Headhunters 101

Lateral hiring is on the rise with the economic recovery, and legal search consultants are back on the hunt. During the recession, fewer lawyers at all levels -- especially associates -- received overtures from recruiters. Thus, headhunting calls may be a new phenomenon for the junior ranks. This series of articles will explain how best to work with legal search consultants. After some definitions, we will discuss what recruiters can and cannot do for you, how and why to get your head hunted, what to do when a recruiter calls, selecting a search firm, and how to maximize your relationship with a search consultant.


You, the job seeker, are the candidate, and the prospective employer -- which pays the fee -- is the client. Legal search consultants (aka recruiters or headhunters) conduct searches on behalf of their clients, usually law firms, corporate law departments, nonprofit organizations or governmental entities. Legal search firms attempt to find the best candidate for a particular position, whether or not the candidate is in the market for a new career opportunity -- hence, the cold calls. Since the employer pays a fee when the search consultant successfully recruits and places an attorney who meets specified hiring criteria, headhunters are client-driven, not candidate-driven. Most legal searches are handled on a non-exclusive contingency basis, though many recruiting firms handle a mix of exclusive and non-exclusive, and contingency and retained searches at any given time. Regardless of the arrangement between the search firm and the potential employer, the candidate should receive the same standard of representation. Many recruiters belong to the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (www.nalsc.org). All reputable search firms -- whether NALSC members or not -- adhere to its code of ethics®, which regulates the relationships between recruiters and their clients, candidates and other search firms.

When legal recruiters work on contingency, they earn a fee only when the client organization hires a candidate referred by their search firm. If there is no hire, no fee is due. Contingency search consultants usually work on a variety of opportunities, ranging from junior-level associate to senior partner or general counsel. They do not handle entry-level positions, which generally are filled through on-campus recruiting, firm websites or job board and legal newspaper postings.

Most searches also are non-exclusive, meaning that the headhunter may be in competition with other recruiters, or even the clients themselves, to be the first to find the best candidate for a particular position. Prospective employers may use more than one recruiting firm in an effort to cast the widest net to find the best talent available in the market. Employers also may be trying to fill the same openings on their own through job postings or internal referrals.

Some searches are handled on retainer, where the recruiter usually would have an exclusive arrangement with the client. The employer will not accept resumes for that particular position from any other source, and the retained consultants are paid for their efforts regardless of the outcome of the search. Retained searches tend to be for higher-level positions or ones requiring a very particular and hard-to-find skill set. In those cases, the recruiter works in close partnership with the employer, often assisting in creating the job description and ideal candidate profile.


Career counselors or coaches are different from recruiters. They charge you a fee for their services to help you deal with career issues, which may or may not include a job change. They will assist you in determining your long- and short-range career goals, including, if appropriate, what kind of job to pursue and how to go about getting it. They do not have access to open job listings. Although there are some that focus on lawyers, many do not specialize in any particular industry. The career counselor works for you, and you pay whether you land a position or not. A good career coach -- and there are many -- won't pretend to be able to find you a job. She will make it clear that her product is counseling.


Many law firms and corporations offer the services of outplacement consultants when they terminate lawyers, whether as part of a mass layoff or single situation. The downsizing employer, not the exiting employee, pays outplacement firm fees. Providing outplacement benefits can protect the employer's reputation by facilitating the layoff, minimizing the employer's exposure to lawsuits, and reducing unemployment insurance payments. Services can include assistance in crafting resumes and cover letters, job search advice, interview skills coaching and job leads. Fees vary by duration (from a few months to a year), the actual services provided, and whether they are accessed individually or as a group, in-person or online. Note that outplacement firms are in the business of providing job search skills and services, not necessarily finding you a new position.


Beware of "counselors" who work for executive marketing firms. They boast about their exclusive contacts and access to the hidden job market. But they are not promising you any concrete results, and often their contacts are nothing more than easily available public information. These firms usually require you to pay a fee in advance, ranging from $2,000 to $25,000 or more, in exchange for anything from drafting your resume and cover letter, to providing contact lists, or doing mailings on your behalf. They do not guarantee to generate interviews on your behalf. Legal search consultants have seen and heard of countless examples of poorly drafted resumes, cover letters with typos and outdated contact lists that cost candidates many thousands of dollars up front. These firms may pressure you to make a decision quickly and sign a multi-page agreement. Some also require you to pay them an additional fee when you get a job.


Before you decide to work with any consultant or counselor, know exactly what services they provide and whether those meet your current needs. Be clear about costs and who is responsible for paying them. Always talk to references before agreeing to pay anything and beware when references cannot be provided because of "confidentiality concerns." If someone is pressuring you to pay a sizeable fee up front, run -- don't walk -- in the opposite direction. At the very least, research them on the Internet and check with the Better Business Bureau before opening your wallet.

Read articles in the series:

  1. Headhunters 101
  2. What Recruiters Can and Cannot Do for You
  3. How to Get Your Head Hunted
  4. Selecting a Search Firm
  5. Maximizing the Recruiter Relationship