When Recruiters Attack: Part 3

With today’s blog entry we finish up our three-part series on the ins and outs of working with a legal recruiter.  With parts I and II we looked at the reasons a partner might find themselves considering a move from their current firm and we discussed the benefits of working with an experienced headhunter as opposed to going it alone.  But how does one know whether the voice at the other end of the phone belongs to a talented, informed professional or just some schmuck with a lead list and a speed-dialer?  While there’s no absolute litmus test, there are some basic rules of thumb.

We’ll start by saying it’s unrealistic to expect any recruiter to know everything about you or your prospective firms.  However, they should have a strong sense of your practice (i.e. your areas of expertise, your work history, your typical clients/industries, etc.) as well as a solid grasp of why a particular opportunity might be right for you.

Odds are your first contact with any legal recruiter will be an email or voicemail message.  We can begin the winnowing process here.  Simply put, the recruiter should know who you are and what you do—i.e., does the opportunity presented actually match your skill-set and area of focus?  As an example, if you’re a healthcare partner with a practice primarily representing doctors and hospitals but you’ve been contacted about a payor-side opportunity, you clearly have someone who hasn’t done their homework.  This is probably a recruiter simply working their way down a list rather than an expert engaged in a focused search.

Between your firm profile, your LinkedIn page (if you don’t have one, you should; please see our November 7th blog), press releases, news items and any articles you may have authored, your professional life is no longer a closed book.   In the information age there is no excuse for a legal recruiter to be unfamiliar with who you are or what you do.  The most useful and telling question you can ask any recruiter is a simple one:  Why did you decide to call me?  To be sure, every headhunter will have an answer; the question is whether it’s a good one.

If the recruiter truly understands the firm and position they are soliciting—and why your experience makes you a good potential candidate—they should be able to respond to this question quickly and clearly.  This will generally be the recruiter who has sat down with the firm’s management and relevant practice heads and who has an insider’s understanding of what the firm seeks in a lateral hire.  They should also have a good working knowledge of how a given firm functions, from compensation structure to office culture, sufficient to give you comfort in the first couple of minutes.  If a recruiter seems uncertain on any of these core issues, you’re probably talking to the wrong person.

Bottom line, if a recruiter has bothered to do their research before ever picking up the phone, they’re likely someone worth your time.  Neither of you will know whether a particular opportunity is truly right for you until you’ve had a substantial conversation, but working with someone who understands your practice is always a good start.

If your initial contact with a recruiter has given you comfort and you find the opportunity presented to be intriguing, ask about their placement history with the firm.  Have they ever placed a partner with this particular office?  If so, how long ago?  Is that partner still there?  The best recruiter will not always be the one on retainer or the one with the extensive placement history, but, if nothing else, both speak to the firm’s confidence and familiarity with that particular recruiter.  What matters most is that you’re dealing with someone who has a handle on your practice and understands how this new opportunity will differ qualitatively from your current position.
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There’s no doubt that we now live in a global economy and, while you probably won’t get solicited by a recruiter hailing from another continent, you may very well get calls from headhunters working in other parts of the state or even other parts of the country.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Recruiters can, and do, become experts on markets other than their own and an unfamiliar area code alone shouldn’t dissuade you from talking with them.  If you get a call from a Chicago-based recruiter who just happens to have placed five partners in Los Angeles over the past two years, odds are they have a strong working knowledge of the local firms, players and industries despite their non-local address.

Again, it comes down to information and experience.  If you do get a call from an out-of-town or out-of-state recruiter, test their knowledge of your market.  If you’re a transactional partner focused on capital markets, ask who heads the corporate practice in the local office and how your practice would fit in.  Has the recruiter actually spoken directly with any of the local partners?  If so, who, and what have they expressed regarding local needs?  Who would you likely meet with if you did decide to sit down with the firm?  How big is the local office and what are their growth objectives?  What other practice areas are represented in the office?  If the individual at the other end of the line can’t readily answer these questions, move on.  Regardless of your market, there are sure to be many other recruiters, whether local or otherwise, who know it well and can add value to your search.

So what if you find yourself with two (or more) recruiters presenting you with attractive positions at different firms?  It’s not unheard of for a partner to work simultaneously with multiple recruiters but it’s probably not the most efficient means to approach an already complex process.  If possible, focus your efforts with a single recruiter you trust and with whom you’re comfortable working.  If contact with other headhunters has you concerned that a good potential firm has been overlooked, discuss it with your current legal recruiter.  There may be a very good reason he or she omitted that option.  If not—and if you feel some other recruiter has a stronger connection and clearer line of communication with the firm—you can always let them present you.

In any case, if you do plan to work with multiple legal recruiters, communication and honesty will be your best policies.  It’s up to you how much you share with each individual but keeping everyone involved reasonably informed will avoid redundant efforts and crossed lines.  Think of it this way, if you can’t trust one of your recruiters with a complete picture of your search endeavors then that’s probably one recruiter worth losing.

Now that we’ve wrapped up this series, a final note on the lateral process in general.  Like any other fundamental change in perspective, once you begin to view your current firm as one of many options—as opposed to the only option—it will never look quite the same again.  Meeting with other partners in other shops might lead to the realization that a move is inevitable and something you should have done long ago, or might just as easily leave you appreciating your current firm like never before.  In either case, the process will be an eye opener.

When Recruiters Attack: Part 2

We recently began a series of short articles on the how, when and why of working with a legal recruiter.  Now some may say (pessimistically, we think) that, as recruiters ourselves, we can’t help but be a little biased on the subject.  That’s probably true; after all, if we didn’t believe in the value of legal recruiting, we’d almost certainly be doing something else.  But we’re going to do our best to be honest and objective (you can let us know how we do with your feedback).

In Part I we opened with an illustration of the partner whose decade-plus practice was surviving without really thriving, and the fundamental change in perspective that resulted once he sat down and considered where he was and where he might go.  But what about the partner who knows it’s time to move on from his/her current firm and is committed to taking the leap: should they embark on the journey alone or with the assistance of a recruiter?  While we think the answers are a resounding “No” and “Yes!” respectively, let’s discuss why that is by looking at what a recruiter can—and can’t—provide.

First and foremost, a recruiter should be a source of quality intelligence, offering insight and information that might not be available anywhere else.  Every recruiter worth their noise-cancelling headphones knows the importance of keeping an ear always to the ground.  It allows us to listen for creaks and groans in the market and to decipher whether it’s the sound of emerging opportunity or impending doom; the ability to read between the headlines and behind the rumors is imperative to our success and to the success of the attorneys we assist.

But just as often, information comes to us far more directly.   In a typical year we meet with twenty or thirty firms, very often at their request, to discuss what has—and hasn’t—worked regarding their recruiting efforts.  These frank discussions with managing partners and practice heads provide us with a detailed picture of each firm’s strengths and weaknesses as well as a first-hand sense of internal culture.  This is insight you simply can’t glean from content-approved press releases or the “About Us” page on the firm’s website.

Early access to this information will save you what you can least afford to squander–your time and effort.  Knowing which firms are most likely to align with your interests and compliment your practice will be invaluable in focusing your search.  An experienced recruiter should also be able to provide a sense of what value your book and practice represent in the current market and how best to present each to maximize results.

But remember, even with this direction, the partner job search is far from an absolute science.  No amount of research can replace what you’ll learn from that first face-to-face.  In the end, you will have to meet with firms and develop your own sense of fit and comfort, but a good recruiter can guide you through the process with far more efficiency and far less pain.

Once you have begun to speak seriously with prospective firms, a capable recruiter will make sure things move at an appropriate pace.  While any decision as important as changing firms should be approached with due care and patience, we’ve learned that time—at least long, silent stretches of it—is not your friend.  If the lateral process is allowed to stagnate, it can be far too easy for all parties involved to forget exactly why it is they sat down at the table to begin with.

Even in the best of cases and with the greatest of enthusiasm on all sides, the lateral hire life cycle is typically sluggish and fraught with delay.  It is also likely to coincide with any number of professional emergencies that demand your time, from the final, frantic days of that buy-side transaction to the case that should never have gone to trial—but now has…in Omaha.  An experienced recruiter can keep the lateral process ball rolling throughout all the foreseeable (and not so foreseeable) interruptions, making sure the deal remains alive and well until you are again ready to give it your attention.  This might mean helping you fill out (and make sense of) interminable lateral partner questionnaires, working with you to construct and polish your business plan (yes, they will ask for a business plan) or simply calling the firm every week to restate just how interested you are and remind them exactly why it is that they love you.

Again, while the skilled recruiter can help immensely with this stage of the process, there are some things we just can’t do for you.  You will be asked to collect information, lots of it, regarding your billing, collections, past clients, current clients, prospective clients, etc.  Aggregating this data is often challenging (and doing so without setting off unwanted alarms at your current firm only makes it more so) but it’s a valuable and necessary exercise.  For many partners, this will be the first time in years or even decades that they’ve really looked at their practice, not just as a series of cases or string of transactions but as an ongoing business unto itself.  You’ll likely walk away with a deeper understanding of your practice and a clearer notion of your strengths as a business generator.

Finally, a recruiter can act as a third-party intermediary when the process needs one.  This can mean taking a hard line during compensation negotiations so you don’t have to or simply making sure both sides communicate clearly and effectively throughout.  Imperative when the typical recruiting effort involves hiring partners, managing partners, executive committees, compensation committees, practice leaders and any number of administrative personnel.  It’s a process during which wires can and do get crossed, frequently.  A quality legal recruiter will keep information flowing in the right direction and with your interests in mind.
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So we’ve now outlined all the reason you should pick up the phone when a recruiter calls.   But, as the title of this series so enticingly implies, when do we teach you to separate the recruiting wheat from the cold-call chaff?  Have patience folks, Part III arrives next week.