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Geography and Job Searches

Posted by: Laurence Simons 08/05/13

Hiring the best candidates in the market, while avoiding flight risk
A few months ago, I received a call from the Recruiting Manager at one of the top law firms in Chicago.  She had spent the prior six weeks unsuccessfully trying to fill a relatively unique mid-level associate position at her firm and wanted to know if I could help her figure out why doing so had been so difficult.  Her firm’s International Executive and Equity Compensation Practice, one of only a few such practices in Chicago, was swamped with work and in desperate need of a mid-level lateral associate.

The Recruiting Manager had drafted a fairly standard job description, which she had disseminated in hopes of attracting candidates.  The group wanted someone with excellent academics, prior law firm experience from a top-rated Am Law firm, and experience handling international employee benefits matters.  However, the last line of the description stood out and provided “all candidates must be admitted to the Illinois Bar.” 

I immediately asked why the group had imposed such a geographic limitation, and the Recruiting Manager said that they previously hired a candidate from New York and incurred significant expense to relocate him to Chicago and obtain admission to the Illinois Bar, but after only eight months, he left and returned to New York, claiming he hated living in Chicago. 

No wonder, I thought.  The group has been burned and was unwilling to put themselves in a position for another flight risk.  No firm wants to spend a great deal of time hiring, training and incurring the cost of relocating an attorney, only to have to do it again a few months later because the candidate leaves the firm.  Even so, summarily restricting the search to local candidates is much too limiting, especially when hiring for a niche practice area like International Employee Benefits, largely because mid-level associates with this type of experience are few and far between. 

Without a doubt, opening a job search to all qualified associates regardless of geographic location makes for a larger, more time-consuming process, as doing so will undoubtedly result in a significant increase in applicants.  Nevertheless, there are enormous benefits to hiring candidates from outside the specific location in which the firm’s office sits, and there are numerous ways for firms to ensure that a candidate is genuinely interested in a particular geographic location and dedicated to remaining there on a long-term basis. 

Why law firms should be open to considering qualified candidates from across the nation
Opening a search to qualified candidates across the nation may be a necessity when trying to fill positions in niche practice areas or areas practiced in only certain geographic locations and it results in many benefits to the firm.  Government Contracts law, for example, is almost exclusively practiced in or around Washington, D.C., so any firm with a practice outside the D.C. area is likely going to have to consider candidates from the East Coast if it wants to find the top talent for the position.  Similarly, while certainly not exclusive to the South, many of the strongest energy practices are housed in Texas and other southern states, which means that law firms with energy practices outside of the South should be open to candidates from this region if they wants to hire attorneys with the most sophisticated and relevant experience.  

Hiring attorneys from a broad range of geographic locations also increases a law firm’s business development opportunities.  After all, the Seattle office of a top law firm is going to increases its chance of developing clients in Portland, Oregon if they have attorneys with relationships and business contacts in and around the Portland area.

Clients are also often attracted to law firms with a diverse set of attorneys in their employ.  For example, many moons ago, while still practicing law, I sat in on a conference call with a Boston-based client and a handful of fellow attorneys from my firm.  One of the corporate partners on the call had a heavy Boston accent, and when he introduced himself to the General Counsel, the General Counsel immediately began chatting him up with questions about his connections to Boston.  The two became fast friends and spent the next fifteen minutes chatting about the Red Sox and Fenway Park.  Eventually one of the other attorneys on the call redirected them back to business, but I later heard that the General Counsel sent a huge merger deal to the corporate partner.  Was it based on their shared connection to Boston?  Who knows, but it certainly did not hurt.

How to minimize the chances of hiring a flight risk
While there are unlimited benefits to considering candidates from diverse geographic locations, many law firms have had at least one bad experience hiring, relocating and training a new candidate only to have that candidate leave the firm and move away shortly thereafter.  While there is no foolproof way to avoid hiring the “flight risk,” there are a number of factors that firms can consider to minimize this threat while hiring the best possible talent.

Has the candidate every lived in or around the city in which the firm is located?
The next best thing to a candidate who currently resides in a particular location is the candidate who has previously lived there for a significant amount of time.  Ideally, the candidate will have lived in the city during his or her legal career, but even if s/he lived in the location as a small child or during college, s/he may have strong ties to the area and a sincere desire to return there permanently.  In these cases, it may be that the candidate loved living in the city and subsequently left involuntarily (i.e. a parent took a job in another part of the country).  These individuals tend to present a very low risk of leaving the firm to move back to where they came from, since they are intimately aware of what life is like in the particular location.

If the candidate has not lived in the specific geographic location, has the candidate visited there?
Residence or prior residence in a specific location is not the only way for a candidate to establish a connection to the target location.  Some candidates develop a genuine interest in moving to settling in a specific city on a long-term basis based on a few, isolated visits.  For example, I recently worked with a candidate whose father attended college in Denver and took the candidate there for a vacation every year during his childhood.  After spending a few years in New York, the candidate realized that he wanted to settle down and raise his family in Denver, so we worked together to find his a suitable position there.  By visiting the city numerous times as a child, he had determined that the culture, climate and size of the city fit with his lifestyle goals, and during his interviews with firms, he was able to articulate his genuine desire to settle down and raise a family in the area.

Does the candidate have family in or around the city?
While certainly not absolute, the existence of family members in or around a particular geographic location may help a candidate stay in one place.  For example, I worked with a candidate whose parents relocated to St. Louis while she was in college, and when it came time to look for a full-time law firm job after law school, she focused exclusively on St. Louis in order to be closer to her family.  Despite her lack of personal connection to St. Louis, the firms in the area felt comfortable that the candidate was headed there on a long-term basis.  After all, we all know how difficult it can be (or should be) to leave one’s mother!

Even if a candidate’s parents do not live in the targeted location, extended family can anchor him or her to a particular location.  Family of all kinds can be a powerful thing, and we often migrate to those we know and love.  A candidate is more likely to take an interest in a particular location and remain there long term if s/he has thirteen of his or her closest cousins within a two mile radius.

Does the candidate have a network of close friends in the specific geographic location?
Oftentimes a firm will summarily dismiss a candidate from a particular position if he or she does not have family in the area.  However, but close friends can be just as strong of an anchor for candidates.  As a legal recruiter, I often find that young candidates are reluctant to mention that they want to move closer to their friends, probably because they fear that a firm will think he or she is moving there just to “party.”   Obviously, this is not necessarily the case.  A few years ago, I worked with a young woman who contacted me about relocating from New York to Chicago.  She has only been to Chicago a handful of times, and she had absolutely no family in or around the area.  However, four of her closest friends had lived here for a number of years, and she wanted to join them.  This, coupled with her attraction to Chicago’s legal market, help secure her multiple interviews.  She eventually moved here, took one of the offers she secured, and settled into life in Chicago.  Its been four years now, and I recently heard that she married a fellow Chicago attorney and is expecting her first child. 

Does the candidate find the geographic area attractive for a particular and potentially unique reason?
This can cut both ways.  While no firm should trust a candidate that claims s/he wants to move to Denver to be a “ski bum,” I have worked with numerous candidates who’s outside interests and hobbies attract them to a particular region of the United States.  If  genuine, this can serve to anchor a candidate to the region and  help ensure s/he does not flee a short time after relocating.  For example, I worked a candidate from New York who called me about a position in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He had no family or friends there, but he and his wife had visited the area a few years prior and fallen in love with the many lakes surrounding the area.  They were avid sailors and had a small boat that they longed to use on a regular basis.  They did plenty of research on the city and discovered that the cost of living was much lower than New York, and the school system in the specific area they wanted to live in was very strong.  We crafted a letter explaining the candidate’s attraction to Grand Rapids, and the firm granted him an interview.  

Does the candidate practice in a specific area of law that is particularly popular to the geographic location? 
This connection can be very powerful.  Certain areas of the law are practiced in specific geographic locations and not in others.  For example, if a candidate is an expert in FDA law, chances are he is going to be interested in and willing to relocate to Washington, D.C., even if he or she has no other connection to the area.  Likewise, if a candidate practices in a niche area of law only practiced by a small number of firms, he or she may not have the luxury of choosing the exact location in which to practice.  For example, I worked with an affordable housing associate with spectacular experience and an LL.M. in Taxation from a top school.  Affordable housing work is not a common area of law, especially over the last few years, so I made it clear to him that I would only represent him if he was willing to look in a wide variety of cities.  Not only did he agree that this was the best way to approach the job search, but he admitted that when he went into the area of affordable housing, he knew he would likely need to move to a new area of the United States in order to advance in his career.  We ultimately sent resumes to ten different cities, and he eventually accepted an offer from a top firm in St. Louis, a city he had never been to before the interview.  Despite this lack of connection to the city, he was able to convince the group that he was serious about staying in the area of affordable housing even if it meant moving to an unfamiliar city. 

Is the candidate barred in the state to which the candidate wants to relocate?
It goes without saying that a candidate admission to a state bar can be a strong indication of a candidate’s desire to move to the state and settle down long-term.  After all, anyone who has taken any state bar exam knows that few people would undertake such a stressful task without a genuine desire to practice law in that state.  Taking (and passing) the bar exam in specific state shows a dedication to practicing in the area and helps to ensure that a candidate who moves to the state will not leave. 

For example, I worked with a young litigator who wanted to move to Iowa with his wife, who is originally from Des Moines.  He had no connection whatsoever to Iowa, but because he and his wife made a long term plan to move there, he took and passed the Iowa bar before starting his job search.  That way, he was able to show the firms that he was serious about making the move and remaining in Iowa for the long term. 

If not already barred, is the candidate educated on the steps he or she must take to gain admission to the state bar? 
It is important to keep in mind that taking a state bar exam while working full-time as an attorney can be difficult to accomplish if the attorney works 2500 hours a year.  The mere fact that a specific candidate is not yet admitted to a specific state bar does not, in itself, mean that the candidate is not dedicated to making the move and staying there long term.  But if the candidate has not taken the time to figure out if he or she is eligible for admission on motion (without taking the exam) or whether s/he needs to sit for a particular bar exam, then it is more likely that the candidate is not serious about making the move. 

Recently, I represented a junior candidate seeking to move to Minnesota.  During our first conversation, she was up front about the fact that she was not yet admitted to practice in the state of Minnesota and that she planned to sit for the next Minnesota bar exam.  However, I did a quick search on the internet and learned that the candidate had already missed the deadline to file her application for the next offered exam and would instead need to wait over eight months to take it.  The fact that she had no knowledge of the deadline and/or that she missed it lead me to believe that she was not serious about making the move to Minnesota.  During our next conversation, I pressed her on it, and she finally admitted to me that she had agreed to move to Minnesota with her boyfriend who had been transferred there for his job, but now she was having second thoughts and was thinking of ending the relationship.  I told her that she needed to hammer out things with her boyfriend before she could start a job search, because firms would see right through her if she was not genuinely enthusiastic about making the move.