If you’ve spent at least a short time in the legal profession (usually 1-2 years), at some point in your career you noticed that your interaction with the legal recruitment industry has skyrocketed from zero to multiple cold calls and cold emails each day.
The story usually follows one of a few patterns: either (1) they were working with someone else at your firm who supposedly passed along your name; (2) they read your profile online and thought you were a great fit for a legal job opening; or (3) they want to be an industry resource for you so you can stay “smart” on the legal market and making the most of your legal career.
For the most part, none of the reasons for contacting you are necessarily true. Instead, they’re just trying to establish a relationship with you to feel out whether you are considering switching firms.
Recruiters make a lot of money for each successful placement of legal talent, as we’ll explain in this article.
We’ll also cover the benefits and disadvantages of working with a legal recruiter, whether it’s right for you, and how you can find a recruiter that has your best interests in mind.
What is a legal recruiter?
A legal recruiter (sometimes referred to as a headhunter) is tasked with the responsibility of helping law firms find talented individuals to work for them. They work closely with a law firm’s human resources and management personnel and make it easier for them to find qualified legal professionals who meet all the required specifications for an open position.
That’s right. Most legal recruiters work for law firms.
If you’re a legal recruiter, your most important relationships are with the HR teams and partners at law firms that are feeding you openings.
The candidates that a legal recruiter works with are how the legal recruiter fulfills their role for the law firm.
This doesn’t mean that a legal recruiter doesn’t have your best interests in mind, but it’s important to understand how they get paid and what their incentives are.
The list of duties for a legal recruiter includes the following:
- Staying in touch with law firms so they know when new positions become available
- Scheduling interviews and fielding questions about candidates
- Meeting with candidates who are looking for jobs to see if they’re a good match
- Assisting candidates with improving resumes, highlighting career and law school achievements, and perfecting LinkedIn profiles
- Performing vigorous screenings to ensure candidates meet all requirements
- Interviewing the applicants who make it through the screening process
To a law firm, a good legal recruiter is invaluable when it comes to bringing on talented professionals. Once a legal recruiter has established a good working relationship with a firm and placed candidates that have done well inside the firm, that firm is much more likely to trust the legal recruiter going forward. Later we’ll discuss how you can use that to your advantage.
How much does a legal recruiter make?
First, it’s the law firms that are responsible for paying legal recruiters. You should never work with a legal recruiter that wants to charge you a fee.
Second, the legal recruiter expects to receive between 20 and 25% of the new hire’s salary. That means if you’re being placed at a law firm with a starting salary of $200,000 that the legal recruiter will get paid between $40,000 and $50,000 for placing you at the firm.
As you can guess, legal recruiter salaries are all over the place depending on how successful they are at working with job seekers and staffing law firms with full-time associates. Some legal recruiter salaries for those that work at legal staffing agencies like BCG Attorney Search or Lindsey & Africa probably make $50,000 a year, while other legal recruiters are making over $1,000,000 placing partners in large firms and major U.S. metropolitan areas like New York City, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Given how much money a legal recruiter can make for a successful placement, you shouldn’t feel bad using a significant amount of their time helping you understand the market, improve your applications, etc.
Advantages of using a legal recruiter
Now you know that a legal recruiter mainly works for the firm and how much they get paid. What are the advantages of working with a legal recruiter?
Good legal recruiters have their finger on the pulse of the legal industry. They have special insights into what different firms are looking for and which candidates are most likely to meet those needs. They’re also often aware of potential candidates that would never be on a firm’s radar normally. In other words, a good legal recruiter should know the market better than anyone else and provide you with market knowledge you couldn’t obtain on your own.
Low risk to you
Because a legal recruiter is paid by the law firm and only upon a successful placement, there’s very little risk to you (although read the disadvantages below). Essentially, a legal recruiter is working for “free” from your perspective, so you can gain intelligence and help in your search through the legal market without spending any money.
Save time and increase efficiency
Working with a legal recruiter can save both law firms and candidates a great deal of time. Instead of spending hours searching through job postings or reviewing resumes, legal recruiters can pick up the slack and take care of the basics for both parties, freeing you up to focus on other things like making sure you’re in the right practice area, working with the right people, and not dropping the ball entirely at your current job.
Finally, legal recruiters are able to provide valuable feedback to candidates. I know you’re posting on r/Lawyers and Fishbowl but a good legal recruiter is going to be a lot more helpful than anonymous people on the internet with so much time on their hands that they’re posting on public forums. A legal recruiter is only paid when they place you, so there’s zero chance they’ll entertain your lofty notions of lateralling from an AmLaw 180 firm to Wachtell. This kind of brutal market-driven feedback can be extremely helpful.
Disadvantages of using a legal recruiter
Expensive to the firm
As we discussed earlier, a legal recruiter might make $40,000 or $50,000 for placing a junior associate. Firms have ample money, but if they’re paying that much to a legal recruiter, you’ve hurt your position to obtain a signing bonus, negotiate your salary, or obtain additional financial benefits. You haven’t closed them off entirely, but a firm will look at a hire from the perspective of the total cost, so if you want a signing bonus on top of the fee they’re paying the recruiter, your total cost just got a lot higher.
Your chances are tied to the legal recruiter’s value
This is a double-edged sword. If the recruiter has a great relationship and placed a bunch of successful candidates, this means them puting you forward is helpful to your chances. On the other hand, if the legal recruiter has a neutral or negative reputation at the firm, you will be tainted by association. It’s extremely difficult for you to know the reputation your legal recruiter has at the firm, but one way to find out is to ask the recruiter how many candidates they’ve placed at the firm, how many are still at the firm, and how long they typically stay at the firm.
There’s lots of bozos
I don’t know how else to say this but legal recruiting is a sales job with a high commission, similar to insurance sales, which seems to attract a lot of attorney recruiters and legal recruiting firms who have no idea what they’re doing and no business working in legal recruiting. These legal recruiters seem to view their job as a numbers game, where if they spam enough people and set up enough interviews, surely a few will work out and the recruiter will make a decent living. It’s your job to sift through the bozos to find the legal recruiters that can genuinely add value to your legal search.
How do I choose a legal recruiter?
It’s clear that a legal recruiter might be a good idea. At the very least, you can use them to learn information about the market. So, how do you find a talented recruiter who can help you fill in the gaps in your job search and get you placed at the right firm and in the right group? Here are some key steps to take to find the best recruiter for the job:
Talk to several legal recruiters
First, it’s a good idea to reach out to several different legal recruiters before making a decision about working with one exclusively. You can think of this as an “interview,” but I consider it more of a matching and sorting problem where you test the waters, find out who seems knowledgeable, has good career advice and who is a good fit for you personally.
Ask about recent placements
Ask about who they’ve placed recently and what firms they’ve worked with. Recruiters tend to have several “special” relationships with firms and partners. If you’re talking to someone who places litigation associates and you are a M&A corporate lawyer, you’ll probably do better finding someone else.
Ask for referrals
Referrals can be great for narrowing down your search and making sure you’re only considering qualified professionals. Ask for a referral from a fellow attorney to see if they can recommend a recruiter who does good work and takes their job seriously.
Think about their location
It’s not necessary that you work with a legal recruiter who is physically in your targeted area, but it’s best to work with legal recruiters that focus on your specific geographical market. A legal recruiter who works and lives in Washington DC and does most of their work in that area is probably not the best choice for a lawyer interested in Dallas.
What are the alternatives to working with a legal recruiter?
You should nearly always prefer networking over working with a legal recruiter. If you know someone at the firm, working with that person to get your resume in front of the right person is about as risk-free as you can go. This is because you know that the firm already values the person who you’re working with (they have a job at the firm!).
Firms also love it when they receive recommendations from their own lawyers, as they know that a current employee is unlikely to recommend someone who isn’t capable of performing the job, since the new employee will often become the current employee’s coworker.
The other consideration for networking is that by saving the legal recruiter fee you are in a much better position to successfully receive a signing bonus. If a firm is willing to pay a third-party $40,000 or $50,000 for placing you, why wouldn’t they also consider paying you a similar amount? Employees that receive a signing bonus are happy and excited to get to work at the firm.
If you’re looking for career advice with respect to an in-house counsel position, you also need to take special consideration of working with a legal recruiter. It’s not because legal recruiting firms and solo legal recruiters don’t work with in-house counsel, but because the area is much more selective. In-house legal departments don’t have the same budgets when it comes to paying a legal recruiter to help with staffing, so the majority of in-house positions aren’t available for legal recruiters.
City-by-city guide to legal recruiters
Joshua Holt is a lawyer with 10 years of experience in Biglaw working at the country’s largest law firms, culminating in his work at a Vault 30 law firm in the private equity mergers & acquisition group. He has extensive experience counseling associates in lateraling to a firm with a better fit, helping associates make partner and working with law students navigating on-campus and call-back interviews.