruiter who promotes particular firms to the exclusion of others actually short-changes the candidates with whom he or she works, by seeking to make a rapid placement at firms with which he or she happens to be most familiar, as opposed to working with the candidate to identify, contact, and shepherd the candidacy through the process at firms where the candidate is most likely to thrive regardless of initial familiarity.
Work with people who prioritize your interests, not their own. Competent recruiters get deals done; exemplary recruiters make great matches between candidates and the law firms where those candidates’ practices are most likely to thrive. Except where time is truly of the essence, recruiters who brag about the speed with which they accomplish placements are really just boasting of their prowess at earning fees. Rather than work with someone whose goal is to maximize the speed and number of placements they can make, thoughtful potential candidates should feel out recruiters for their generosity with time, attention, and advice. Find a “giver” recruiter, one who is forthcoming with information but not over-eager to pour out details.
Find a patient, thoughtful, insightful listener. Any recruiter can talk a good line, but great recruiters are model listeners—they solicit as much information as possible about your practice, history, needs, personal and work values, and interests in order to form a complete understanding of the skills, track record, and client base that you bring to the table. When choosing a recruiter, find one who is as good a listener as any trial lawyer interviewing a potential witness—e.g., does he or she spend more time speaking, or actively listening to your thoughts? Does he or she grasp the nuances of what you are trying to communicate about your practice needs and goals? Does he or she understand your priorities? Spend the time to get to know whether the recruiter appreciates your situation, and only proceed with someone who is willing to invest time and energy to listen to you.
Work only with someone who is relationship-oriented, not transaction-oriented. This advice applies more to law firms than to law firm partners, but both parties should work only with recruiters who prioritize relationships over transactions. With respect to law firms—and this advice is aimed principally toward hiring committee members and recruiting staff—a recruiter who makes the time to develop a genuine hand-in-glove relationship will be more likely to present excellent candidates over time than one whose approach is simply to make a placement and then move on to the next opportunity. Candidates should likewise probe recruiters for their skills cultivating and sustaining relationships.
INSIDER TIP #2: How to Get the Most Value from a Legal Recruiter
A few tips on getting the most out of a legal recruiter:
- Set aside time to communicate, preferably when not preoccupied, under a deadline, in a moving vehicle, or otherwise stressed or distracted
- Be available, even if after hours or on weekends. The best recruiters are flexible and make themselves available at odd times because they understand that busy partners often lack time or privacy to speak during the work day
- Be responsive—reply to messages as soon as practicable
- Heed advice; take and accept constructive criticism from the professionals who have advised many candidates before you
- Reciprocate—that is, provide information to recruiters just as recruiters provide information to you. Recruiters value and remember positive, mutually-beneficial relationships and can provide you with essential information for your career, especially if you help them with theirs too
- Understand that your recruiter is your advocate, so the more complete a picture he or she has of you and your practice—and the fewer surprises he or she encounters when receiving feedback about you from law firms—the more effective an advocate he or she can be on your behalf