The lateral partner recruiting market has been steadily expanding and evolving over the past 15 years. Previously, lateral partner movement within the Am Law 100 was noteworthy and rare. In the last decade or so, we have observed a tremendous uptick in law firms attempting to grow their business through the acquisition of new partners and practices, as opposed to focusing purely on organic growth.
By and large, law firms have done a relatively good job of adapting their compensation models and processes to accommodate this modern, active lateral partner market. Conversely, the vast majority of individual law firm partners stumble their way through navigating the contemporary lateral market. Although publicly available law firm market intelligence has improved in step with the growing lateral partner market, not all numbers are created equal, and law firms generally do not report their key economic data in a verified, consistent, or standard manner. Accordingly, an individual law firm partner’s cursory comparison of their own compensation to that reported for the average partner at XYZ law firm will likely be misleading.
Alongside the rise in lateral partner activity, waves of legal recruiters with little to no experience beyond associate-level recruiting have flooded the partner market. Due to the fact that partner recruiting is a vastly different business compared to associate recruiting, including notably more complex economic considerations and a myriad of moving parts when it comes to partner compensation negotiations, an incredible gap has formed between those recruiters with well-earned expertise in partner recruiting, and those that believe the same processes that worked for associates should also suffice for partners. To help law firm partners distinguish between the two, I have noted three important qualification techniques that will narrow the list of recruiters that partners can be comfortable trusting with their career considerations.
1. Push Back on Pretense
There is a surprisingly small roster of legal recruiters that are regularly retained and trusted by top law firms looking to strategically recruit lateral partners. A call from a legal recruiter who has been specifically asked by a firm to reach out to a particular partner is a call that may very well deserve such partner’s attention. Unfortunately, recruiters without such law firm relationships have learned over time that partners are indeed responsive to calls of this nature and regularly mislead or outright lie about their retainment on lateral partner searches in order to get partners on the phone. By doing so, these recruiters attempt to fabricate a market for a lateral move: if they can get the partner they cold called to express interest in a non-existent lateral search at XYZ law firm, the recruiter will then reach out to XYZ and purport to be representing a partner candidate who is interested in speaking with the firm. There are numerous risks to the individual partner in this shockingly common fact pattern. Consequently, law firm partners need to be exceedingly cautious about what they indicate to recruiters they field calls from.
So how can a partner discern a pro from poser? Pushing a recruiter for specific details on their relationship and engagement with the law firm they claim to be working with is crucial. Partners should ask for the name of the person at XYZ law firm that engaged the recruiter to reach out and inquire into how XYZ law firm came up with the partner’s name. They should also ask for specific examples of work the recruiter has done for that law firm in the past, including whether the recruiter was engaged on an exclusive basis. Straightforward and precise answers indicate the authenticity of the recruiter and the opportunity they are reaching out about. Answers of any other kind should raise suspicion—more on this below.
2. Look Out for the Common Red Flags
If a recruiter stumbles when responding to basic qualification questions and/or hesitates over the details to be divulged, the partner should deem a red flag to have been raised. For instance, if a recruiter hesitates to convey the name of the law firm that has supposedly engaged them or the names of contacts they have at that law firm, the partner can be fairly confident that the recruiter is not exactly above board. Similarly, if a recruiter is unable or unwilling to share details about the practice group they are supposedly recruiting for (e.g., who the major partners are in the group, who the major clients are), then the partner should proceed with caution.
Another reliable red flag is a recruiter’s use of mass email solicitations sent to a partner’s law firm email address. It is safe to assume that recruiters attempting to communicate with law firm partners in this manner are lacking in both experience and judgement. Not surprisingly, recruiters will continue using this ridiculous mass email approach as long as there are partners in the market who respond and unwittingly take the bait. It takes very little effort for a recruiter to email a stock message to hundreds of partners noting that “the leadership of an elite Am Law 100 firm looking to grow the firm’s XYZ practice specifically requested that I reach out to you…,” and the potential payoff from a single partner responding will provide enough validation to the recruiter to justify using this approach again and again.
3. Identify the Craft and the Confidence
“Please tell me exactly what you can do for me” is not a bad place to start for a law firm partner seeking to understand the value a legal recruiter might be able to provide. Setting up a meeting with a firm is simply not enough. At the very least, a recruiter should be able to provide market intelligence and access that will enable the partner to understand their market value and accurately evaluate their options.
More specifically, a law firm partner should obtain an understanding of a legal recruiter’s particular skill set with respect to partner recruiting and whether a recruiter has the ability to effectively represent the partner. Partner recruiting requires different skills compared to those developed in associate recruiting, and there is a limited number of legal recruiters that have honed the craft of top-tier partner-level recruiting. Given the financial value of the transactions in the lateral partner market, the difference between a recruiter with a craft vs. a recruiter with a call list translates to major variations in economic outcomes, market access, and market perception for partners actively considering their options.
A competent partner-level legal recruiter should be instrumental in developing and communicating a partner’s business plan and practice value to a law firm, and they should have the confidence and competence to take the lead on these efforts when necessary. The recruiter should be able to steer both the partner and the respective firm through the interview process, and negotiate the various moving parts of the transaction: compensation packages, guarantees, conflict management, references, runway, etc. In the partner recruiting world, capable legal recruiters are deal makers—experienced in the negotiation of complex economic agreements.
Protect Your Talent
If you are a law firm partner with a portable practice, there is simply too much at stake, professionally and economically, to entrust your career to an unqualified legal recruiter. It is no exaggeration to analogize a top law firm partner’s need for a competent legal recruiter to the need of a professional athlete, artist, or entertainer for a competent talent agent. Accomplished individuals in those occupations need a qualified agent to ensure that their talents are appropriately represented to, and accurately valued by, their respective markets. In my view, law firm partners who have spent years building their practices are very similarly situated, and they should make certain that they are represented by an experienced legal recruiter that can effectively represent such a partner’s talents, market the partner’s accomplishments, and ensure the partner and their respective practice is properly valued and supported.
Scott Yaccarino is a Co-Founder and Partner at Empire Search Partners. To learn more about Empire Search’s law firm and in-house legal recruiting, visit our Legal Recruiting Services page.