Small Candidate Pool Searches

by Jon Lewis

Consider the following job opening:

Vault 100 law firm seeks mid-level associate with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Mandarin language ability, and background in both patent prosecution and litigation.  Candidates must be admitted to practice in NY and before the United States Patent & Trademark Office.  Top academic and law school credentials required.  Prior work experience at a company in the high tech industry preferred.

Obviously, the pool of candidates meeting all of these specifications will be relatively small compared to the relevant pool for a more common search for, say, a third-year general corporate associate. From an employer’s perspective, a small pool search like this raises a number of issues calling for careful consideration.

If a firm or in-house legal department is going to require a rare combination of skills, experience, and/or credentials they will need to be prepared for what could prove to be a long wait. Followed to the letter, a search such as the one described above could take many months or even years to fill. If the firm has no pressing need they may in fact be prepared to wait as long as it takes for a perfect candidate to come along; if on the other hand there is a more immediate need, various steps can be considered in order to potentially expedite the search.

Expanding the Candidate Pool
When a search appears to be difficult to fill, employers can consider compromises on several different fronts in order to expand the size of the prospective candidate pool.

  • Credentials: Even an employer with very stringent hiring standards may need to consider relaxing requirements relating to academics and firm background if they are to succeed in finding a candidate with an unusual combination of skills and experience. A firm which typically hires candidates only from top 10 law schools/firms may need to think about looking at candidates from top 50 or lower schools/firms for particularly difficult searches—If you’re lucky enough to find a needle in a haystack it may not be prudent to toss it away because it’s not as sharp and shiny as you might ordinarily prefer.
  • Type of Experience:  Certain aspects of a job specification may obviously be regarded by an employer as truly critical. In the example above, if the firm in question is looking for an associate specifically to work closely with clients based in China, Mandarin language skills might reasonably be considered absolutely necessary. On the other hand, there may be other areas in which concessions, though perhaps not ideal, can still be made. If, for example, the position above will involve 75% patent prosecution and 25% patent litigation, it may well make sense to hire a candidate who has done only prosecution but is willing to be trained to do litigation work as well.
  • Years of Experience: One of the easiest ways to expand an otherwise small candidate pool is to broaden the class years considered so as to bring in more experienced people.  Historically, many law firms (and especially large law firms) have shown themselves reluctant to consider candidates who are considerably more senior than the desired range, even if they have the requisite experience and would be comfortable with the anticipated compensation arrangement. Getting past such reluctance may be particularly appropriate for employers who are confronted with an especially difficult hiring need. In the example above, the firm might be well advised to consider senior associate or counsel level candidates, rather than focusing exclusively on mid-levels.

Incentivizing Candidates
In addition to broadening the potential candidate pool as described above, employers faced with openings that are challenging to fill should also consider ways to entice candidates who are within the pool to actually make a move. Often the best candidates for a given job are attorneys who are not actively looking, but are still willing to consider opportunities which are sufficiently attractive. Carrots such as sign-on bonuses, flexible hours/work locations, or a quick look to partnership can be effective tools to help generate interest among potential candidates, which is especially important when those candidates are relatively rare in the first place.

Incentivizing Legal Recruiters
A legal recruiter working on a straight contingency arrangement who is presented with a posting such as the one above might well come to the conclusion that the search is too unlikely to be successful to warrant spending any significant time on it. Under such circumstances, employers may need to offer inducements in order to get recruiters to pay attention. Some common approaches in this regard are to offer a higher fee percentage or give a selected recruiter an exclusive search and/or a retainer fee.

For more on this subject please see my article entitled “Difficult Searches and Recruiter Motivation”.