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The Aspiring Lateral: The Value of Recruiters

Ed. note: The Aspiring Lateral, a new series from Levenfeld Pearlstein, will analyze a variety of issues surrounding lateral moves, drawing on the firm’s experience in the lateral market as well as the individual experiences of LP attorneys. Today’s post is written by Shelly Leonida, LP’s Director of Human Resources.

It’s 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, you’re cranking away at that brief, and your office line rings. You don’t recognize the number. You put your head down, waiting for voicemail to pick up so you can get back to the finer points of Massachusetts estoppel law. Because you know, inevitably, that on the other end of that line is yet another headhunter.

Sure, it’s annoying. But don’t let that experience turn you off from recruiters when it comes time to make a move. For one thing, let’s be honest: having too many people trying to get you a job isn’t the worst thing in the world. For another, recruiters taking the scattershot, cold-calling approach — testing your interest in a real estate practice in LA, when you’re quite happy at your corporate group in Chicago — are not the best representatives of the profession. The fact is, they can help. And I don’t just say that because I used to be one myself.

Brokers fill important roles in many markets, and recruiters — though not “brokers” in the strictest sense — do just that in the market for legal talent. First, and maybe most importantly, they are valuable sources of information. That may sound like a superfluous role in the Internet age, given all the information available on law firms’ websites and candidates’ LinkedIn profiles. But neither firms nor prospective laterals put everything out there for the world to see, and that’s where recruiters can be handy…

When our firm is speaking with a recruiter about a candidate, for instance, we’re always sure to ask: Why is this person looking to change firms? That’s not going to pop up online (well, it better not, anyway), and if sounds more like they’re running away from a situation than seeking out a firm with our qualities, we can cut bait. At the partner level, recruiters can provide information on the economics of a candidate’s practice as well as his or her expectations, letting us quickly determine whether we’re in the same ballpark.

The information base that recruiters offer may be even more important to lateral candidates. Associates in particular can benefit from a well-informed recruiters’ knowledge of relevant practices in the region — pointing out growing practices that the associate candidate may not have been aware of, giving the candidate an unvarnished take on different firms, and even steering them away from bad environments. Indeed, like certain websites (ahem), recruiters can play a big role in shaping the reputation of firms.

In addition to providing information, recruiters also allow lateral candidates to communicate with firms without approaching them directly. In a risk-averse profession that puts a premium on confidentiality, there’s a certain brand of terror that accompanies the thought that your current firm may realize you are testing the market. This is a real concern for all laterals, and especially for partners who work in specialized fields and don’t want their search to become common knowledge within the small worlds in which they work. Working through a recruiter can give them confidentiality until it’s known that talks are worth pursuing.

For all lateral candidates, here are a few questions to ask a recruiter before engaging them:

  • Did you practice law? You want to work with a fully informed recruiter that speaks your language on issues like promotion, billing, and your practice area. If a recruiter hasn’t worked as a lawyer, there is little chance he or she will.
  • What do you need to know about me? A good recruiter will know the candidate as well as the firm. Is your recruiter going to have a response when asked why you are leaving your firm? In order to be effective, they need that information, plus a detailed understanding of what you want out of your new firm and your legal career.
  • How will you determine which firms to approach on my behalf? You don’t want a recruiter mass emailing the Am Law 200 with your details (the cold-calling is just as bad on our side). Instead, you and your recruiter should work collaboratively to identify a list of target firms, and the recruiter should be assisting the process by, for instance, giving you information on those firms that isn’t available on their websites. Lastly, it should be clear that your recruiter needs your clearance before approaching any particular firm.
  • Have you placed any candidates at the firms you are suggesting for me? This will tell you a lot about the recruiters’ relationship with those firms.

In the end, lateral candidates should seek out recruiters that are driven less by notching up a sale than truly benefitting both the candidate and firm involved. If your gut tells you that’s the case, there’s good reason to believe that the recruiter will add a lot of value to your search.

Disclosure: This series is sponsored by Levenfeld Pearlstein, which is an ATL advertiser.


Chicago-based Levenfeld Pearlstein (LP) was born of the desire to create a different kind of law firm. While many firms promote a “value proposition” of high quality work, responsiveness, efficiency and reasonable fees, to LP, those are just the basics of doing good work for clients. LP’s focus is building business relationships with clients as trusted strategic advisors who understand their clients’ business and industry inside and out, seeking legal solutions that support the client’s long-term business strategy as well as short-term needs. LP’s top talent and entrepreneurial setting translate into the sophisticated skills and resources of a big law firm in a more manageable environment.

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