General Counsel and business leaders alike universally have a view on what makes a good lawyer, however many struggle to find the right one for their company when the need arises.
The main mistake businesses make when looking to fill a vacancy can be encapsulated in the apples and oranges approach; “we never use recruiters, we advertise all open roles ourselves”. Leaving aside the veracity of the statement it neatly illustrates the misconception that a one-size fits all approach to hiring works, it doesn’t. What works for hiring IT professionals probably won’t work for lawyers, yes, they are both metaphorical fruit but no they are not the same.
The starting point in assessing the best way to find a lawyer for your business is understanding why you need one. Is the primary purpose to reduce external law firm spend by taking routine legal work in house? Do you need first time in house counsel to put procedures in place and set up a legal and compliance framework? Understanding the true value add of in-house counsel helps you to identify what the benefit of the hire will be to the business both in financial terms (the money they can save you) and the intrinsic softer skills they might bring, allowing you to effectively prioritise the open positions importance. Once you understand the importance of the hire you have a key component to analysing the most suitable approach to filling it.
It is usually taken for granted that General Counsel hires go to search firms on a retained exclusive basis because of the level of the position and the compensation associated with it (perceived importance). This isn’t always true, I have seen GC roles, true GC roles advertised only on Linkedin and/or the hiring company’s website and filled with good candidates. On the flip side I know of junior counsel roles being worked as full retained searches by agents to great effect.
It is true that most of the time money is the de facto criterion used to determine the approach taken to source a legal hire. The bigger the business the more mindless/headless the approach to recruitment tends to be; Example, “position A is grade X, we fill grade X positions like this…”. Of course, larger organisations where an individual has enough clout internally to bend or make the rules can be different and also a great pleasure to work for. I have been engaged by several large organisations in the past where there is a particular skillset that is hard to find, candidates are in high demand; they aren’t checking job boards, they aren’t sitting on databases, the only way, besides blind luck to find them is through a proper search, even if the money and/or grade for the position is not dazzling. In some ways, these are the most gratifying positions to work on because the clients are genuinely appreciative of the service which is often seen as above and beyond at that level.
The fact is lawyers make up a really small chunk of almost all company’s overall workforce so businesses just aren’t used to hiring them in the same way they are other positions. If a role has a low salary and seniority and requires a generic skillset there are going to be more people doing it (large candidate pool), therefore the probability of finding someone without the help of a recruiter/head-hunter is high. If the skillset is niche and the level of the position is high then the probability of success without expert help has got to be low.
When scrutinising where your vacant position sits in terms of probability of fill-ability, in addition to considering the size of the candidate pool take a moment to also factor in your attractiveness as an employer. Location, salary restrictions and type of work are considerations to be mindful of in this equation. If you have an average budget to do exciting work in an unpleasant location this will impact your ability to attract the right profile of candidate and lower your % chances of success even if the talent pool is larger than average.
Take the above factors into account and if you have a greater than 50% chance (based on a position of average importance) of finding the best person directly (cheaper option) then that’s what you should do. If not then you should seriously consider working with a search firm or specialist recruiter and depending on the level of compensation for the hire, perhaps one that can be flexible.
If you come to the reasoned decision you need expert help to find a lawyer it can be tough to know which way to turn, the option most utilised (unless you have a relationship already established) is to go to the largest and most well publicised recruiters. In some instances, this is a smart play, if you want to make an impact hire with an advert in the press you will usually do that through a larger name brand recruiter or search firm (who hopefully won’t mark the price up too much for the advert in the Times/Lawyer). Similarly, if you are hiring the General Counsel of a mega-corporation, you are probably going to go with one of the big 5 search firms (who placed half your C-Suite) as a safe pair of hands these guys have the perceived firepower and branding that gives key stakeholders comfort things are being done ‘properly’.
One of the difficulties with many larger recruitment and search firms is getting the flexibility you might want for your mid-senior level or specialist hires; These roles, often exciting and reasonably well paid all too often fall between the cracks. Lots of search firms will not touch positions below £150K base and they may have onerous conditions around payment tranches that don’t work for your business. If you go to a contingent recruiter they are more likely to be flexible on their fees but may not have the expertise or approach to headhunt effectively for the role. In those instances, research and consider a specialist recruiter most importantly get recommendations from the market about who is good and can assist with your specific type of requirement, there are flexible and creative solutions out there it just takes a little more effort to find them.
Author: Ken Collins is a legal and compliance search consultant and partner with Greenway Collins covering the EMEA region.