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A good headhunter can help you make a wise lateral move. Here's how.
Stewart Marks wasn't unhappy with his job when a headhunter from New York City's Howard-Sloan Legal Search called him in March 1999. But Marks went ahead and took the call. A fourth-year corporate associate at a Los Angeles-based firm, Marks had been thinking about international work. He asked the recruiter about overseas opportunities, and he was soon referred to a placement director specializing in London firms. Two months later, Marks (not his real name) had a new job and was packing his bags for Europe. A shiny new career chapter had begun.
While lateral moves like Marks's were once almost unheard of among young associates, increased competition for top talent-along with increasingly restless associates-has changed that. Today, it seems loyalty has become as quaint a term as butter churn, horse and buggy, and dot-com millionaire. And no one plays a more pivotal role in shuttling lawyers from firm to firm than headhunters.
A good legal recruiter can help a young attorney identify a new opportunity and install herself in a new office (and maybe a new tax bracket) in a matter of months. But you have to be careful in choosing the right person for the job. While most legal recruiters work hard and honestly, lazy and unscrupulous headhunters are far from rare.
What can go wrong? Say a mediocre recruiter rushes an associate through an introductory interview, promises to send her resumé to "the best shops in town," and ultimately sends the lawyer's CV back to her own firm. Oops. Try explaining that to your partner. Follow these tips and you'll never have to.
1 Be Selective
Many headhunters will tease you with the promise of a great new job. Unfortunately, too many recruiters don't really have close relationships with the firms they claim to represent. "An unethical search firm will indiscriminately send your resumé all over town," warns Mark Henley, the managing director of the New York City recruiting firm Smythe, Masterson & Judd. And because of difficulties in assessing fees (the hiring firm typically pays the recruiter's bill), law firms won't touch you if they get your resumé from more than one headhunter. To avoid that scenario, screen headhunters carefully. Word of mouth is always a good place to start; ask someone you trust if she knows a recruiter who's successfully placed young lawyers. Whether you call a recruiter or she calls you, ask to see her resumé, her client list, and her six-month placement record. Howard-Sloan CEO Mitchell Berger suggests asking the headhunter which firms she won't pull lawyers out of-a smart and ethical recruiter won't steal from the same shop she's worked so hard to stock.
2 Ask Questions
When a headhunter pitches a job, ask questions about the firm and the recruiter's relationship to it: How large is the practice group? What work have you done for this firm? What do you know about the culture? "Weaker headhunters will respond with empty rhetoric," says Henley. "That's when you know you're listening to a salesperson, not a professional agent." Listen for questions, too. "A great headhunter asks the lawyer questions first, then goes out and finds the opportunity," says Berger. "If they're selling the opportunity first, watch out. How could someone call you and tell you they've found the perfect situation for you if they don't even know you?"
3 Sell Yourself
"Lawyers should treat their first meeting with a search firm just like a job interview," says Susan Schneider of Washington, D.C.'s Finn & Schneider Associates. Most important, offer a legitimate reason for switching jobs. "We've had lawyers come in and tell us they didn't like working long hours and writing detailed documents," says Schneider. "We told them they might be in the wrong profession."
4 Be Patient, But Not Too Patient
Only the very best job candidates are likely to get daily calls from their headhunter. Until a firm asks a recruiter to set up a meeting, she simply might not have anything to report. While there's no industry standard, don't expect to get calls more than once a week. That said, if your recruiter doesn't check in every 10 days or so, ask why. Every so often, ask for a "send" list of firms your resumé has been sent to.
5 Ditch a Dud
If you're not happy with the work, don't hesitate to call it quits. Request a final send list and ask your recruiter to inform you of any ongoing interview negotiations. Then write her a letter stating that you're not satisfied with her results. Give her 10 days to bring all negotiations to a conclusion. Tell her she is no longer authorized to represent you, nor should she put your name in play at any other firms. Be polite and professional.
6 Behave Yourself
Any of the following misdeeds are sure to turn a headhunter sour on you: receiving job information from a recruiter, then cutting her out of the loop; getting a job and neglecting to tell her; and being successfully placed by the recruiter, then opting for a job with another law firm without notify- ing the first firm of your decision. If you like your new job, touch base with the recruiter and let her know. And recommend the recruiter to other lawyers. You never know when you'll need her again.
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