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Do recruiters just mass mail resumes?

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Many people believe that recruiters simply mass mail resumes all day long. This is something that I once believed when I was a practicing attorney. In fact, before I started recruiting, I was under the impression that legal recruiting was one of the easiest-sounding professions in the world. "You mean that someone simply mails out your resume and earns a huge commission?"

The fact is that legal recruiting is an extremely difficult business, and most people who go into the business fail. Most recruiting firms are very small because the work is so highly specialized that most people cannot do it. For the most part, the business is not conducive to the sort of growth law firms experience. While there are hundreds of national law firms, there are only a few national legal-recruiting firms. Moreover, the skills to be a good legal recruiter are fundamentally different from those required to be an attorney.

While just about anyone who graduates from college with a decent grade point average can get into an accredited law school, I would estimate that less than 1-2% of all practicing attorneys could ever become successful legal recruiters. There are several reasons for this that would take me pages to explain. The largest reason, though, is that recruiters do not operate under a defined set of rules. The legal market changes on a daily basis, and good recruiters must manipulate that market to get the best results for their candidates and clients. While an attorney can do the same work for years, a recruiter's job is fundamentally different every few months. It takes a lot of intuition and skill to adapt to this and thrive in all markets.

In order to shed some light on the preconceived notion that all recruiters do is mass mail resumes, I have analyzed the process in some depth below. The tale told below is how a typical recruiter from our firm deals with candidates at each stage of the search process. While we are a large and successful national recruiting firm, the methods our recruiters follow are pretty similar to how most successful recruiters operate at some level.

Prior to Your Contacting a Legal-Recruiting Firm
Prior to your contact with the legal-recruiting firm, several things should be occurring. At BCG Attorney Search, all of our recruiters are full time, and all of them report to an office each day. As part of reporting to an office, they are taking phone calls from attorneys all day long, speaking with law firms all day long, scheduling interviews, and preparing candidates for interviews. There is more to the job than that, of course, but this comprises a major portion of their day.

In addition to doing this, recruiters spend a lot of their time reviewing new job openings that law firms have. Recruiters should also read the legal newspapers of the cities they are in to get a sense of what is going on and interact with colleagues in other areas of the United States who are seeking to get their candidates interviews in another territory. On a weekly basis, these recruiters all have telephone conferences with me to discuss their markets. I put together notes from these conversations and then distribute this to all other BCG Attorney Search recruiters once or twice a week. Most BCG Attorney Search recruiters go out on lunch meetings with law firms and candidates several times a month.

As a group, BCG Attorney Search recruiters generally write several articles per year. They also attend several conferences. For example, we hold a one-week conference once a year, where all of our recruiters get together and discuss legal-recruiting issues. In addition, all of our recruiters go to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) Convention once a year. Here, they have the opportunity to meet with more than 800 law firms. There are only a few legal-recruiting firms in the United States that attend this event.

While none of this activity may seem related to sending out your resume, it definitely is. All of this activity allows our recruiters to get a substantial amount of feedback from the market. They know who is hiring, what is important to law firms, and what is in demand in the market. The sort of knowledge recruiters gain is unique to them, and how they incorporate this knowledge into their recruiting styles ultimately has a lot to do with whether or not they will succeed.

One thing that I also believe is important to the way our recruiters operate is to describe what they do not do. Our recruiters do not supervise our non-recruiting personnel. They do not do financial books. They do not place advertisements. They do not hire assistants. Our recruiters concentrate on legal recruiting and only legal recruiting. While this may seem insignificant, the fact that they only deal with legal-recruiting issues makes a huge difference in the amount of time they can spend becoming experts on the legal market.

Your Initial Contact with a Legal-Recruiting Firm: The Screening Stage
People make contact with legal-recruiting firms in different ways. Some candidates sign up on a website or email their resumes. Other candidates call in response to a job posting, are referred by someone they know, or are called directly by the recruiting firm. (We generally only contact candidates directly who are at law firms that do not use recruiters. These are generally not very good firms and pay below-market-rate salaries. If you are at a substantial law firm and are contacted by a legal recruiter, watch out because that recruiter is probably desperate for candidates. If the recruiter is cold-calling people at your firm, it will probably get back to the firm, and the firm will not use that recruiter in the future. If he/she is doing this with your firm, he/she is probably doing it with other firms as well.)

In your initial contact with the legal-recruiting firm, the legal recruiter will make the determination of whether or not he/she wants to work with you. Some legal-recruiting firms are more selective than others. At BCG Attorney Search, for example, we work with less than 2% of the attorneys who contact us directly. If you are contacted directly by us, there is a strong likelihood (usually greater that 70%) that we have already determined you are a good fit for one of our clients. (More about that later.)

A recruiter will make the decision of whether they want to work with you fairly quickly, relying on a variety of factors to aid the decision.

First, the recruiter will have to decide whether or not he/she believes you are likely to benefit from his/her services. This determination will be made by weighing the strength of your current practice area, the strength of your current firm, the amount of portable business you have (if you are at the partner level), your demonstrated employment stability, your law school, and your grades. Most candidates are eliminated at this stage.

It is important to highlight that not everyone can benefit from a legal recruiter's services. This is a careful calculus that requires a very definite pulse on the market at all times. Many attorneys are best served performing a job search on their own. Typically, it is the best firms that use recruiters. Moreover, even the best firms do not use recruiters for all positions. For example, between late 2001 and the middle of 2003, very few firms in the United States used recruiters to fill corporate openings. Even if you were in the top 5% of your class from a top-five law school, it probably would not have been in your best interest to use a recruiter. When you are a solid candidate and the market is right, though, using a good recruiter is always in your best interest.

Second, the recruiter will make the determination as to whether or not you are a good candidate for a move. The recruiter will do this by analyzing your stated reasons for wanting to switch firms. While a variety of reasons are acceptable, reasons that indicate you are likely to remain in your next firm for a substantial length of time are the best ones. The recruiter is also checking to see if you really want to practice law for the long term.

Third, the recruiter determines whether or not he/she feels comfortable with you. There are a variety of warning signs that candidates tell us from time to time that indicate that they are unlikely to be someone we want to work with. If the recruiter does not feel comfortable, he/she will not work with you.

Fourth, in some instances, the recruiter may be moved by your story, take a liking to you and your motivations, and help you even if you do not fit the mold. Most recruiters take on nontraditional candidates on an infrequent but ongoing basis. These are where recruiters typically hone their best skills and do a lot of the work they feel proudest of. The issue with these sorts of candidates, however, is that they are often difficult because they are desperate and have high expectations that no recruiter could possibly meet. Paradoxically, the candidates that recruiters often take as charity can be the most difficult and harmful to a legal recruiter.

At BCG Attorney Search, few candidates make it through our screening stage. Far from being desperate for candidates, we often have too many of them. The result of this screening stage is that our recruiters may represent as few as 30-40 people per year. The attorneys who emerge from our screening process are typically poised for high-level achievement. Almost all of them get interviews, and the substantial majority gets offers through us.

What is most significant about the screening stage, though, is that law firms see only good attorneys through us-or attorneys with unusually motivating stories. We believe our candidates are looked at more carefully because of this and we can get them more interviews as a result.

As an aside, I want to mention that there are some very good recruiters out there. There are even a few good recruiters that may do work on behalf of two or three law firms. These recruiters function on being able to make the best matches possible and typically know their clients very well. They do a lot of screening before ever calling you and also present very few candidates to their clients. These recruiters are also very good at what they do. We have a lot of respect for good solo recruiters.

Once You Are Accepted as a Candidate, the Recruiter Will Decide to Which Firms to Present You
Following a successful screening process, the recruiter will engage you in a more in-depth dialogue. The recruiter will want to know more about your resume and will likely probe into your outside interests and career aspirations, hoping to see what it is you are interested in getting out of your next employer.

In some markets, we find that attorneys do not always want to go into a lot of depth about this sort of thing. One market is New York. In other markets (e.g., Los Angeles), these discussions can often go on for hours. The reason the recruiter wants to get all of this information is because he/she wants to be able to humanize you to the employer. A good recruiter can do this far more effectively than you ever could. The recruiter can present sides of you that you would be uncomfortable presenting on your own and can even brag for you (which would not look good if you did it on your own). More important, a recruiter can highlight aspects of your background that a law firm is looking for specifically and might not come out otherwise.

Few attorneys realize how important this aspect of a legal recruiter's job is. Because a good legal recruiter is dealing with numerous law firms each day and is working with several attorneys with those law firms on an ongoing basis, a recruiter knows what "sells" to a law firm and what does not. The ability of a good legal recruiter to package you is one of the most important aspects of his/her work.

Packaging an attorney means providing the law firm with the right reasons for the attorney's decision to change jobs. It also means telling the law firm aspects of your background it wants to hear and those it does not. Most attorneys do not know this sort of information, though they think they do. In fact, it is far, far more common for our candidates to get interviews when we are representing them than it would be for them to get interviews if they were simply sending themselves out. I have 100% confidence in this (but I sure did not when I was practicing).

Once the recruiter has spoken with the attorney in some depth, the two will agree on an approach for the attorney's job search. This approach is intuitive and will be customized for the particular attorney. A good recruiter knows what works, and the approach agreed upon will be the one that is likely to produce the gain the attorney is seeking. The approach used for an attorney who is desperate for a job will be different from the approach of an attorney who is only looking for one particular type of position.

The recruiter and the attorney will then generally go over a list of available positions in the marketplace. Most BCG Attorney Search recruiters identify their roles as being quite similar to practicing law. They will tell their candidates about every opening in the market so that the attorneys can make educated decisions about the firms they might want to go to. The recruiter will also occasionally suggest firms that do not have openings (which the attorney will be made aware of), but are willing to consider a similar sort of attorney on an ongoing basis. For example, some firms in California always want to see former Ninth Circuit law clerks from top-10 law schools, whether or not they have litigation openings.

The point of this exercise is that that recruiter is allowing the candidate to decide what firms he/she wants to apply to. The recruiter will describe the strengths and weaknesses of each law firm, and the candidate will ultimately decide what law firms they want to be submitted to. Whether it is to one firm or to nine firms, it is the candidate's choice.

There are a couple of forces at work here that bear mentioning. First, because legal recruiting is for the most part a contingency-based business, the legal recruiter will only get paid if you take an offer from him/her. In this respect, then, it might appear that it is in the legal recruiter's best interest to send you to the most firms possible. Second, if you get an offer from the legal recruiter and do not take it, the recruiter will be in serious trouble. If a recruiter has several candidates reject offers from one law firm too often, the law firm will be under the impression that interviewing candidates through that recruiter is a waste of the firm's time.

Accordingly, there is a strong competing interest here. In most markets, law firms know each substantive recruiter pretty well. The recruiter's reputation is paramount with those firms, and if a recruiter is not of the fly-by-night variety, he/she will be very cognizant of his/her own reputation. Therefore, a good recruiter will likely want you to carefully choose the law firms you are interested in.

If a recruiter recommends very few firms to you, there are usually a couple of potential forces at work. First, the recruiter may believe that you are extremely placeable and does not want to waste your time or the law firms' time when you are a clear fit (based on your stated interests) for a select few firms. Second, you may have skills that mean you are only suited for one or two openings. Certain practice areas such as ERISA, for example, are never conducive to sending you to many firms.
If the recruiter is sending you to many firms, he/she is likely doing this for a reason as well. In some practice areas-such as litigation, intellectual property, and corporate-firms are often mercurial and difficult to read in terms of whom they will interview and hire. Despite the recruiters' best knowledge of the firm, they are not the ultimate ones making the decision of whom to bring in-the firm always is. In this case, recommending more than a few firms is appropriate if the market is uncertain, the firms recommended often use random-seeming hiring criteria (I knew someone in college who was admitted to only one top-20 law school-Yale), and you express a firm desire to your recruiter of wanting to talk to many firms. In this situation, the recruiter is making the calculation that you are likely to not get interviews with all of these firms and following the path that he/she believes will be best for your job search.

A recruiter may also recommend many firms in other circumstances as well. One circumstance (and one recruiters often regret) is when you are a very strong candidate who has a job search with some urgency to it. It is a well-known fact that most attorneys do better coming through good recruiting firms if they are attempting to move to another top law firm. Accordingly, many attorneys who are being downsized are very desperate for a recruiting firm's services. If we determine a person is losing his/her job through no fault of his/her own and is a good attorney, we may represent a laid-off attorney. The issue here is that the candidate is often desperate. In these sorts of circumstances, in order to do our best to "save" the candidate's legal career (at least his/her high-end legal career), our recruiters may explain to the candidate that the odds are increased by approaching more top-end firms.

It is this latter sort of candidate that is most likely to be the most problematic for the legal recruiter. While this is certainly not true across the board, it is this sort of candidate that often gives recruiters bad reputations. If the attorney is not successful getting a position with a large law firm, the recruiter is blamed. When the candidate starts applying on his/her own to small, generally less prestigious law firms that do not use recruiters and gets interviews, the candidate thinks he/she had issues with the more prestigious law firms because of the recruiter. This is not the case. It is always going to be more difficult to get into a top law firm than a less-prestigious one.

The point is that the attorney always has control over the number of firms he/she is submitted to. The recruiter is an advisor and counselor, but not the ultimate arbiter of the firms the attorney applies to. When a recruiter is recommending firms, he/she is doing so in an educated manner that comes from experience and the feedback the market gives on a daily basis. This is something far too few attorneys understand.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are recruiters who will "paper" your resume all over town. I have heard scores of stories about this and have every reason to believe they are true. These sorts of recruiting firms never last long, though, and make very few placements. You should also be able to pick up these sorts of recruiters relatively quickly in your conversations with them. A recruiter should always have a convincing rationale for every law firm or employer he/she suggests to you. If he/she simply provides you a list of firms and does not appear to understand you and your particular motivations, something is seriously wrong.

What a Recruiter Does When He/She Submits You
When a recruiter submits your resume to a law firm, a letter or some other sort of communication must be written on your behalf. How this is done will have a large effect on whether or not you get a position.

While the recruiter is interviewing you, he/she will generally make numerous notes and begin to develop a way to package you and your motivations for your job search. The recruiter will dissect your experiences and understand them as well as he/she can. Once this process is complete, he/she will prepare a written profile of you. Many legal-recruiting firms do not do this. Others may simply write a paragraph or two. Our objective is to prepare an in-depth discussion of you.

At BCG Attorney Search, our recruiters typically prepare a discussion of you that goes on for an average of 4-5 single-spaced pages. We also write a capsule summary of your experience, which will generally run one paragraph (we call it an elevator pitch). These discussions are very well thought out, and some of our recruiters will work on these for several days. The reason the discussion is so important is that there will generally be several people deciding whether or not to bring you in for interviews. While a recruiter may be speaking on a daily basis with a hiring partner, other partners will make the decision to bring you in and hire you as well. Some legal-recruiting coordinators (very few, though) may not know how to communicate your strengths most effectively. A well-written presentation provides the recruiting coordinator with something to refer to.

The summary says a lot of things you could not say about yourself on your own. Our written summaries accompany all resumes we submit to firms. A written summary is also portable, so it can be shown to numerous people.

We also have proofreaders who review all of our summaries before they are mailed out. We print them on expensive stationery and have word processors professionally format them. All of this detail may sound unnecessary, but we believe that the quality of your recruiter's work product says a lot about you personally. Many recruiters are not good writers. Most of our recruiters are highly educated and accustomed to producing good work. When choosing a recruiter, it is much like choosing a lawyer. You want to get a recruiter who is going to represent you in the best manner possible. An absence of typos and formatting errors in our written work product says a lot about our candidates and their chosen recruiting firm.

The presentations we send out to law firms may be sent in several ways. One way is by mailing them in response to an opening. This is very infrequent. In our firm, we have offices in each region of the United States. Our recruiters are speaking with hiring authorities inside law firms on a daily basis. Because we service only specified regions, when we submit a candidate, the law firm is never a stranger to us. We may submit a candidate while speaking with the firm on the phone (via email), or a couple of days after a conversation, or a week after a conversation. We do not send out resumes blindly, though.

There are other points that bear mentioning. Even if we make an initial fax submission, we always make a submission via a U.S. Mail letter (or Federal Express) because an email is easily deleted (as well as being impersonal and intangible) and fax quality is never good. We print our submissions and candidates' resumes on high-quality stationery because it makes a better impression and makes our candidates stand out more.

In the end, your resume must be sent to the firm. We believe the work we do here is done as well as it can be done, but if it can be done better (as there is always room for improvement), it will be.

What you should take away from this discussion is that there are different ways of making a submission. Your submission should be handled as professionally as possible because it is your career on the line. Certainly, there are firms that do not write letters and will simply fax your resume to firms. In some respects, this is the norm. The quality of the submission made is paramount.

What a Recruiter Does After He/She Submits You
After a recruiter submits you, he/she generally begins the process of following up with law firms and scheduling your interviews. The recruiter also spends a lot of time educating you in more depth about the firms you will speak with, counseling you on what to say and do in your interviews. The recruiter will also help you negotiate offers and will continually speak with you about new openings as they become available. In addition, the recruiter is continually fielding phone calls from law firms about you.

This post-submission work that a recruiter does is the most time-consuming part of the job. Recruiters spend hours each day on the phone with their candidates. This is also the most important part of a recruiter's job and has a great bearing on whether or not your job search will succeed.

Far from simply mass mailing your resume, the work of a good recruiter is something that is extremely involved. It is unfortunate that there are some "bad apples" among recruiting firms. There is truth to some of the horror stories floating around. It is also true that recruiters who try mass mailing fail. Beware of such recruiters, as they do not help their candidates.

Attorneys are extremely intelligent and are trained to study all aspects of an issue before making a decision. I hope that this short discussion at least does something to dispel the myth that all recruiters do is mass mail resumes.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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