Is it time to call a legal recruiter?

A lawyer’s guide to the world of professional recruitment

If you’re feeling lousy about your job, you likely have a specific complaint. Perhaps you’re convinced that your compensation, when measured against your skill set or ability to rack up billable hours, is too low. You might be itching to collaborate with senior colleagues on advanced legal strategy, but your boss refuses to trust you with anything other than routine grunt work. Or maybe you’re livid that, after netting yet another client, you’re still languishing as an income partner. The obvious solution, you’ve started to think, is to leave and take your talent to a competitor.

You could be right. But caution is paramount. You don’t want to scatter your resumé all over Bay Street, a risky operation that your current employer may hear about, only to discover that your salary is in line with what you’d earn at another firm. Or that your caseload is appropriate for a lawyer with your level of expertise. Or that your book of business lacks the kind of clients that would justify a promotion to equity status in any partnership. Before upending the direction of your career, you’d be wise to consult a trusted advisor, someone who understands the intricacies of the legal marketplace and can help you determine if landing a new job is the best way to improve your situation. A mentor, a career coach, a well-informed friend—all valid options. Alternatively, you could place a call to a legal recruiter.

In law, recruiters play a powerful behind-the-scenes role. When law firms or in-house departments need to hire a lawyer, they regularly turn to recruiters to hunt down the perfect candidate. Recruiters conduct each search on multiple fronts. One tactic is to look for an applicant in their own database of ready-to-move talent: people who’ve reached out and expressed an interest in leaving their position. Another common method is to advertise the opportunity on a job board. Most importantly, though, recruiters will make discreet overtures to lawyers who might not be looking to move but, when tempted, will sometimes entertain an attractive offer. Surreptitiously luring talent away from the competition is perhaps the most valuable service that recruiters provide. Ultimately, when recruiters fill a position, the employer pays them a percentage of the new hire’s annual compensation.

Experienced recruiters, therefore, have an intimate knowledge of the legal market. When you’re frustrated with some aspect of your career, they’ll know how likely you are to find something better by switching jobs. If you decide that it’s time to contact a recruiter, here’s what you can expect.

Playing matchmaker

During an initial call or meeting, a capable recruiter will besiege you with questions, tailored to your unique circumstances. The objective, in part, is to understand why you’re considering a change. Are you aiming to make more money? Achieve a healthier work-life balance? Handle more sophisticated legal work? Next, the recruiter will collect an abundance of information about you as a lawyer, including your education, job history, volunteer positions, practice area and client roster.

At the end of the conversation, the recruiter might issue a blunt verdict. Perhaps you’ll need to improve your book of business before you can realistically hope to land a better-paying role at another firm. Or, maybe, the only way to work fewer hours is to leave Big Law and accept a pay cut. Such assessments might come across as unhelpful, but that sort of candour is a sign of probity. A recruiter who seems overly eager to place you at another organization may not have your best interests at heart.

Of course, the discussion might lead to an altogether different conclusion: that you would benefit from finding a new job. In that scenario, you’ll earn a spot on the recruiter’s database of moveable talent. You’ll then have to wait until the recruiter identifies a promising opportunity—something in step with your skill set and career goals—and sends it your way. When that day arrives, hurl every possible question at the recruiter. Ask about the compensation. The culture of the workplace. The billable-hour target. The bonus structure. The personality of the lawyers you’d work alongside. Nothing is off limits. In fact, a diligent recruiter will want to supply you with whatever information you need to evaluate your suitability for the role.

Once you choose to pursue a job, you won’t have to write a traditional cover letter. Instead, the recruiter will apply on your behalf. If the employer is interested, the next step is a formal job interview. Again, the recruiter will offer practical guidance, helping you anticipate the questions you’re likely to face and warning you about any reservations that the employer might have about your candidacy. You should then be prepared to show up to the interview and deliver a first-rate performance.

Depending on the position, you may have to interview multiple times or meet with additional partners or wait as the employer deliberates over the hiring decision. In the end, there’s no guarantee that you’ll secure the job. But this is, broadly speaking, how contacting a recruiter can kick-start a new phase in your legal career.

Recruitment conundrums

The job market is friendliest to particular kinds of lawyers—well-trained associates, profitable partners—who can make an immediate impact on any legal team. But most recruiters will happily speak with new calls. If you’re at the very start of your career, don’t hesitate to book an initial meeting. Though it may not lead to a job, it’s a chance to obtain valuable career advice and build a meaningful professional relationship. As you develop your skills and progress as a lawyer, stay in touch with the recruiter, who will naturally keep you in mind should an opportunity arise.

The entire profession, meanwhile, should bear this advice in mind: select a recruiter who will act with discretion. Although it’s rare, there have been stories of less-than-scrupulous recruiters sharing a candidate’s resumé with an employer before obtaining that lawyer’s permission. You can’t risk that sort of damage to your reputation. The best course of action, in most cases, is to ask a trustworthy connection for a referral. You’re looking for the following endorsement: “Based on my own experience, this recruiter is honest and transparent.”

Then, once you’ve reached out, make sure you’re dealing with someone who truly wants to help. The ideal recruiter will ask thoughtful questions, offer insightful advice and propose fresh ideas. Seek out that person. After all, looking for a new job is hard. It’s a lot easier if you don’t have to do it alone.

Daniel Fish is the editor of Precedent. After joining the magazine more than a decade ago, he’s reported on dozens of topics, including the legal economy, mental health and partner compensation. In that time, he’s received several leading journalism awards for his long-form feature writing.

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