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9 Strategies for Hiring Top In-House Counsel Talent in a Tight Market

The role of in-house counsel carries many mission-critical responsibilities in an organization, which makes finding the right fit crucially important. However, finding that right fit can be challenging since law departments typically only seek new talent on an as-needed basis and thus the legal recruitment process usually kicks off from a standing start. Layer in time constraints from increasingly demanding internal corporate clients, unemployment at 50-year lows and a limited pool of high-caliber candidates and you have a recipe for potential frustration. 

It's a candidate-driven legal market right now, with the most highly coveted candidates often having options, multiple offers and bargaining power. Organizations need to be strategic, smart and creative in order to effectively recruit top legal talent.

If you anticipate having to recruit an in-house counsel for your organization, here are nine strategies to increase the odds of going from kick-off to offer-and-acceptance in 16 weeks or less. Yes, 112 days or less, even in a tight legal job market.

1. Establish a Timeline with Realistic Milestones

Budget each phase of the hiring process to fit within a 16-week schedule. Schedule and set deadlines for each milestone in the process, including a resume acceptance cut-off date, a review period and a block of time for interviews. Make certain the goals you set for your hiring process are realistic, meaning they are achievable in light of your current workload and time constraints, as well as those of the expected interview team. 

2. Get Clear on the Target Candidate Profile

If you want to be productive in sourcing, screening and assessing candidates, you must take the time to develop an ideal candidate profile at the front end of the process. This will help you attract better candidates and speed up your recruitment timeline. You need to be crystal clear about the candidate target you're after, and you need to develop that clarity before you go market.

Be sure to solicit the input of key executives, business leaders and other important internal clients of the new in-house counsel hire as you develop the ideal candidate profile by. They may not have time to engage with all phases of the interview and hiring process, but they can help to establish and fine-tune a list of essential candidate characteristics and hiring criteria.

3. Sell the Opportunity, Not the Job Description

A big mistake when recruiting top legal talent is over-allocating interview time to discussing job responsibilities with candidates, rather than describing the role's short- and long-term opportunities. In order to attract the very best talent, focus on what makes the opportunity great.

This should include the short- and long-term potential career path, the impact the individual can make on the law department and company, the leadership team which the candidate will be working with, the cultural attractiveness of the company and its prospects for the future. Bottom line: Sell the emotional appeal of the opportunity, not just the logical facts of the position spec.

4. Look Beyond Typical Candidate Sources

Network with your company's outside counsel, professional advisors, and board members, all of whom could potentially refer a lawyer with the skills you seek. Attend relevant conferences and be mindful of the speakers and keynotes, as they may be the rising talent you’re seeking. Consider looking out-of-state for promising candidates who may have family, friend or school ties to your area.

Don’t forget: The best candidates are often passive — those who are happily employed where they are but could be persuaded to seriously consider a compelling new opportunity. Although this can be challenging to do without the resources of a search firm, be sure to reach out directly to passive candidates to the extent you can identify them.

And when you engage with passive candidates, the initial focus should be on the skills and ambitions of the candidate, rather the skills and qualities required in the role. So, instead of explaining what skills the candidate must have, explain why the skills of the candidate would enhance the role.

5. Avoid the Purple Squirrel Recruiting Trap

In a tight market like this one, insisting on the extremely rare "purple squirrel" or unicorn candidate can be a recipe for frustration, wasted time and resources, and productivity loss. Adjust your expectations to better align with the available talent pool. This means taking a more flexible approach than you might have had when top legal talent was more plentiful.

It's a flat out mistake to dismiss great candidates on paper just because there are one or two things about their background that aren't quite ideal. Keep your options open because you likely won't have as many as you anticipated. Focus on the most talented candidates you can identify who are an excellent cultural fit.

6. Run a Transparent Interview Process

Transparency from the outset of the interview process is key. Tell candidates how long you expect the process to take, and what steps are involved. A transparent process can help build trust between both parties — candidates know what they’re getting into and your organization can feel confident about being able to find the right fit.

More specifically, be amiable but direct during interviews to conduct a deep assessment of each qualified candidate while remaining conscious of time. To do this, you will need to know exactly what questions you need to ask, how to ask them and how to interpret the answers to gauge character, skill and experience. Don’t hesitate to define compensation expectations early on and be sure to interview for behavioral traits in addition to skills and experience, as compatibility with company culture is critically important.

7. Move Quickly and Maintain Momentum

In a candidate-driven market like the current one, with top talent likely considering multiple options, it's essential to keep the process moving quickly. Proactively think of ways to move the search along to maintain top candidate engagement and enthusiasm.

Here's a BIG no-no: Do not let too much time pass between your receipt of a quality resume and setting up the first round of — and subsequent — interviews with the candidate. Moreover, strive to make each interview round meaningful by having the candidate meet several key decision-makers at a time if at all possible.

And be sure to communicate status with the candidate often, ideally once a week. The adage “time kills all deals” most certainly applies to recruiting top legal talent.

8. Make Your Offer VERY Attractive

If you’ve zeroed in on a high-quality candidate, know that you probably aren’t the only organization he or she is considering. This means you need to go "above and beyond" to make your organization stand out as a desirable place to move to. Polish your employer brand by addressing specific candidate concerns such as remote work and commuting flexibility, collaborative culture, access to senior leadership, and opportunities for growth and promotion. It’s also important to understand market compensation trends so you can put together a highly attractive compensation package.

9. Consider Retaining a Legal Search Firm

I’m biased, of course, but retaining a firm such as Major, Lindsey & Africa allows you to draw upon unmatched domain expertise in recruiting general counsels and their teams and an impeccable track record of identifying and recruiting the highest quality passive candidates. A quality legal search firm will already be familiar with many of the lawyers you want to consider, is skilled at how to approach them and pitch the opportunity, and is well versed in assessing if they are a good fit. Above all, a firm like MLA will be your talent acquisition advisor, partnering with you in a full value-added relationship to understand your business and culture. What you get is focused and time-sensitive sourcing of high-quality in-house counsel candidates who are a professional and cultural fit for your organization.

To maximize your odds of identifying and hiring an exceptional "walk on water" candidate for your legal department, whether for a general counsel role or a business-critical position on the GC’s team, consider exclusively retaining an experienced legal search firm you trust.

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