Performing Due Diligence on Legal Recruiters/Headhunters for Partners

When I was writing The Attorney’s Guide to Using (Or Not Using) Legal Recruiters, I asked a close friend, a hiring partner at an AmLaw 100 firm, to review a draft. His comment was the following: 

“You need to emphasize to readers that their recruiters are a reflection on them. When good attorneys decide to make a move and align with unskilled or unknown recruiters, it makes us wonder, ‘What’s going on here? Were they unable to get a better recruiter to represent them?’”

While it may not be fair, law firms do sometimes initially judge lateral partners by the company they keep – in this case, their choice of a legal recruiter. 

In light of the above, it’s alarming how few partners — who are at the top of their field — perform due diligence on their attorney recruiters (also commonly and synonymously referred to as “attorney headhunters” or “legal headhunters” or “legal recruiters” – it’s all the same, and “headhunters” is not offensive, although some people think it is).  Perhaps it’s because there is so little information available that they don’t know what questions to ask, or the process of making a lateral move is inherently confidential so it’s hard to ask for referrals.   

Some of the most accomplished, high-profile partners are very uninformed about how recruiters fit into the market.  The often later kick themselves for not understanding — at the outset — how a recruiter can directly impact their lateral move.   

I’m (obviously) a strong proponent of carefully selecting a legal recruiter and understanding their pros and cons. That said, when performing due diligence on recruiters through asking them questions about their experience and preferred approach, it is important to keep in mind that your standing to perform due diligence correlates with the market demand for your skill set. If you are a partner with a $3M+ practice , ask as many questions as you would like. On the other hand, if you are a junior partner with $500,000 that is not fully solidified, your due diligence may require a softer approach.

In short: be realistic about your leverage to perform due diligence. 

Questions to Consider: 

  1. What is the recruiter’s familiarity with your practice area?  Does the recruiter understand the nature and nuances of your practice area beyond a few buzzwords or acronyms? Can the recruiter effectively explain how your experience fits with a potential firm? 
  2. Can you evaluate the recruiter in person or via video? A good recruiter will want to meet you in person (during non-pandemic times) or virtually (these days) and you should strive to have a meeting or video conference with him or her. You want to ensure your recruiter’s reputation and manner aligns with your preferences and professional approach.  After all, it is rare for a client to engage an attorney to represent them in a matter when they have not evaluated the lawyer; the same approach should apply to your selection of a legal recruiter. If an in-person meeting is not possible, it is even more critical to review the recruiter’s professional background, credentials and experience, search orientation, and methodology to understand the recruiter. If a recruiter fails to present his or her own career in an effective and highly professional manner, what does this say regarding the ability to present you to employers?  
  3. How many years of experience does the recruiter have with partner placements?   Interestingly, I’ve been asked this question only twice in my career, but the length of a recruiter’s experience with partner placements is something I advise every partner to find out. Those recruiters who have deep experience bring significant historic and institutional knowledge of the law firms, practices, compensation structures, negotiation strategies, and key influential decision makers, which can be of great benefit to you. In addition to having established relationships with key decision makers (which gives you an advantage), a seasoned lateral partner recruiter has the historical experience to provide you the access to non-published information that will help you effectively analyze which firms are most likely to be a fit and steer you away from those that won’t well advance of you wasting too much time. 
  4. When the recruiter calls, does he/she have actual experience with the employer about whom he/she is calling? Just because a recruiter calls you regarding a search does not necessarily mean they have experience working with the particular firm.  Ask about their track record and knowledge about how the firm approaches partner hiring.  No recruiter has this level of knowledge about all of the firms – it’s impossible.  But they will level with you about what they know and what they would need to research to find out.  
  5. What is the recruiter’s level of involvement in the process? At times, a good lateral partner recruiter literally becomes a part of your life. You may speak with your recruiter in the evenings and on the weekends. The best recruiters are incredibly responsive and relish this level of involvement.
     
    A hands-on partner recruiter should do the following: 
    • Spend time learning about you and your practice on a  very granular level.  This includes your personal reasons for wanting to make a move, the business reasons for a move, and the metrics of your practice.  It can be a several hour conversation at times.   
    • Confidently present opportunities that fit with your specific goals and practice and provide detailed insight on different employers. 
    • Challenge your assumptions by asking questions and offering information that contradict your assumptions about people and firms. 
    • Collaborate with you when drafting your introduction to ensure your narrative (even if you are not actively in the market) is communicated in the most accurate manner. 
    • Follow up on submissions and keep you updated as to their status. 
    • Provide insight on what to expect during the interview process.  The best recruiters can give you details about the firms, and can often find out inside scoop regarding the personalities of the partners you are meeting.   
    • Debrief with you after each interview. 
    • Help you work through multiple offers and negotiate your offer. 
    • Provide sound guidance when you’re feeling overwhelmed during the process. 
    • Help you with giving notice and all of the related moving pieces, including how to approach colleagues, clients, etc., and refer you to ethics counsel when necessary. 
    • Check in with you before you begin and after you start at your new. position and be available to help with any issues that arise during integration and afterward.

6. Did you confirm that the recruiter will never send your biography (or other identifying information) without your permission? 

This is the biggest fear most partners have when considering whether to work with a recruiter because of the potential loss of control and confidentiality.  It never hurts to reinforce your expectation that no action on your behalf will be initiated without your express authorization. To take it to another, you should put authorization for each firm in writing to avoid any possible misunderstandings. The last thing you want is an overzealous and unscrupulous recruiter sending your resume around town so that he or she can “claim rights” to your candidacy. Lastly, record keeping is important. You should always maintain a written record of all the firms to which you have been submitted and the date of submission. 

There is a lot more that can be discussed about legal recruiters, but the above will help you be able to separate the good from the bad.  

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Picture of Author: Dan Binstock

Author: Dan Binstock

Dan co-owns Garrison & Sisson, where he focuses on lateral partner and practice group placements. He has consistently been recognized as one of the Top 100 Global Legal Strategists and Consultants by LawDragon, and authored "The Attorney's Guide to Using (or Not Using) Legal Recruiters." Dan is the Immediate Past President of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC), where he also served as Chair of the Ethics Committee. Visit here to learn more about Dan, or contact him confidentially with any questions at (202) 559-0492 or dbinstock@g-s.com.

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