During the three and a half decades since the 1982 founding of our firm — Major, Lindsey & Africa (MLA) — the legal recruiting and staffing industry has undergone enormous changes; indeed, in many respects, it has changed more than the legal industry it serves.
The Role of Legal Recruiting and Staffing Firms
Legal recruiting and staffing firms make professional placements for a variety of positions and professional roles at client companies and law firms, either for permanent placement or for more limited durations of time. They include:
- In-House Legal Departments: in-house counsel positions, e.g., general counsel (GC), corporate counsel, or legal secretary.
- Law Firms: partner and associate candidates who typically work exclusively with a single recruiter to identify firms that would be the best cultural, financial, and practice fit.
- Business Management: retained searches for firms’ business management professionals, e.g., chief operating officer (COO), chief marketing officer (CMO), chief strategy officer (CSO), chief financial officer (CFO), and corporate legal department operations professionals.
- Permanent: full-time employees, whether at law firms or in-house at companies.
- Specialized/Temporary: legal professionals for specific projects or on an interim and temporary-to-permanent hire basis (both at companies and law firms).
Most of the scores of legal recruiting firms in the U.S. have a small handful of recruiters in a single city; several have offices in more than one city. Our firm is unique in having more than 200 recruiting professionals in more than 25 locations worldwide, including London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Amsterdam, Sydney, Delhi, and cities across the U.S. This provides the distinct advantage of having market information about law firms, corporate clients, and practice trends globally rather than just for a single city.
Why Use a Recruiter?
There are five main reasons that law firms and companies utilize legal recruiters:
- Attract top talent: Top legal talent is difficult to find because those professionals are usually not looking for new opportunities; one must “search” for them, thus necessitating the role of legal recruiters and staffers.
- Save money: The cost of hiring mistakes often exceeds the annual salary of the person hired. The fees for a legal recruiter are relatively modest in comparison. A successful recruiter should find candidates of the highest quality who match specific needs and efficiently complete the placement, making the search cost effective.
- Save valuable time: Time spent by a company’s or firm’s internal team directing a search is time lost on other important business tasks. Legal recruiting and staffing by an outside professional saves valuable time, considerable effort, and the associated costs of internal resources.
- Minimize hiring mistakes: The right fit is critical to business objectives and company culture. Top-notch legal recruiters and staffing consultants who know the legal market intimately are able to look beyond the resume, providing frank assessments of potential candidates.
- Ensure that your offer is competitive: The market changes rapidly. Legal recruiting and staffing firms should work with clients (companies or law firms) to ensure the compensation package is competitive and will attract the right candidates.
Law firm partners and associates utilize a recruiter to assist in assessing the market of firms that might be a good fit; to provide information about the firms’ cultures, finances, practices, and other pluses and minuses; to serve as an intermediary throughout what can sometimes seem like an interminable recruiting process; and (in appropriate instances) to help in negotiating aspects of the lateral’s compensation package.
For partners, this process often includes the recruiter’s assistance in fashioning a business plan to help firms evaluate how a lateral can be accretive and help advance the firm’s long-term strategic goals. An experienced recruiter familiar with client firms can also provide critical information about issues such as capital contributions, pension arrangements, partner compensation systems, lease obligations, potential client conflicts, and the like.
As noted in MLA’s most recent Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey, partners who used the services of a recruiter when changing firms had significantly higher rates of satisfaction with their move than those who did not, especially when the search consultant had:
- Analyzed the fit between their client base/practice area and the firm’s;
- Acted as intermediary or otherwise assisted in negotiations; and
- Provided detailed information about potential firms.
Partners who worked with recruiters were also more likely to review a firm’s financials before moving than those who moved without assistance. For both groups, however, the percentage doing thorough due diligence before investing their professional future and their capital in a new partnership was shockingly low.
Keeping the Keepers III: Mobility & Management of Associate Talent, a national study and report of law firm associate hiring and retention from 2006–2011, includes findings from more than 22,000 associate hires and more than 17,000 associate departures. The report found that very few firms anticipated changes in non-partner recruiting budgets or the number of administrative staff who are dedicated to non-partner recruiting in the near term. At the same time, however, a significant number of participating law firms (56 percent) reported an expected increase in lateral hiring. The report’s supplemental study of 85 law firm administrators found that search firms, internal referrals, and online searches or solicitations initiated by the firm accounted for the largest percentage of lateral hires within the last two years. The majority of firms reported that law school job postings, external referrals, and unsolicited write-ins each accounted for 10 percent or less of lateral hires.
Law firms recognize that while recruiting fees are not immaterial, search consultants can add enormous value in helping them add senior laterals who can in turn add significant revenues, expand the firm’s talent and client bases, and bring new energy and vitality. For that reason, lateral partner hiring is more competitive than ever — e.g., in a recent survey, 96 percent of law firm managing partners said they viewed lateral partner recruiting as a primary growth strategy. To be successful in implementing that strategy, firms need to be nimble, creative, flexible, decisive, and visionary (read more specific suggestions for law firms in “To Compete for Laterals — Linger Not, Partners”). In short, law firms and their management teams have concluded that employing the services of savvy recruiting professionals is a productive allocation of firm resources.
Read more of this article in Leaders in Legal Business
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Jon Lindsey is the New York founding partner of Major, Lindsey & Africa. He previously practiced law at Debevoise & Plimpton and in the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York and is the co-author of the Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey and numerous articles. This article is adapted from his talk to the American Management Association's symposium, "Innovative Recruitment and Retention Strategies: Will Today's Law Firm Structure Survive?"