Optimizing Your Legal Career

The Role of Professional Recruiters

Ongoing, active management of your legal career is essential. As such, every successful law firm partner should develop a long-term exclusive relationship with a top-notch, knowledgeable recruiter, someone he or she trusts to provide confidential and unbiased advice and counsel about the market and potential career opportunities.

Unfortunately, partners all too often answer cold calls and find themselves in discussions with one or more firms, relying on friends and family and the firms themselves to help sort out whether to make a move — and if so, to which firm. Without a knowledgeable, objective adviser to help sort out the various options, a partner can be left feeling alone in a stressful process, navigating uncharted territory. (And while recruiting is my day job, I share this advice with you as someone who reached a crossroads in his career as a law firm equity partner.)

The Prominent Partner Dilemma

"Roger," a prominent partner in a well-known law firm, had a very successful practice and was highly regarded at his current firm, where he had practiced for a number of years. However, in recent years, certain things had happened at his firm that were frustrating and caused Roger to question whether his firm was still the best place for him to continue building and investing for the balance of his career. Roger, however, did not have a good way of evaluating that question, and his visibility into his other possible options in the market was limited for a number of reasons:

  1. Despite the fact Roger had been practicing in the market for many years, he had been too busy focusing on his practice to spend time keeping up with what other firms were doing, and given the fast-changing nature of the local legal market, he was unsure which firms fit the criteria he had in mind (though he had his biases based on anecdotal information from friends and colleagues).

  2. Roger was in the middle of several pressing client matters and had limited time to spend educating himself on the market (even if he had known how to go about doing it).
  3. Despite its shortcomings and his suspicion that it may no longer be the best place for him, Roger felt a loyalty to his current firm and certain partners and associates he worked closely with, so he wanted to be as discreet as possible in his effort to determine whether there was a better opportunity available elsewhere so as not to damage the relationships he had at his current firm. His prominence in the local legal community and wide network made confidentiality particularly difficult.

The Sales-Focused Recruiter

Like all prominent law firm partners, Roger frequently received calls from legal recruiters telling him about opportunities at competing firms. However, he did not trust these recruiters to truly understand his practice or what was important to him in considering a move — or to have his best interests at heart. He knew that they were incentivized to push him to the firm they presently were calling for, whether or not that firm was best for him or even an improvement over his current situation, and were not particularly concerned about confidentiality. Further, deciding which firms to explore based solely on which firms happened to call him gave Roger no confidence that he was getting a comprehensive look at the best potential opportunities.

The Ideal Adviser

Roger realized that he needed a different kind of recruiter: a truly independent professional adviser who specialized in working with high-profile partners who demand the highest levels of confidentiality and service. This recruiter had to be willing to invest time with Roger to fully understand his practice and his wants and needs, while also recognizing that Roger may conclude that his best option would be to stay at his current firm. This recruiter also needed an unbiased, in-depth knowledge and understanding of the firms in the local market based on his/her regular conversations with each firm's management and other partners within the firm, and trusted relationships at the highest levels within the firms.

Only a recruiter who met these criteria would be able to: 1) help him identify the firms he should be talking with as he explored his career options; and 2) make discreet introductions to facilitate confidential, high-level exploratory meetings with these firms.

Fortunately, Roger was recommended to a recruiter who satisfied each of the difficult criteria above. After meeting with this recruiter, Roger became convinced that it was in his best interest to involve this recruiter in all of the opportunities he was interested in exploring because:

  1. By committing to working exclusively with this recruiter on all of his options, Roger was able to access the recruiter's intel and objective advice on each opportunity. He was also able to receive assistance in prepping for and scheduling interviews, preparing lateral forms and understanding each firm's management structure, culture, compensation system and strategic priorities. Roger was able to get informed advice on how any offers he receives compare to "market" for similarly situated partners, instead of relying on guesswork or anecdotal hearsay.

  2. Since he was going to earn a fee upon any move, the recruiter was motivated to invest time in the process with Roger and give Roger his best service.

  3. One of Roger's options was with a firm where he had a close friend who was a partner. Instead of having to approach that friend about his interest, Roger was able to lean on the recruiter to advise him with respect to that firm and thus preserve a good relationship with his friend by having the recruiter make the initial introduction to the firm's senior management. Roger was then able to call his friend later and explain the importance of receiving objective professional guidance as he contemplated this career move with the support and assistance of a professional recruiter. His friend appreciated this approach because it removed him from having the responsibility of serving as the internal conduit and advocate for Roger, while freeing him to be an informal champion and source of information for Roger during the process.

The Results

The result of Roger's planning and foresight was that he conducted a successful process and joined a firm that met all of his criteria and has proved to be a great home for him and his practice.

When high-profile partners decide to explore opportunities to move their practices to a new firm, those that work with a professional recruiter on an exclusive basis quickly realize the value of exclusive professional representation to the marketplace.

Not only can a partner benefit from the increased attention that can result from being represented to the market by a well-known and highly regarded recruiter, but a partner also benefits from the recruiter's: 1) deep knowledge of the firms in the market; 2) deep relationships at the highest levels within the key firms that may be of interest to a partner; 3) ability to provide objective advice regarding the strengths and weaknesses of firms and the potential "fit" with the partner's own personality, priorities and practice; and 4) informed advice about how to evaluate the offers he or she receives based on real data about what other similarly situated partners are being compensated in that local market.

In addition, the right adviser can be counted on to add substantial value in helping the partner candidate and the firms understand the key factors that should be considered on both sides when evaluating a potential opportunity, as well as accurately communicate key information that is vital to making an informed decision and ensure that the compensation package is one that is in the partner's best interest.

The Pivotal Moment

The best time to identify and start building a relationship with a professional recruiter is when you are not yet in need of such a person. Recruiters who fit this profile are generally more than happy to meet periodically over lunch or coffee to get to know you and your practice and to start to educate you on the firms in the marketplace that are relevant to you. Making time for such meetings is a worthwhile investment that can pay dividends both in terms of real-time market intelligence and visibility into attractive career opportunities as they arise.

This article was featured in Law Journal Newsletters, Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report, February 2017.

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