What qualities do top recruiters seek in their candidates?

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Margaret Gilleran

I am a fourth year associate with an AmLaw 100 firm, and I am considering making a lateral move. I want to work with a really good recruiter who will make every effort to help me secure the best possible position, and I am wondering what qualities top recruiters seek in their candidates?


I have two basic rules that guide me when I am deciding whether to work with a candidate. The second rule guides me throughout the process.

The first question I ask myself is whether I believe that a candidate will benefit from my services. When firms work with a recruiter they are looking for exactly what they "ordered". Generally, firms want candidates who went to top tier law schools, performed well at such schools, have substantive experience in their chosen areas of the law, and are personable individuals with strong work ethics.

Some candidates fit the foregoing criteria perfectly; and there is no question that I will work with them. Others may fall short in one or two categories, but there is still enough to warrant accepting them as candidates. For example, a candidate may have gone to a second tier law school where he did well but have truly exceptional experience in a niche area like derivatives. Or a candidate may have attended a phenomenal law school and performed well, but have been out of work for six months. Or a candidate may have gone to a third tier law school but done extraordinarily well and have an incredibly dynamic personality. With respect to these three examples, I would work with these candidates because I believe that they would benefit from my services.

Are there any "bright lines" that preclude me from working with candidates? Yes, I have three such bright lines (with one caveat!)Bad grades, references, and attitudes are non-starters for me because if I cannot get over these obstacles, then I suspect that my clients - the firms - will have the same problem.

I do have one caveat re: the references. I have encountered situations where a candidate cannot get references from his current employer. He may not be able to obtain a reference because there was some mishap that is the very reason he is seeking a new position. Or it may be that he never found his footing at his current firm and did not develop real relationships with any of his partners (which may also be the reason he is seeking a new position.)In these situations, I ask the candidate whether he can obtain references from another source. For example, can he provide references from former employers or even law school professors? As long as a candidate has two people from his past who can speak positively about his qualities as an employee and person, then I may opt to overlook his inability to obtain references from his current employer, as long as the reason for his inability seems valid.

As an aside, it is not easy to tell a candidate that I cannot work with him; and there are some recruiters who will never decline a candidate. These recruiters are adherents to the "you never know" school of thought. I am not a member of such school because I do know; and I do not ever want to take on a candidate where my representation will be an impediment to him securing a new position.

The second question I ask myself when deciding whether to work with a candidate, and it is equally as important as the first question though, admittedly, it has fewer sub parts, is whether a candidate is honest. How do I gauge a candidate's honesty? I ask the candidate why he is considering leaving his current firm. I have been a recruiter for a long time, and I have developed a sixth sense as to whether a candidate is being candid with me.

I do not care if a candidate tells me that he hates his firm, his partners, and his work and that he is desperate to make a move. I do not equate the foregoing heartfelt assessment with a "bad attitude". Rather I appreciate the candidate's willingness to be open with me. It is helpful to me to know why he hates his firm. Is it the culture, hours, location? What is it about his partners that he abhors? Are they micro managers? Or do they take an entirely absentee approach leaving him to flounder on his own with questions and concerns? Why does he hate his work? Is he focusing on capital markets when he would prefer to focus on M&A? This information is critical for me to know because it will allow me to guide the candidate to positions that would be a much better fit for him given his likes, dislikes, skills, and goals. As you can no doubt see, dishonestly retards the search process and wastes an inordinate amount of time.

Honesty continues to be an extremely important factor as the search process unfolds as well. There are few things that irritate me more than when I feel that a candidate is playing "hide the ball" with me. I have found over the years that some candidates do not want to tell me that they are working with another recruiter or that they are approaching firms on their own. Would I prefer that a candidate work with me exclusively and not work with another recruiter or apply to firms directly? Of course! However, there are many reasons why a candidate may choose to work with another recruiter and/or apply to firms directly (or indirectly through a friend.) I have written articles about why it is better to work with one recruiter and why is it better to apply through a recruiter rather than on your own or through a friend, but I will not delve into those subjects here. Rather, for purposes of this article, I will assume that a candidate is working with another recruiter and/or applying to firms on his own or through a friend; and address why it is better to keep me apprised about the entirety of his search process, including his dealings with other recruiters and friends!

As a preliminary matter, no one likes to be treated like a fool. If I present twenty firms to a candidate who has just told me that he absolutely must leave his current firm, and he only allows me to submit his resume to ten of those twenty firms, then I am fairly confident that he is approaching those firms via another route. I may even suspect that he is using me to garner information. Why let any clouds of suspicion hang over the relationship? If a candidate tells me that of the remaining ten, he has friends at three (and plans to submit through them) and gave another recruiter permission to submit to the other seven firms, then I will appreciate his candor and understand the situation. The candidate will benefit from his honesty because if he gets an interview through one of his friends or the other recruiter, then he can speak openly about the interview with me, and we can use it to perhaps generate interviews with other firms. Likewise, if the candidate gets an offer, it will not come as a surprise to me or the firms where I submitted his materials. A corollary to no one likes to be treated like a fool may be that no one really likes surprises, especially in business.

In conclusion, top recruiters only work with candidates who they believe that they can place. Candidates do not benefit from the "you never know" approach because top recruiters do know, and are able to discern the candidates who will benefit from their services. There are definite rules that govern whether a firm will work with a recruiter for a particular candidate; and it is best to adhere to those rules. It is equally important to be honest in order to have a successful relationship with your recruiter. A candidate and his recruiter are a team, and teams operate best when they have open and honest communication.

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Work With Another Recruiter      Work With A Candidate      Lateral Move      Work With A Recruiter      References      Legal Career Q & A      Being Candid     

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