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A Message to Law Firms: Here’s how to get the most out of your legal search consultants/recruiters

Posted by: Laurence Simons 16/09/13

There is no question that qualified and reputable outside legal search recruiters provide a significant benefit to their law firm clients by identifying experienced attorney candidates in a particular market and effectively recruiting them to the law firms. However, no matter how experienced they are, legal search professionals cannot effectively recruit the strongest candidates to a particular law firm without first gaining access to detailed information about the firm and the specific open position.

The job of ensuring that outside search professionals obtain this information most often falls to the internal Recruiting Coordinator(s) and/or Manager(s) at a particular law firm, many of whom have little time to spare.  Even so, there is no doubt that the Coordinators and Managers that take the time to provide their trusted recruiters with adequate information about the law firm gain access to higher quality candidates and are able to fill their open positions more efficiently. And we all know that filling positions quickly with outstanding candidates reflects positively on the Recruiting Coordinators and Managers, and it makes them look like rock stars in the eyes of the law firm’s Hiring Committee and Management.

As detailed below, there are very specific things the Recruiting Coordinators and Managers can do at the outset of a particular search to ensure that their search professionals provide them with the best possible results.  This includes: (1) getting to know the various consultants in the market; (2) choosing a select few with which to work; (3) communicating detailed information to these search firms; (4) supplementing the information as necessary; (5) providing the search firms access to the specific practice group(s) in need of new hires; and (6) providing feedback to the search firms regarding candidates submitted to the firms.

1. Get to know the search firms in the market and choose a select few with which to work regularly.

Simply put, not all search firms are created equal.  Some firms focus on associate candidates while others focus on partners and/or group placements.  Some spend significant time getting to know individual candidates while others focus on reaching the largest number of candidates in the shortest amount of time.  While no one search firm is going to provide the best service for every law firm, taking the time to get the know the players will allow a specific law firm to determine which search consultants are most aligned with the recruiting goals of the firm and therefore most likely to provide the best service.

There are additional benefits to partnering with a small number of trustworthy search consultants.  Doing so will allow the law firm to control the message sent to the attorneys contacted about a specific job opportunity within the firm.  For example, one of my candidates received six calls in one day from six different legal search firms about the same law firm position, and each search consultant had something different to say about the requirements for the job and the type of work handled by the practice group.  This reflected poorly on the law firm and turned the candidate off from considering the opportunity. 

Loyalty is another benefit of developing strong relationships with a select few search consultants.  An ethical, high-quality search consultant will be loyal to its law firm clients, and will often give priority to the needs of the law firms with which it has close relationships over those that communicate only in response to specific candidate submissions.  Similarly, a search consultant that feels valued by a law firm is much less likely to proactively recruit attorneys out of the firm for positions at other law firms.

2. Communicate with the search consultants regularly and provide detailed information about the law firm and specific open positions(s). 

Communicating with a search firm is vital to obtaining results.  This includes general, overall information about the law firm as well as specific information about each individual position the search consultant attempts to fill.  The key is to provide all of the information necessary to distinguish the law firm and any of its open positions from the countless other law firms and positions in the marketplace.  Attorneys want to know what makes a particular law firm unique, why the current associates and partners joined the firm and what makes them stay long-term.  Without this information, every new position sounds exactly every other position, which is not going to allow a search professional to entice a qualified candidate away from his or her current position.

While it may sound counterintuitive, communicating any negative information about the firm or position, as well as any recent rumors circulating about the law firm, will allow the search consultant to dispel any inaccurate information floating around the marketplace.  It will also allow the search consultant to combat the negative information with positive aspects of the job and overall benefits of joining the particular law firm.  Without knowledge of negative information and rumors about the firm, the search firm professional is likely to be caught off guard with questions he or she cannot answer, which often turns off busy attorneys who just want the facts. 

Some examples of the types of information a law firm should share with the search firms with which it works can be found in Appendix A. 

3. Expose the search firm to the specific practice group on the market for a new attorney and allow the search firm to ask questions about the group and position.

While not always possible, if consultants from the legal search firm are close enough to meet in person, invite them to the law firm to meet with the specific practice group seeking a new hire.  Doing so will allow the search consultant to ask questions about the role and observe how the individuals in the practice group interact with each other.

For example, I was recently asked by a highly-regarded Chicago firm, largely known for its traditional, formal culture, to assist it in finding a senior-level employee benefits associate for the firm.  As part of the search, the Recruiting Manager asked me to meet with four or five of the attorneys in the group.  I assumed that the Employee Benefits Practice group would reflect the firm’s overall traditional culture, but I was very wrong. The entire meeting was filled with funny comments and a friendly banter between the attorneys, all of which was lead by the head of the practice group, who was laid back and very progressive.  I left the meeting with a solid grasp on the specific culture within this practice group, which differed greatly from that of the firm as a whole, and I used this information to attract highly qualified associates who were dissatisfied with the stuffy, traditional law firm atmospheres at their current law firms.

4. Consider disseminating the existence of the open position, as well the details of the job, to the select group of legal search professionals with which the firm has a close relationship.

A large portion of the law firms with which I work tend to post all active positions on the firm website and are willing to accept resume submissions directly from candidates and through an unlimited number of third-party search consultants.  However, doing so invites unknown search firms with little knowledge of the law firm to cold call candidates they think may be qualified for a search, and if these search firms are unable to provide detailed information or answer tough questions from the candidates with which they speak, these attorneys are less likely to take an interest in the position.  Even if the firm subsequently employs the assistance of a qualified search firm, that search firm is not going to be able to undo the damage done by the search firm that made the initial call. 

On the other hand, if a law firm disseminates the detailed information about a specific open position to one or two search consultants that possess extensive and accurate information about the law firm, this select group of professionals will be able to proactively target candidates using detailed information that sets the law firm apart from its competitors.  Doing so allows the firm to control the information disseminated to potential candidates, increases the chances of attracting candidates to the law firm and drastically decreases the number of unqualified resumes the law firm will have to sift through to find the qualified candidates. 

5. Supplement the search consultants with new information as it arises.

 While providing information to the search consultants at the beginning of a search is extremely important, supplementing it with any new information or changes to the needs within the group is essential to a success of a search.  Sometimes a practice group develops a need for a specific type of associate, but as the weeks pass, it realizes that it actually needs a somewhat different type of attorney.  Many law firms fail to update the search consultants with new information, which can lead to wasted time and a delay in filling the position. 

For example, I worked with a firm seeking a senior tax associate.  At the outset of the search, I was told that the practice group was only willing to consider candidates currently practicing within another law firm, which meant I could not submit any of my current tax candidates working at one of the Big 4 accounting firms.  After about 3 weeks, however, the practice group decided to open the search to individuals from the Big 4 accounting firms, which I was notified of immediately.  This opened the door to a significantly larger pool of candidates and enabled me to fill the position almost immediately, but had the law firm withheld this information, I never would have submitted the very candidate the firm ultimately hired.

6. Provide feedback to the search firm regarding specific candidates submitted to the firm. 

One of the best ways for a search firm consultant to narrow down the exact type of candidate for which the practice group is seeking is to hear feedback from the decision-makers regarding the candidates submitted for the position.  While many firms are very good about providing such feedback, I continue to be surprised by the number of law firms that simply respond with “no interest” to candidates they are not interested in interviewing.  This leaves the search firm consultants to guess the reasons for the rejection, which can be very difficult.

For example, a few years ago, while working on an environmental search for a law firm. I submitted a candidate, which the firm rejected almost immediately.  While I assumed the reason for the lack of interest was related to the fact that my candidate had no prior law firm experience, I picked up the phone to ask for feedback.  Much to my surprise, the practice group had no objection to my candidate’s lack of law firm experience but was not impressed that my candidate attended a Tier 3 law school (even though he earned excellent grades there).  With this knowledge, I focused on candidates that graduated from top 50 law schools and was able to fill the position with a candidate they labelled “the next best thing to perfect.”

7. Seek feedback from the search consultants working on the law firm’s behalf.

While a diligent and reputable search consultant will offer up the information he or she has obtained while speaking to candidates in the marketplace, the Recruiting Coordinators and Managers at the law firms should seek out this feedback from all search consultants working on a law firm’s behalf.  Feedback from other attorneys in the marketplace provides some of the best "intel" available to firms.  For example, I recently worked with a law firm that warned me that it had been battling negative information in the market about the firm's extended partnership track, which had recently gone from 7 years to about 8.5 years.  The firm asked me to inform them if I heard any complaints about this issue when speaking to potential candidates for a senior associate level position.  Much to the firm’s surprise, not a single candidate with whom I spoke expressed concern about the length of the partnership track (even if I asked about it directly), largely because the firm had been diligent about making sure that all qualified candidates actually achieved partnership at the 8.5 year mark.  In fact, one candidate with whom I spoke was actually attracted to the firm because it had such a clear and defined partnership track, even if it was longer than it used to be.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the lateral recruiting needs of law firms are constantly changing, and it is unreasonable to think that a firm’s Recruiting Coordinator or Manager will be able to provide a search consultant with all of the most accurate and up-to-date information related to a specific open position.  However, the more information a legal search professional has, and the closer the relationship the firm develops with its search firm professionals, the more success the law firm will have when using search consultants to fill their lateral needs.  Not only will the firm be able to fill its positions with stronger candidates, but it will also learn a great deal about its reputation in the market and control the message sent to attorneys recruited to the firm. 

APPENDIX A
Information to Share with Search Firm Consultants.


While certainly non-exhaustive, some of the important information that should be shared with a search firm working on a law firm’s behalf includes but is not limited to:

• the office seeking a new attorney;
• the practice group with the need;
• the type of work generally handled by the practice group;
• the specific type of experience the group would like to see in the new hire;
• the experience level of the position (junior, mid-level, etc);
• the specific attorneys the new hire will be working with, especially if the new hire will be expected to work almost exclusively with one or two other attorneys;
• the overall culture of the firm;
• the specific practice group culture, especially if different from the firm as a whole the prospects for partnership;
• compensation;
• whether there position exists to replace a departing attorney or is part of the growth of the practice group;
• whether there has been significant attrition within the group or firm in recent years;
• whether there has been any significant layoffs in recent years;
• the types of associates that tend to succeed within the practice and those that tend to fail;
• whether there are specific firms that the practice group likes to hire from and/or any that they do not want to see candidates from; and
• any negative aspects of the job, whether it be a difficult partner in the group or a lack of exposure to certain types of matters