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Law Practice Today

October 2023

Shifting Your Niche: Litigator to Legal Recruiter

Clare Kealey


  • Making the transition from litigator to legal recruiter made sense – recruiting requires many of the same skills as litigation.
  • Advocate, negotiator, consensus builder, career counselor – a recruiter needs all of these skills.
  • A recruiter who has been where you are in your career can provide you with invaluable advice.  
Shifting Your Niche: Litigator to Legal Recruiter

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I studied law for seven years on two continents. First I earned a Bachelor of Laws in Ireland, and then an L.L.M. and ultimately a J.D. in the United States. Naturally, my career trajectory was to become a practicing attorney. Any recruiter, guidance counselor, or classmate could have told me that. For most, the goal after law school is to practice law. So I practiced law.

I worked at a large law firm and a small firm, and later made a cross-country move from a major legal market on the East Coast to a smaller market in the Northwest. I experienced a lot as a litigator: trial during a pandemic; needle-in-a-haystack doc review, and the rollercoaster of a spoliation dispute. However, the one thing I noticed from the outset of my career was that my best days were always my “people-focused” days. I enjoyed client meetings, thrived in court, and particularly enjoyed business development.

As my career progressed, I began to question—as many attorneys do—what path to take next. I decided to focus on relationships and set out to serve a new type of client—other attorneys. Here is an insight into shifting my niche from litigator to legal recruiter. 

Navigating a new niche

Legal recruiting is all about cultivating and sustaining relationships. I quickly realized that recruiting requires many of the same approaches and values that successful attorneys develop. You advocate for your client. You negotiate. You build consensus. And you guard your reputation zealously, knowing that today’s counterparty may be tomorrow’s client.

The transition from legal practitioner to legal recruiter enjoys certain natural advantages. You know the terminology and are better positioned to discern which practice areas are complementary and which are truly niche. You draw upon a wider and deeper network, combining your firm and law school relationships with broader market outreach. And perhaps most importantly, you can relate to your clients and genuinely understand their needs because you lived it. Preparing for, and even scheduling, a slate of firm interviews between depositions is enough to fluster anyone. Imposter syndrome is all too real and yet frequently overcome. Those who have been there get it and can leverage those experiences for their clients’ benefit.

Learning and adapting: the legal merry-go-round

Attorneys often have a love/hate relationship with recruiters. On the one hand, recruiters can be relentless and flood your inbox at inconvenient times. On the other, recruiters can be relentless on your behalf, prying open doors to new opportunities, many of which may not be advertised. They can catch the typo on page four of your writing sample and help tailor your resume for a particular role. They bring order to the chaos of blanketing a market with applications and build relationships with boutique shops that may not initially be on an applicant’s radar. And they can speak candidly to firms and companies about resume gaps, firm transitions, and geographical moves that can be awkward needles to thread in cover letters.

A skilled recruiter provides a tailored service. They can help the applicant maximize for or trade off priorities, such as compensation, work/life balance or partnership track considerations.

Above all else, a recruiter is a career counselor. A former practitioner turned recruiter is well-positioned to offer both first-hand and data-driven advice. Like an attorney-client relationship, an attorney-recruiter relationship is built on trust. Being forthright with a recruiter is essential to maximizing an applicant’s chances of success. If you have a resume gap, a lateral move after less than one year, or if you didn’t pass the bar the first time, it is best to flag from the outset, so you can frame your narrative. And tell your recruiter if you are working with other recruiters. A bit of healthy competition never hurts, but redundant submissions can be deadly to an applicant’s firm prospects.

Honesty is the best policy

In addition to being honest with your recruiter about your job search, you also need to be honest with yourself. What is motivating your desire to make a lateral move and what is a realistic timeline? Is there anything that would make or break an offer? An interview should be as much about a candidate learning about a firm as it is a firm learning about a candidate. What is the partner-to-associate ratio on a given project, how are assignments distributed, which practice groups collaborate, and how transparent is the firm in terms of opportunities for growth and client development.

Finally, a few myths to debunk about legal recruiters: Recruiters are not paid by the candidate, but by the law firm or company. (Even more reason to use a recruiter – it’s a free service!) No fees are paid up front, it is only after a successful candidate crosses the finish line and starts at their new role that a recruiter is paid. Second, you are not less competitive if you use a recruiter to apply to a position. Law firms and companies make it clear if they are unwilling to use recruiting services, but for the most part, they budget for recruiter fees to secure top talent and take the hassle out of the hiring process.

So, before you hang up on a cold call or click “unsubscribe”, consider whether you’re ready to develop a relationship with a recruiter who is ready to invest in you. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions about their prior career, what value their experience can bring to your search, and what networks they’ve developed. Not all career moves are the right ones, but a skilled recruiter can help you find yours.