October 23, 2012

Using Search Firms in Your Recruitment Strategy

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How Do You Get Inspired?




By Marcia Pennington Shannon

Perhaps your firm is considering adding a new lateral attorney and thinking about how you will approach the recruitment process. Used properly, search firms can be an effective recruitment tool. But what do you need to know to get the most from the process?

Recently, I spoke with Lynne Simoneau Coonan, an experienced search consultant whose firm, Coonan Attorney Search, works with law firms on their associate-level and partner-level needs. Her business is primarily focused on the Washington, D.C., market, where she attended law school and lived for over 20 years. Lynne also has experience in other legal markets, including the San Francisco Bay Area, and has assisted companies hiring in-house lawyers. Here are her tips on working productively with search firms.

It's often said that law firms have love-hate relationships with search firms. What are your suggestions for making the relationship a positive and effective one?

LC: The love-hate aspect stems from the fact that search firms both place attorneys with law firms and also recruit them away from firms. In addition, some law firms that use search firms don't fully understand the work involved or appreciate the value that search firms can bring to the table. As a result, law firms grudgingly pay the fee and may think that the fee is excessive in relation to the amount of work performed. Also, there is a wide variation in quality among search firms, so a bad experience with one could taint potentially positive relationships with others in the future.

This negativity can be avoided by developing stronger relationships with a manageable number of high-quality search firms. I advise investing more time interacting with those headhunters whose work you respect. Make efforts to increase communication, too. Being responsive, giving detailed information about an active need and a candidate's status, and providing honest feedback regarding candidates and searches will make the relationship more effective and beneficial.

What's the best way to find reputable search firms in a specific geographic location?

LC: The best way is through word of mouth. I would ask for a referral from a headhunter I trust, regardless of what region he or she is in. It can also be helpful to ask a contact at a law firm in the region, especially the firm's lateral attorney recruiter or another lawyer directly involved in hiring.

What information does a law firm want to gather when exploring working with a given search firm?

LC: You should attempt to get to know the individuals who will actually be working on your recruiting matters. Also, it is helpful to probe the true nature of the search firm's business. Ask questions about past and current work experience, such as how much of their work is with law firms and how much is with companies, what portion is devoted to associate matters and how much time is spent on partner matters, and how much work is done on a contingency basis and on a retained basis. Also ask what geographic markets they primarily work in, as well as whether they have subject-matter expertise, such as in intellectual property hires.

What information about the law firm would allow the search firm to be more effective in its recruiting efforts?

LC: You should give your law firm some flavor beyond what can be gleaned from your Web site. Some of the information that can help a search firm be more effective includes the following:

  • A description of your client base, including names of companies represented
  • Specific examples of the firm's work life, as well as high points and successes for the firm
  • An explanation of how you distinguish yourself from your competitors
  • Billable hours requirements
  • Compensation, including bonus structure
  • The partnership process
  • The type of work involved in a particular position, as well as names of key individuals with whom candidates would be working
  • Details on the firm's structure, including departments and practice groups
  • The level of interaction with other offices
  • The amount of travel required in particular positions

Can small law firms benefit from the services of a search firm? If so, how can they best maximize that relationship while minimizing the cost?

LC: Yes, small firms would definitely benefit. This is particularly true because smaller firms are often overlooked in the marketplace, and headhunters are especially valuable at drawing a candidate's attention to a firm that may otherwise go unnoticed. A search firm can shine a spotlight on the strengths and appeal of such firms and effectively market the firm to candidates. Also, small firms often don't have the infrastructure to handle the recruiting process and could use the administrative help of an outside recruiter.

To minimize the impact of the cost, I offer my small law firm clients an installment plan, breaking the fee into two or three payments. Some search firms may also agree to a reduced fee (but probably not less than 20 percent).

What are the elements of a typical contract with a search firm?

LC: A standard contract sets out terms for payment of the placement fee, including the percentage, time frame for payment, and conditions for return of the fee; an agreement to not solicit the law firm's attorneys (a "hands-off" policy); and the process for submitting candidates. Here are some basic terms.

Fee. The placement fee is usually equal to 25 percent of the candidate's first year's total compensation. A standard time frame for payment is 30 days after the placed candidate's first day of work. Agreements will often detail the circumstances under which a candidate would be considered to belong to the search firm and, therefore, a placement fee would be due. For example, the fee is payable only if the search firm provides the initial contact with the law firm and the candidate is hired by the firm within six months of the date the law firm first receives the candidate's resume from the search firm.

Nonsolicitation. The search firm often agrees to not solicit any person who is engaged by the law firm to terminate his or her employment with that law firm, usually for a six-month period following a placement with the law firm. The search firm will also agree to never solicit the candidate placed with the law firm by the search firm while that candidate is employed with the law firm.

Guarantee. Although I don't offer a guarantee, if the law firm client provides the agreement, it sometimes has a guarantee provision in its contract.

Confidentiality. The search firm is expected to maintain the confidentiality of the information supplied by the law firm. The law firm is expected to maintain the confidentiality of all candidate matters.

Candidate submissions. Agreements may set out the process by which candidates must be submitted. For example, submissions of candidates may have to be sent through the recruiting department in order to be recognized. Or, candidates may only be sent in response to an identified need at the law firm. Failure to comply with either of these requirements could result in loss of a placement fee.

Do search firms check references and credentials before referring candidates?

LC: Search firms don't typically check references, backgrounds or credentials before referring candidates. As the process approaches the offer stage, the law firm client may ask the search firm to check references or other background matters, such as verifying bar admissions and disciplinary records, but law firms rarely ask a search firm to do that.

Any other information that law firms would find useful in working with search firms?

LC: If you truly consider a search firm an ally and treat it as such, you will benefit more from the relationship. Be honest and responsive with search firms. The better you communicate about your hiring needs throughout the process, the better the results you will get. Also, be open to search firms presenting candidates regardless of whether you have an identified need—sometimes that is how you find your best candidates.