I had a cup of coffee last week with an old friend who happens to be a legal recruiter.
“Are you going to try to pry me out of my job?” I asked. “That’ll be a pretty tough sell.”
“I couldn’t place you if I tried,” he said.
“You crossed that Rubicon two years ago. I do searches only for law firms, and they don’t hire in-house lawyers. You’re no good to me anymore.”
“Law firms buy books of business. Not only that — they buy only past books of business. Nobody buys a story — a promise of future work — these days. Firms buy only your past successes. That’s often incredibly stupid, but it’s what they do.”
The guy had my attention: First, I’m no longer a hot commodity; somehow, that annoyed me, even though I’m not looking to sell myself these days. Second, law firms are stupid about lateral hiring; this was a blog post waiting to happen . . .
“Don’t tell me I’m not worth anything to a law firm,” I told the guy. “I’ve written one book that regularly has me speaking to large groups of law students in the role of mini-celebrity — an author — rather than just an old man in a suit trying to recruit someone. I’d be a recruiting magnet.”
“Law firms buy books of business; they don’t need help recruiting in this economy.”
“I’ve written another book that I could send to drug and medical device companies across America and get myself invited to give in-house CLE programs. I write my column at Above the Law, and I have the Inside Straight book coming out next month. Because of the ATL column, I’m now regularly asked to speak to in-house law departments. I decline those invitations, because they’re not worth my time, given my present job. But those invitations would be worth a fortune to a law firm.”
“Sorry, Mark. There’s a chasm between having a lead and landing a major case. Your little bit of fame is just a bunch of leads. No one would believe that’s worth a penny, because no one would assume that you could turn those leads into business. Law firms are even more brutal and Hobbesian today than they were two years ago, when you went in-house.”
The human mind is a funny thing. I’m outraged that law firms would no longer want me, even though I have no desire to work for one. There’s only one logical conclusion: Law firms must be stupid! So I looked for proof: “You also said that law firms are stupid when they do lateral hiring. Why are law firms stupid?”
“Law firms hire rainmakers, without thinking whether the rainmaker will be effective in his new home. I know one guy who had a $20 million book of business at his original firm. He moved to a new firm and never brought in another dollar. The new firm hadn’t considered that the rainmaker was only the relationship lawyer; the rainmaker couldn’t actually do any work unless he had competent, specialized lawyers supporting him. The rainmaker didn’t have any support at his new firm, so he was a failure there.
“And law firms don’t think about how rainmakers got their business. Some guys inherited a big book of business when an older partner retired. Those ‘rainmakers’ may have no actual capacity to bring in new business. Those people may be service lawyers at heart, who had the good fortune to inherit professional wealth.
“Other rainmakers get business only because of their positions within their firms. If you’re a practice leader at a firm with a prominent practice, you may appear to be generating a huge amount of business. But the truth may be that the position, not the person, is generating business. If you move that practice leader to a different firm with a lesser reputation, that practice leader may no longer make rain.
“And law firms don’t think hard enough about how client origination credit works. If just one partner gets client origination credit, then the partner who landed (or inherited) BigCo’s business 25 years ago appears to be the rainmaker: He has a multimillion dollar book of business. But the junior partner who actually does the work and knows the relevant in-house lawyers may be the more attractive lateral recruit. Law firms typically don’t understand that.”
As you might imagine, I was relieved. Any bunch of people who would no longer want me are obviously fools; I was pleased that my headhunting buddy exposed that foolishness so convincingly.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.