If you’re a current law firm associate, you can probably recall that you had little market insight, beyond Vault or Am Law rankings, to make use of when choosing which firm to join after law school graduation. Regrettably, many law firm associates are still using deficient market knowledge when making their next major career decision: choosing which legal recruiter to work with when considering a lateral or in-house move.

The majority of legal recruiters play a numbers game wherein they try to call and email as many associates as they can, hoping to catch you on a bad day and pique your interest in a position that may or may not be active or conducive to your long-term career goals. Whether you are looking for new opportunities or not, you find yourself fielding a high volume of these calls and emails, without any sense of how to differentiate between what seems like the countless number of recruiters vying for your attention. Unfortunately, far too many associates accept this as the only way to interface with legal recruiters.

Consider that in almost any other instance in which you are choosing someone to guide you through and represent your interest in a major life decision, you would likely engage in a much more meaningful diligence process. For example, when exploring the market to purchase a new home, few of us would simply work with the first real estate broker we receive a mailer from. A potential home buyer that appreciates the importance of the decision would want to deliberately select a broker with the best knowledge of considered neighborhoods, an ample history of comparable transactions, and readily available references.

One reason legal recruiters like those described above can sustain their model is that law firm associates do not always appreciate the enormous value a good recruiter can add, and do not know the questions to ask to determine a recruiter’s potential to add that value. To help remedy this issue, I am suggesting 3 fundamental questions every law firm associate should pose to legal recruiters that will help associates properly evaluate and decide among the many recruiters crowding their inbox and voicemail.

Does the recruiter practice both law firm and in-house recruiting?

Many law firm associates eventually become interested in making a transition in-house, or at least want to position their practice to provide for that option. There is a very short list of legal recruiters who regularly focus on the in-house market, and even fewer that can competently advise on both the law firm and in-house legal markets. It’s only through significant experience recruiting in both markets that a recruiter can provide the holistic perspective and market insight an associate needs to properly consider the full breadth of career options available to them.

If a recruiter has little to no in-house recruiting practice, there is a major segment of the legal hiring market that they will be neglecting or unable to advise an associate about. More importantly, these recruiters will not have the necessary expertise to responsibly advise an associate on how to position their law firm practice for in-house roles.

Contrary to what many recruiters would have you believe, the best place for you to make yourself competitive for coveted in-house jobs is not simply the most prestigious or highest ranked firm you can get into. As with their mass spamming approach to contacting associates, the majority of recruiters want to reduce legal hiring to a crude math problem: the higher your law firm is on the Vault list, the greater your chances of landing a great in-house job. Unfortunately, this approach and mindset very often misses the mark and countless associates have wasted a move to another law firm only to turn around and have to do so again, while causing harm to both their resume and odds of landing the right in-house job. Although this approach is obviously self-serving and profitable for the vast majority of law firm associate recruiters, it is often incredibly harmful to an associate’s short and long-term career goals.

Alternatively, recruiters with substantial in-house experience can point you to the particular law firms and practice groups that best prepare associates for candidacy with in-house employers. It may be hard to believe, but there are several firms within the upper most echelon whose associates have trouble moving in-house. The strongest practice areas of these firms, which associates are inevitably drawn (or dragged) into, may not actually position associates well for certain sought-after in-house positions. An experienced in-house recruiter can effectively educate you on what General Counsel, HR Directors, and other in-house hiring managers are looking for from an applicant, enabling you to make the wisest lateral move possible and maintain optionality.

If a recruiter does claim to have experience with in-house recruiting, you should feel completely comfortable asking which companies they have successfully placed associates in, and from which law firms. Better still, ask for the names of anyone they have placed in-house from any of the law firms they recommend you consider making a lateral move to. Do not be afraid to ask for deal lists and references! A red flag should go up if a recruiter won’t confidentially share the names of associate references and companies they have previously placed associates into. This is a two-way street: you are confidentially sharing your willingness to consider leaving your current firm, and you should expect your recruiter to reciprocate in the exchange of information. More on this below.

Does the recruiter work with any law firms or in-house employers on an exclusive basis?

There is little magic and even less value added to the peddling of publicly advertised job postings to a mass email or call list of associates. And there is likely scant value added by any recruiter that is limited to that level of access to the market of opportunities.

Most companies and a significant number of law firms specifically avoid posting jobs publicly, and many searches that do appear publicly may no longer be active. Most of these companies are mindful and discerning when it comes to the recruiters they choose to work with. Without meaningful relationships with clients that make the recruiters privy to the complete picture of those clients’ hiring needs, there is a very good chance that most recruiters will end up intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting the current lateral market to you.

Furthermore, exclusive or short list recruiting arrangements with choice legal employers are reliable signals that the recruiter possessing those relationships is experienced and competent. These employers do not work with just any recruiting agencies, and they are very mindful about whom they trust to recruit on their behalf and represent their opportunities to the market. Leading law firms and in-house employers spend time qualifying the recruiters they work with on an exclusive basis, giving you good reason to believe in the integrity and capability of those recruiters.

Do not hesitate to ask a recruiter directly whether they regularly work on searches that are not public, and whether they work with any employers on an exclusive basis. Ask for specific firm and company names, and examples of such searches! I cannot stress enough the importance of properly vetting a recruiter’s access to the market and reputation before entrusting them to represent you and relying on their counsel and market perspective. I don’t exaggerate when I say you should find it offensive if a recruiter claims to have this kind of market access, yet is uncomfortable sharing any specifics with you. A recruiter is asking you to be comfortable putting your career and the confidential details of your practice in their hands—visibility into their recruiting experience is the least they can exchange!

Does the recruiter have a well-defined, hands-on recruitment process?

In understanding the process a recruiter expects to take you through, you can assess the value-add the recruiter will likely bring. A valuable recruiter that is concerned with optimizing your career options (and not just their fees) will have established a process that includes some of the following pillars of good legal recruiting.

The recruiter should plan to take an active role in resume and interview prep. They should be happy to make substantive suggestions for your resume, give valuable background information on the companies and firms you might consider, provide insight and bespoke interview strategies for each of the interviews you hopefully get, anticipate and coach you through specific interview questions you should expect to be asked, and so much more. The dispensing and open discussion of the recruiter’s market knowledge should be a part of the process, and recruiters should be willing to negotiate on your behalf with the aid of that knowledge. Importantly, recruiters should require written consent from you before they submit your resume anywhere. They should ideally request that you meet in person, or at least through a video call, at some point early in the process. It is very easy for a recruiter to hide their motivations behind the phone. Do not make the mistake of overlooking the importance of actually meeting face to face with a person you’re trusting your career progression with. If you walk away from such a meeting with anything less than a feeling of connection and confidence in the recruiter, move on!

Also, be sure to ask about the recruiting firm your individual recruiter is working at, and what role the rest of the recruiting team might play in your process. An individual recruiter can bring a lot more to the table if they plan to engage their firm colleagues, who may have special expertise or network relationships that could be of use in your candidacy.

The recruiter should be interviewing for the opportunity to work with you.

You may have noticed a couple of themes present across the 3 questions above, namely, the identification of any recruiters’ value-add and the expectation of a mutual exchange of confidential information. Indeed, these are the underlying principles of my closing advice: make recruiters interview for the opportunity to work with you!

You should settle for nothing less than a long-term, trusting relationship with your legal recruiter, one which is founded on the value delivered by the recruiter over the course of your legal career. The best way to achieve this is to regard your interactions with recruiters, from their very first cold phone call or email on, as stages of an interview for the role of advising you with respect to your legal career and potentially representing you to future employers.

Asking recruiters tough questions about their expertise and practice experience, and assessing the integrity of both the individual recruiter and their firm as a whole, are integral tasks in differentiating the long-term minded career counselors from the headhunters regurgitating public job postings who are trying to catch you on a bad day. Take care to identify which of these you might choose to entrust with your career. An experienced and competent recruiter can be invaluable in helping you access the market, manage your career, and achieve your goals; but an unqualified, heedless headhunter can leave you, at best, no better positioned to make knowledgeable career choices, and in far too many instances, actively harm your career path and future.

Scott Yaccarino is a Founding Partner at Empire Search Partners. To learn more about Empire Search’s law firm and in-house legal recruiting, visit Our Services.