Legal Recruiting FAQ

by Andrew Gurman

When I was an associate at large law firms years ago, I received phone calls from a variety of legal recruiters, but I only had a limited sense as to what they did and how they operated. Now having recruited for several years, I spend a lot of time educating attorneys about a recruiter’s role in helping them secure a new position. Candidates or potential candidates often ask the same questions about the recruiting process. Here are answers to ten questions that are commonly asked and/or should be of interest to candidates considering working with a legal recruiter:

  1. Why should a candidate work with a legal recruiter?
  2. For appropriate candidates, working with a recruiter can be extremely helpful. Good recruiters serve as helpful guides through the entire interviewing/hiring process and provide advice every step of the way. They provide market intelligence, alert candidates to opportunities they would never otherwise have known about, and save candidates time. For more on this topic, see the following article by my colleague Michael Lord:
  3. How should a candidate choose a recruiter?
  4. As with finding other service providers, a candidate should work with a recruiter s/he trusts, with whom s/he enjoys interacting, who offers interesting opportunities, and who is responsive. Attorneys should ask friends for referrals and look for recruiters who have placed similar types of candidates. They should also do their due diligence regarding a recruiter, such as by asking about her/his experience in the field and looking at the profile on her/his company’s web site and/or a LinkedIn profile. Finally, candidates can select a recruiter whose company is a member of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC), which is a self-regulating organization that requires member recruiters to adhere to a strict ethical code regarding conduct with candidates and clients (Note that even if a non-NALSC member claims to follow NALSC’s ethical code, such a recruiter faces no penalties for failure to abide by the code.)
  5. When should an associate make a lateral move to another law firm?
  6. Associates with between about two and four years of experience will find the greatest number of law firm opportunities available to them. The number of opportunities drops sharply after about five years of experience within law firms (except for associates who have substantial portable business). If a candidate knows that s/he does not see a long-term future with a particular firm, s/he should seriously consider making a move before the peak window of marketability closes. The economy/market is typically far less important than an associate’s seniority in determining her/his lateral options.
  7. When can an associate go in-house?
  8. Going in-house is the dream of many attorneys. Certain practice areas produce great numbers of in-house attorneys, whereas others produce relatively few. For example, attorneys specializing in certain areas of corporate law (such as investment management, fund formation, securities, etc.), intellectual property law, and employment law tend to have greater options to go in-house than do litigation attorneys. Because an in-house move is highly coveted, there is often major competition for these positions. Attorneys are the most marketable for an in-house move after about four to seven years of practice at a major law firm.
  9. How long does the recruiting process take?
  10. That depends on many factors such as the candidate’s credentials and experience, how well the candidate interviews, how particular the candidate is regarding opportunities, and the number of available opportunities. An impressive candidate who is eager to make a move to another law firm can often do so within about three to nine months. But every situation is unique. I recently placed a candidate who accepted an offer 15 days after she began working with me. Conversely, I have worked for several years with some candidates who have not made a move; some have received few interview requests and no offers and others have declined offers and stayed at their current firms.
  11. How confidential is the search process?
  12. The process is quite confidential. Ethical recruiters and employers take confidentiality seriously. Information could leak, but there is a very small risk that a candidate’s employer will find out that s/he is interviewing. In almost five years as a recruiter, I am not aware that any candidate with whom I have worked has had a current employer find out about her/his job search.
  13. Who pays legal recruiters?
  14. Employers pay recruiters a percentage of the compensation paid to a placed candidate. Candidates do not pay for a recruiter’s help. (Career counselors, however, charge attorneys at an hourly rate and can help them, among other things, with exploring law firm and non-law firm opportunities.)
  15. Should a candidate submit a resume directly for a position so that a firm does not have to pay a fee?
  16. No. Firms that use recruiters pay recruiter fees regularly and expect to do so; they have budgeted such amounts into their operating expenses and expect to pay a fee. In an ideal world, firms would prefer not to pay a fee, but they regularly do so to find impressive attorneys. Please note, however, that there are many law firms and companies that do not use recruiters or are unwilling to work with recruiters on a particular search. In such cases, a candidate should of course apply directly.
  17. Should a candidate apply for a position through her/his friend at the firm?
  18. Let us assume that a candidate is aware of an opportunity at another firm and has a friend at that firm, and a recruiter tells her/him about an active opportunity there. If the friend is a partner at the firm and will vouch for the candidate, the candidate should likely apply through the partner. If, however, her/his friend is an associate there, the candidate should likely apply through a good recruiter. A recruiter can use connections with the firm to bolster the candidate’s prospects of getting an interview and can regularly follow up with the firm and help the candidate through the recruiting process with that firm. An associate friend often does not have the same connections within a firm that a recruiter does, may not vouch as strongly for a candidate as a recruiter can, and it can be awkward for the friend to follow up on a candidate’s behalf if there are delays in the process. Finally, let us assume that a recruiter raises an opportunity with a candidate who otherwise would not be aware of it, but the candidate realizes that s/he has a friend at the firm. The candidate should apply through the recruiter because the candidate would otherwise not have known of the search. At some point in the process after being submitted, the candidate can ask the friend to put in a good word for him/her (if that would be helpful). Alternatively, a candidate can tell a recruiter at the inception of working with the recruiter that s/he will apply directly for certain specifically identified firms/companies but that other opportunities are fair game.
  19. How long does a recruiter’s representation of a candidate last?
  20. A recruiter’s representation of a candidate is on a firm-specific (or company-specific) basis. Let us assume that a recruiter presents a candidate to Firm X. The recruiter’s representation of the candidate with respect to Firm X typically lasts for six months. During that time period, the candidate cannot authorize another recruiter to present her/him to that firm (and cannot present herself/himself to that firm). Once the six months elapse, however, the candidate can re-submit. If a firm has passed on that candidate, however, the firm is unlikely to meet with her/him following a subsequent submission.