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.