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How do I know when it's time to use a recruiter for my next job or if I should search on my own?

published September 04, 2006

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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Working with a legal recruiter is the smartest decision a good attorney can make. Legal recruiters typically operate in the upper echelon of the legal profession; and for people who are suited for their services, legal recruiters are the absolute best career resources. Legal recruiters will identify the best opportunities for you, counsel you on your move, provide you inside information about the various employers you are investigating, draw out your strengths and present them to employers in a convincing way, provide a valuable prescreening function for the employers, and, just by virtue of representing you, provide you with a good entrée to the employers. In fact, many of the largest and most selective law firms rarely look at candidates unless they come from a preferred legal recruiter. For example, numerous candidates I have represented at BCG Attorney Search may not have even received responses when they approached firms on their own before coming to our firm. A good legal recruiter can make that much of a difference.
How do I know when it's time to use a recruiter for my next job or if I should search on my own?
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

There is a catch to using a legal recruiter, however. A good legal recruiter cannot and will not work with everyone. In fact, the best legal recruiters will only work with people who are stars. One analogy I like to make is that there are a lot of people out there who play sports, but only a very small percentage of them have sports agents. The same thing applies to using a legal recruiter. I estimate that less than one percent of all attorneys should be using a legal recruiter for their job searches.

There are a few rules you need to be aware of when considering whether or not to work with a legal recruiter. These are the main rules I would recommend most attorneys follow.
  1. A Good Legal Recruiter Never Works with Law Students.
    Legal recruiters are hired only to find experienced attorneys. There are literally tens of thousands of law students who blanket firms with their resumes each year. Firms (even small ones) generally need no outside assistance to find recent law school graduates to hire. It is very easy for law firms, corporations, and others to hire law students.

    An important rule to remember about the use of recruiters is this: They are used only to hire people who have immediately transferable skills. Transferable skills are picked up by actually working inside a law firm or corporation and being aggressively supervised and having work looked over on a daily basis and having a consistent supply of work. This is much different from the theoretical grounding and other sorts of information that someone picks up in law school. Many law students are very enthusiastic about their prospects, former jobs they may have held before law school, and more. None of these matters to an organization that will want to use a recruiter to fill the job.

    Recruiters charge fees to hiring organizations. Because they charge fees, their work is largely covered by supply and demand. This very simple law states that people will only pay for something when they have to. Rest assured, law firms do not need to pay for law students. In all of my years of recruiting, I have never seen a law firm or any other organization use a recruiter to hire a law student.

    The caution here is that this does occur. Recruiters will experiment and occasionally try to represent a law student. They should not be doing so.
  2. A Good Legal Recruiter Only Works with Attorneys with Rare Qualifications and Who Are in High Demand.
    This is a loaded statement that requires some explanation. Here are the basics:
    1. If you have between 1 and 5 years of experience and are working at a top law firm, you are likely a good candidate to use a legal recruiter.

      How do you know if you are working at a top law firm? A top law firm is one where most of the attorneys went to top law schools and where most of the attorneys know they are the cream of the crop. Here, the attorneys are generally representing significant corporations in significant matters—real estate, corporate law, intellectual property, or litigation. If you are working at a top law firm, you generally will know it. These law firms are typically among the largest 200 or so in the country and recruit at top-20 law schools regularly. "If you have to ask…" is a good analogy for these sorts of firms. There are some exceptions to this. There are often patent boutiques, real estate boutiques, and other sorts of firms that may not be large but nevertheless are considered excellent shops.

      The reason law firms require you generally have between 1 and 5 years of experience is because in this period you are not a major contender for partnership and your billing rate is still attractive to clients. First, if a law firms hires someone with more than 5 years of experience, he or she will likely be competition for partnership in the firm. This can upset the balance of power among associates who have competed for partnership for years. This is not to say firms do not hire people beyond this level; however, it is rare.

      Second, as someone gets more advanced, his or her billing rate increases. As his or her billing rate increases, it becomes more expensive for that person to be given work. For example, an associate with 8 years of experience will likely have a billing rate comparable to a partner's. A paying client would rather have a partner doing the work in this case. In addition, the partner would likely also rather do this work him- or herself and get credit for it rather than farming it out to an associate.

      Finally, until you have at least one year of experience, you really do not know what you are doing. Remember: The law of supply and demand governs the use of recruiters. There are plenty of attorneys who do not know what they are doing, and employers are looking for those who do.
    2. If you are a partner with a lot of portable business, you are likely a good candidate to use a legal recruiter.

      Law firms are businesses and make most of their decisions based on business calculations. If you have a lot of portable business as a partner, that will likely be good if you are seeking a position in a law firm. Your billing rate should also be compatible with that of your new employer. Most partners will have a good idea if they are marketable to another firm and generally do not need to ask if it is appropriate for them to be using recruiters.
    3. There are always "in fashion" practice areas that may make you in demand.

      During the real estate boom in 2004-2005, real estate attorneys were in demand. Before that, during the dot-com boom, corporate attorneys were in demand. At other times, patent prosecutors have been in exceptional demand. There are always economic cycles in effect that make one sort of attorney far more in demand than another. The way to know if you are in special demand is generally to listen to your phone. If your phone is ringing with lots of solicitations from legal recruiters, your practice area is probably in demand. You will generally know if your practice area is in demand.
    4. Rare qualifications can be different things in different times and places.

      I put this section last because every attorney believes he or she is special. Everyone is special, but whether you are special enough to use a legal recruiter is another matter entirely. Going to a top law school and not working a prestigious firm after law school may make you rare in the right market and thus marketable. Being fluent in a certain language may make you rare in the right market. You never know exactly what "rare" is. By "rare," I mean "quite rare" as a general rule.
If you are a part of the group who should be using a legal recruiter, then you should be using a legal recruiter. If you fit into the group above, then by all means use a legal recruiter. A good legal recruiter could change your life dramatically by ushering you into an outstanding employment situation.

Like all good things, a good legal recruiter generally is very organized, brings a bit of "art" to his or her work, and has a very highly developed way of working. There are very, very few good legal recruiters. Being a good legal recruiter means different things to many people. Being a good legal recruiter is not easy. Just like you should know if you have the qualifications to use a legal recruiter, you should also know a good legal recruiter when you speak with one.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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