Legal Recruiters: Mediocre vs. Sophisticated, and Key Differences in Approach

As distinguished from associate recruiters, partner recruiters focus on finances, economics, due diligence, and the intricate process of merging practices. While associate recruiters are akin to a matchmaker knowing the landscape and setting up dates, partner recruiters delve much more into the details of what is akin to a mini-merger of sorts, even if it involves only one person.  

What makes the difference between mediocre vs. sophisticated legal recruiters? The below chart outlines the various stages of the lateral partner recruiting process and highlights the differences in approaches between mediocre vs. sophisticated legal recruiters take when working with partner candidates. 

STAGE 1:  Understanding Your Practice, Including Underlying Finances/Economics.  

  • Mediocre Approach: Asks questions and takes your responses at face value with little, if any, follow-up or clarifying questions. Financial analysis is more superficial (e.g., “what are your portables”) without further depth of analysis.
  • Sophisticated Approach:  Learns not only about your career evolution and substantive expertise on a granular level, but the underlying finances/economics of your practice.  In addition to the threshold portable business question, he/she will gain an understanding of billing rate structure, any alternative fee arrangements, origination/ working attorney credit, necessary leverage/support from other attorneys, key clients (for conflicts), hours, compensation, and future business development prospects that could be impacted (positively or negatively) by a move. Will consider your capital contributions and other back-end compensation, and how this could be impacted by leaving your current firm and the relevance of timing.

STAGE 2:  Understanding Your Current Level of Satisfaction and Priorities.

  • Mediocre Approach: Asks you to explain what you are looking for “in your next job.”  Lack of questioning on what is going well with your current situation.  Little focus on long-term goals (both personal and professional). 
  • Sophisticated Approach: Understands both your short and long-term priorities. After the conversation, you feel that the recruiter “gets” your motivations for contemplating a move (both professionally and personally). Appreciates what is going well for you in your current firm and may also suggest that you delay a move if your challenges are likely to be present at another firm or will work out at your current firm.  Most importantly, the recruiter understands the underlying economics of your practice.

STAGE 3:  Discussing / introducing possible firms.

  • Mediocre Approach: Provides a list of firms based on superficial factors such as whether the firm has an existing practice on its website that appears to match yours, or whether the firm’s profits-per- partner are a match with your earning goals.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Provides a thoughtful analysis of why certain firms may be worth considering. Analysis goes beyond existence of similar practice areas and profits-per-partner, and includes (when relevant) information on strategic priorities, the firm’s finances, compensation structure, leadership, management philosophy, etc. In addition to discussing why certain firms may be a fit, provides a balanced analysis on why certain proposed firms may also have shortcomings. Will not limit choices to the obvious competitor firms listed in the usual rankings, but also potential “hidden gems” that could meet your objectives.

STAGE 4:  Coordination and guidance regarding resume preparation and related practice materials.

  • Mediocre Approach: Offers little, if any, input on the documents themselves, or how they can be improved/enhanced for the particular opportunity.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Provides substantive input on your resume or related submission materials including how to characterize your finances and draft a compelling business plan.

STAGE 5:  Pre-screening firms that may be interested in you based on a blind profile.

  • Mediocre Approach: Skips this step entirely. Alternatively, sends blind profiles to multiple firms without first consulting you, which can create uncomfortable situations and breach confidentiality. Or the blind profiles are not crafted carefully and contain information that easily identifies you.
  • Sophisticated Approach: When appropriate — and with your express permission for each potential firm — recruiter drafts an anonymous “blind profile” that explains your background, financial profile, and main clients for purposes of a preliminary conflict check. This summary explains your background in sufficient detail to enable the firm to determine if it is opportunistically interested and whether there are any non-starter conflicts. It is constructed in a way that protects your anonymity. If a firm expresses interest, you can then authorize the recruiter to affirmatively present your materials for the firm’s review.

STAGE 6:  Presenting your materials.

  • Mediocre Approach: Sends your materials to the firm without a personalized cover letter/profile providing background and relevant information.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Writes a detailed cover letter in addition to presenting your materials. This letter will underscore all relevant factors valued by each firm, including important financial/economic details about your practice. It also minimizes the risks of erroneous assumptions about your practice and allows the receiving firm to make an informed decision about whether to proceed.

STAGE 7:  Arranging interviews.

  • Mediocre Approach: In addition to scheduling interviews, recruiter will provide in-depth details on the interviewers and firm. Will also make sure you are fully prepared and ready to answer questions the firm will ask about your reason for moving and how your practice will be accretive to their firm.
  • Sophisticated Approach: In addition to scheduling interviews, recruiter will provide in-depth details on the interviewers and firm. Will also make sure you are fully prepared and ready to answer questions the firm will ask about your reason for moving and how your practice will be accretive to their firm.

STAGE 8:  Facilitating the introduction of multiple partners from the same practice group (e.g., if you would like to consider bringing other partners with you to the new firm).

  • Mediocre Approach: Simply presents multiple partners without fully covering issues of confidentiality.
  • Sophisticated Approach: At the outset, arranges to speak to each different potential lateral partner (from the same group) about navigating confidentiality among the partners. For example, is there information (e.g., compensation details) you would prefer not to be disclosed to other partners potentially joining with you?

STAGE 9:  Assisting with the lateral partner questionnaire (aka “LPQ”).

  • Mediocre Approach: Forwards the lengthy document and tells you to “Please complete and let me know if you have any questions.”
  • Sophisticated Approach: Will help alleviate the administrative burden by filling in the information that is readily available (from your resume/biography or business plan). Will work with you closely to ensure you are interpreting certain questions consistently with industry norms, and your responses are comprehensive and accurate. At times, if certain questions are too burdensome to answer completely (e.g., asking for every matter you worked on during the past five years), recruiter can help facilitate alternative ways to respond that also satisfy the firm’s needs.

STAGE 10:  Flags possible ethical issues that arise.

  • Mediocre Approach: Will not be aware of the ethical consideration s in the jurisdiction.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Will help ensure you understand, and get help if you don’t, your duties and responsibilities to your existing firm. You are a partner in the firm until and through your last day at your firm. You should understand your professional/ethical responsibilities, your statutory/case law fiduciary duties to the firm and to clients, your contractual responsibilities under your partnership agreement, and other contracts/firm codes of conduct and policy. This assessment also involves what information, and in what form, may be provided to prospective new law firms.

STAGE 11:  Once you receive offers, helping you evaluate whether it makes sense to move and which opportunity is best for you (even if recruiter isn’t representing you on all).

  • Mediocre Approach: If you are contemplating whether to stay at your current firm or move, the recruiter’s advice and perspective may be biased in a manner that will reward the recruiter. You may feel pressured, confused, or unsupported.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Will remain objective and help you weigh the pros and cons of each opportunity. Will have a depth of familiarity with the various moving pieces and, having acted as a sounding board throughout the process, will be in a position to guide you in your decision-making analysis. Will be candid and forthright about positive and negative information it may have about the firms in play.  In short, you trust that the recruiter wants you to make the right decision, regardless of whether it ultimately rewards the recruiter.

STAGE 12:  Analyzing and negotiating your offer.

  • Mediocre Approach: Does not have a strong understanding of law firm economics or market norms for partners and is therefore unable to advise you in a comprehensive manner. Avoids negotiating the offer and expects that you will do it alone. Alternatively, insists on negotiating it him/herself, which may lead to overly aggressive or clumsily stated “requirements,” without benefit of a sound negotiating strategy.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Is a strong negotiator and has a command of partner compensation structures. When appropriate, is able to create spreadsheets or other similar documents to help analyze and compare compensation packages based on various moving pieces, such as capital contribution, distributions from the prior firm, and other economic or business considerations. It’s particularly important that you understand, and get help if you don’t, the financial consequences of your departure, the importance of timing notices of withdrawal, and whether there are times of the year that are more or less consequential. If the recruiter advises against negotiating, you trust that the rationale makes sense. If the recruiter negotiates, he/she is skilled in analyzing the many moving pieces and provides the points of negotiation in a compelling, thoughtful, and professional manner. Never loses sight that you are negotiating with a potential future partner and constantly preserves goodwill.

STAGE 13:  Assisting you with performing due diligence on the firm, including reviewing the partnership agreement.

  • Mediocre Approach: May not partake in this process, due to lack of knowledge or lack of motivation to uncover possible negatives.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Will assist you with performing due diligence on the firm’s finances, and help you obtain information beyond what is publicly available. Will also assist you with reviewing the partnership agreement to draw attention to key provisions such as capital contributions and the repayment/forfeit provisions if you leave the firm.

STAGE 14:  Helping you with the notice/resignation process.

  • Mediocre Approach: Wishes you luck and asks you to call once the process is complete.
  • Sophisticated Approach: Similar to interview preparation, the recruiter walks you through the process of resigning which has multiple moving pieces, including competing fiduciary duties to your current law firm and your clients. This is a complex process that can be emotional and tense, and the recruiter’s experience in seeing these situations play out many times (and in many ways) will help you navigate the process and maintain perspective.

General note about ethics and duties: Although lateral partners must take responsibility for their actions, and recruiters do not give legal advice, it is axiomatic that many partners are nowhere near as aware of their duties and responsibilities in some of the above areas as they should be. If your recruiter helps to ensure you are well-versed and prepared sooner rather than later, particularly regarding your ethical, fiduciary, and financial obligations, you will have a smoother process and better outcome than someone who is not.

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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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