By Jean M. H. Fergus
Monday, November 19, 1990

Competition in the legal market is fierce. More and more attorneys are chasing fewer career opportunities. Moving along the tangled career path will require not only solid work, but also advance preparation and strategy. The best personal guide to help find a better position is a "headhunter."

Headhunters - more appropriately known as recruiters - are the key to career growth in a tight market. Recruiters are new to most attorneys who may have found their first law position through a law school placement program. But, later on, the recruiter plays a pivotal role in job transfers, upgrades and lateral opportunities. Fostering a relationship with a recruiter may well be the single most important factor in successful career growth.

Recruiters make it their business to know about the legal marketplace - who is hiring, what their needs are, what the job is like. Often, the best opportunities are within the grasp of recruiters, and recruiters alone. More than 75 percent of all job openings never run in the classified ads. Word-of-mouth no longer is relied upon for filling most positions, both for reasons of confidentiality and a concern about finding the absolute best person for the opening.

When senior-level candidates are being sought, law firms are especially likely to use the services of recruiters. Recruiters bring professionalism and experience to the task of identifying the top candidates, including those attorneys who are not searching for a new position. The best candidates often are not looking to leave their present situations. They are well paid, well regarded and happy. But certain positions may offer these attorneys career challenges or security not otherwise available, and firms are anxious to draw upon this hidden talent pool.

Recruiters, however, cannot simply be "hired" by a lawyer when the lawyer decides that it is time to explore new opportunities. The process of working with a recruiter is much more subtle. Legal recruiters are actually employed by the law firms and corporations that notify the recruiter of a specific search need, and also pay the fee when a candidate is placed. In order for lawyers to stay on the "fast track", their association with recruiters must be built up over a period of time. This is true even if the lawyer is not looking for a new position.

In fact, recruiters seem to be out in force when lawyers are least interested in talking with them. The job of a good recruiter is to get to know the talented lawyers - who they are, what they enjoy doing, and what hopes and aspirations they have. In that way, when a client firm or corporation calls with a specific request - an experienced bankruptcy associate, for example - the recruiter will have a short list of those attorneys who are qualified and whose career will benefit from the lateral move.

To do their jobs, recruiters are constantly on the phone, checking in with more senior attorneys, chatting with new associates and updating background information. Unfortunately, a call from a recruiter frequently is viewed by an attorney as an interruption. If the attorney understands that the recruiter may have access to future career options, the interruption can be turned into an opportunity to learn what is currently available and to become part of the network for future contacts.

Recruiters are calling the people whom they feel will be strong candidates when their client firms have an opening. In a very real sense, a recruiter is a barometer of the marketplace. The more often an attorney is called, the more career options will be available to that attorney.

Preparatory Steps
Attorneys should attempt to establish a rapport with recruiters, and at the same time should take a few steps that will help them later on in an actual job search.

First, it is important to be open about career goals and expectations. The more a recruiter knows about the attorney, the more closely the attorney's skills and interests can be matched with opportunities in the market. The attorney should keep in touch with the recruiter to ensure that the attorney will hear about the ideal job when it comes along. All attorney-recruiter conversations are considered confidential.

Second, the attorney should listen to the recruiter, find out about the recruiter's company and ask for additional printed information about the company. The attorney should consider the length of time that the company has been in business, the company's placement record and the extent of its commitment to the industry and the legal profession. A recruiter's credibility is important.

Third, as attorneys start getting "headhunted," they should keep notes on those recruiters who call with the more interesting job opportunities. The attorney can then evaluate them on their presentations and how they represent their client companies and firms. This gives a strong indication of how they will present a candidate's background to their clients.

Fourth, attorneys should not hesitate to ask questions. Recruiters should be experts on the legal marketplace, constantly monitoring developments, trends and practice changes. They should know things about the legal profession that busy attorneys may not. As the practice of law changes - new specialties grow in demand as others die out - attorneys in touch with a recruiter have a unique insight into the marketplace that enables them to enhance their present position and make themselves attractive candidates for lateral offers.

Fifth, attorneys should respect the recruiter's information. If a recruiter makes a client presentation to an attorney, the information is confidential. Just as an attorney expects information that he or she gives to a recruiter to be kept confidential, a recruiter's information is confidential as well as proprietary. Passing on this information is akin to trading on inside information - it is unethical and unfair to the recruiter.

Suppose an attorney gets a call from a recruiter that piques his or her interest. Some of the most successful attorneys are the ones who make the right job move at the right time. How one follows through on that interesting call is extremely important.

Interested candidates will be invited to meet personally with the recruiter. This meeting should be treated as seriously as an interview with the recruiter's client. As in any interview situation, making a good impression is crucial. The recruiter will recommend to the client only those candidates who come across as top-notch, personable and qualified.

In the meeting with the recruiter, candidates will be asked sample interview questions: "Tell me about your practice"; "Tell me about your last review." These questions are designed to learn more about the candidate and to see how he or she will respond in an interview situation.

The second step will involve a meeting with the client. Only those people who pass the first interview will be recommended. Before the client interview takes place, the recruiter can give the candidate valuable preparatory information on the background of the firm, profiles of the interviewers, questions they are likely to ask, what they are looking for, and any concerns they may have about the candidate's abilities or background.

After the interview with the client, both the law firm and the candidate will look to the recruiter to identify concerns, evaluate strengths and, if the interest is there, smooth along the process. An experienced recruiter can help the candidate evaluate an opportunity .- whether the salary is competitive; how the position fits in with other opportunities available in the marketplace; what the long-term potential may be. A recruiter can also be important in providing tips on how to resign, give notice and get references.

Getting an offer is critical, of course. In today's market, there is a reluctance to hire and a reluctance to move. The experienced recruiter is relied upon by the client firm in finalizing the candidate selection. Unlike a law school placement office, the recruiter needs to know in advance if an attorney is interested. It is not wise for an attorney to ask a recruiter to generate an offer that he or she does not really want or intend to accept.

"Upgrading" will be the catchphrase in law for some time to come. Recruiters have access to what is likely to be an increasingly limited array of opportunities. Recruiters can keep attorneys in touch with the world of career options -and options may be the most valuable thing that attorneys can have in these times.

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
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