Candidate Relationships With Recruiters—Exclude Exclusivity

by Jon Lewis

From time to time, I have spoken with attorneys who told me that they were looking for a new position, but could not work with me because they had already agreed to have another recruiter represent them on an exclusive basis. While I realize that opinions may differ on the subject, I recommend that candidates avoid entering into such exclusive arrangements with recruiters.

At the outset, consider the following question: Would a recruiter who asks a candidate to give them exclusivity agree in exchange not to present anyone else for the same positions as those for which the recruiter will submit the candidate? Safe to say, few if any recruiters would ever agree to such an arrangement. Exclusivity agreements are strictly a one-way street, with a clearly unequal flow of benefit and obligation. While some recruiters might try to justify this lack of mutuality by noting that they will be devoting a significant amount of time to the candidate’s search and require exclusivity in order to warrant that investment, such justification rings a bit hollow when one considers that most recruiters are perfectly content to routinely make such time commitments to candidates even in the absence of any exclusivity.

Candidates should also give careful consideration to the underlying motivation of a recruiter who requests exclusivity. In my view, such requests are far more often born out of the recruiter’s desire to protect their own financial interest in earning a fee by locking up the candidate rather than by any concern for optimizing the candidate’s job search process. Over the 14 years that I worked as a practicing attorney, I would in fact decline to work at all with any recruiter who asked me to work with them exclusively because I felt that such a request in and of itself suggested that the recruiter was more concerned about looking out for their own well-being than mine. Since then, in my 22 years as a recruiter, I have never asked a candidate for an exclusive because I (a) am comfortable with the possibility that I may be competing with other recruiters with respect to the placement of any particular candidate; (b) am confident in my own ability to compete effectively by demonstrably adding value during the job search process; and (c) would not want to forestall a candidate from pursuing opportunities that I myself might not have.

And make no mistake: granting exclusivity to a recruiter may very meaningfully limit the opportunities that a candidate hears about, and/or their chances of successfully pursuing such opportunities. Any notion that legal recruiters all have the same jobs to offer is inaccurate, or at least potentially misleading. In fact, smaller law firms and in-house legal departments often work with only a few recruiters or even just one, and candidates may therefore miss out on opportunities with such employers if they commit to working solely with any single recruiter. With regard to larger firms, it is true that many different recruiters will typically have access to the same positions at BigLaw, but that may not be the whole story—not all such access may be equally valuable. For example, I have some close friends who are partners at large firms in NY, and a candidate submission coming from me may therefore carry somewhat more weight at such firms. This is of course not unique to me, and other recruiters obviously have similar relationships at other firms. The important point, however, is that no recruiter, no matter how experienced or well-connected, has such top relationships at all firms (and any recruiter who insists that they do is probably best avoided entirely). Candidates should therefore maintain their ability to maximize their chances of success by having different recruiters present them to different places as circumstances may warrant. Finally, most good recruiters are typically busy recruiters, working at any one time on multiple searches and with multiple candidates. They are also fallible, and it is unfortunately possible that even the best of recruiters might not always be able to promptly convey all new opportunities to all of their candidates, or on occasion might even miss a particular opportunity altogether. For that reason, candidates are usually better served by adopting a general policy of working with the recruiter who first brings a particular position to their attention (or possibly with the recruiter with the closest ties to a particular firm in cases where a position at that firm has been raised by multiple recruiters at around the same time), rather than choosing a single recruiter to rely on exclusively throughout all aspects of the search process.

I understand that working with multiple recruiters may increase a candidate’s burden in terms of keeping track of which one is representing the candidate to which potential employer.  However, this need not be an enormous problem. In fact, whether working with several recruiters or only one, it is always important for candidates to (a) select only those recruiters who agree at the outset that resumes will be submitted to any potential employer only with the candidate’s express prior authorization (as is required by the National Association of Legal Search Consultants Code of Ethics); and (b) keep careful records regarding the details of any resume submissions which the candidate has in fact authorized. In any case, whatever extra effort might be required is a small price to pay in the context of an important job search and will definitely pale in significance in those instances where working with multiple recruiters yields a better search result.