FAQs about legal recruiting

By Kristi Edwards

The legal recruitment process involves attracting, vetting, and selecting qualified lawyers for law firms or in-house organisations ranging from banks to media and manufacturing companies. Most City law firms and larger organisations use legal recruiters (and occasionally search firms) for some or all components of the recruitment process. Seems like that fairly simple explanation should about cover it but on a daily basis we encounter questions from candidates and clients alike that we feel it would be helpful to answer.


1. How do recruiters get paid?

This is the big one. Misunderstanding how this occurs is often the reason that candidates approach recruiters with scepticism. Basically, we get paid on commission. This means that whilst we get a base salary that keeps us alive, we make our real money when we place lawyers within firms or organisations. When a law firm or organisation hires a candidate that was first introduced by us, we are entitled to a fee (generally 25% of the first-year salary but sometimes as much as 30% of first year remuneration). This fee is usually paid 30 days after the candidate begins working for the firm and most recruitment agencies also guarantee a portion of their fee for a period of months (we call this a rebate period), meaning that should a candidate leave or be fired within a certain period, the firm organisation will be entitled to some or all of the feedback.


So all that is pretty straight forward and probably not a huge surprise but what we would like to address is the impression that we want to push you into a role that is not right for you to make money. A good recruiter (one that has been in the market for a while and intends to stay in the market) is only any good if he/she has relationships built on trust – that goes for both candidate and client and these relationships are only any good if we give sound, reliable advice. On occasion, this advice may involve us advising against you accepting a role at the expense of a fee. It is short-termist, counterproductive and bad for our business to place you in a role that we know is wrong for you for the sake of a fee. It is undeniably true that sometimes things do not work out, either from a candidate or client’s perspective (or sometimes from both sides) but for us to knowingly encourage you to accept something that will result in dissatisfaction from either side would be commercial suicide. Our relationships are our livelihood. It would not take us long, working in this short-sighted manner to work our way through a very competitive market-place and end up with no clients (who pay our fees) and no candidates.


2. Why don't recruiters return my phone calls?

We always try to respond to inquiries (or ask a colleague to respond on our behalf where appropriate); nonetheless, it is a fact of life for many professionals that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything. On some days we can arrive in the office to literally 100s of CVs in our inbox, and that is just new responses. In addition, we attend several meetings with clients and candidates a day. Some of these off-site and some on-site but all requiring contemporaneous notes to be put in some kind of legible format and saved. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of a secretary to do this for us. A recruiter who can prioritise effectively is a generally a good one and sometimes when recruiters receive messages from candidates they know they cannot place, those messages go to the bottom of the priority list. This is brutal but true and hopefully now we have removed the mystery as to how we get paid and you understand the pure economics of the legal recruitment industry, maybe you will have an idea as to how sometimes this fierce (but not personal and absolutely necessary) prioritising can result in unreturned calls. Having said this, a good recruiter is also courteous and should make you aware that he/she is unable to assist you if that is the case. It is human nature to dislike giving someone bad news and this goes a long way to explaining why this is one of the biggest gripes we hear from candidates who have had bad experiences with other recruiters.


3. Why do recruiters make me feel like I am in the ‘too hard’ basket just because I lack large firm experience or have bad academics?

We receive a lot of phone calls and emails from people with unconventional backgrounds. Some who lack the strong academic records that are now a bare minimum requirement for entry to City firms and in-house legal teams. Regrettably, there is not a great deal that a recruiter (even a very good one) can do to help these two groups.

Legal recruiters, as we have already discussed, are paid by clients (being law firms or in-house legal departments) and clients always specify the bare minimum in terms of qualification and experience. Academics are generally a non-negotiable point and it is our job to vet candidates, only sending through those that meet or exceed requirements. A lack of large or City firm experience  or a short-fall in direct in-house legal experience is sometimes able to be worked around. For example, if your experience comes from a boutique firm with an excellent reputation in your particular discipline then of course a larger firm is going to want to know about your candidacy but if you are coming from a firm with an environment and a client list far removed from the one you are seeking to join, it’s not that we are being defeatist when we advise you it is probably not a prospect for you – we are doing our job.

This is not to say that sometimes, the ‘Little Red Caboose’ approach does not sometimes work. There are genuinely inspiring stories of people told they could not do something who did, it’s just that lawyers are generally not known for their qualities of acceptance and open-mindedness and large law firms are run by lawyers. There are always occasions when we will stick our neck on the block for a candidate who despite an unconventional background and credentials that do not tick every box, are stars. Unfortunately, in the absence of real star quality and some exceptional mitigating skill set (or often big, fat book of portable business) clients will not pay a fee for an introduction of a candidate who falls short of their minimum requirements.

5. How do I find a recruiter I can trust?

The same way you would find any other professional or service provider. Talk to your friends or trusted colleagues to see if they know a recruiter who has assisted them in the past. Look in the legal press – who is advertising a lot? Look at the quality of the ads they are running. Are they intelligently written? Use the internet – what does it tell you about them? What is their firm’s recruiting philosophy? Do they follow ethical guidelines? Have they written any articles on career-related issues? Is there information about them on a website which tells you more about their recruiting philosophy? The most important of all of these though, is word of mouth. Once again, it’s a recruiter’s good name that makes them good.


6. Why would I use a recruiter if my friend is an associate or works at the firm I am interested in joining and has offered to submit my CV?

There are always instances where approaching a firm or organisation through someone that you know might make sense.  For example, you may have worked across a deal from a particular partner, meaning he/she will have firsthand knowledge of your skills, or you may have worked closely with a particular client in whom you have an interest joining in-house. In such a case it may make sense to make a direct approach through that partner or Head of Legal. On the other hand, if you are considering approaching a firm through a friend or acquaintance and that contact only knows you in a social context, knowing nothing about the quality of your work, then you may want to have a recruiter make the initial introduction and have your contact put in a good word for you only after the introduction has been made. It is our job to ‘sell’ you in the best possible way and it is always easier to do where there is no personal relationship involved. It also makes the recipient of the application feel more able to ask direct questions when it comes through a more professional channel and in our experience, most clients like to keep candidates at an arm’s length throughout the recruitment process.

It is always better to have a recruiter representing you when it comes time to negotiate a salary and bonus package. Very few candidates feel comfortable about directly negotiating such sensitive issues and would prefer to start their new role being ‘unsullied’ by the cut and thrust of these discussions. We have negotiated literally 1000s of offers and our relationships with our clients are such that we know when to push and when pursuing a point may be futile.


7. If recruiters charge large fees, wouldn't firms or in-house departments rather receive a resume directly and save the cost of recruitment?

Most law firms or organisations with in-house legal departments are not looking for excuses to incur large recruitment fees. On average, most sizeable UK law firms spend somewhere between £100,000 and £500,000 on contingency recruitment fees a year with a small percentage spending upward of £5 million! Large in-house legal departments, especially those in banks, large telcos and resources companies have similar spending power. On the other hand, recruitment is an extremely time consuming process, meaning 100s of hours of internal down time; clients, for the most part see our fee as more than a ‘necessary evil’ but rather a cost of properly doing business in a market where good candidates are in high demand. Added to this, associates  and partners are so valuable to law firms that they are generally happy to pay fees; the firm will more than earn back the recruitment fee in a short time when associate or partner had his/her feet under the desk and starts billing!


8. A recruiter sent my CV to over 20 firms without my permission. Can I resubmit my resume to some of these firms using another recruiter?

Submitting a resume to a firm without the candidate's express permission is an unscrupulous, unethical practice and unfortunately, despite an increasingly sophisticated and competitive market, is not uncommon. We still hear stories of ‘wide boys’ out to make a quick buck who think that the ‘spray’ approach actually works. Any recruiter who plans to work in his/her market for more than a very short time understands that your sending your CV to multiple firms/organisation could jeopardise your current position and more seriously, is a breach of the spirit of the data protection legislation. CVs generally have a shelf life of at least six months, sometimes twelve. You should be very, very careful about where your details are being sent and do keep in mind that a CV received twice by a firm from two different sources will not give you a better chance of obtaining an interview. It will make you appear as if you can’t manage the process and have a cavalier, slapdash approach.

If you do find yourself in this situation, it is possible for you to disinstruct the offending agency. To do this you will need to formally notify them in writing that they do not have authority to act on your behalf and send very specific correspondence to your preferred agent (and potentially the firm or organisation who you wish to approach) that you wish for them and not the disreputable recruiter to represent you.  No law firm or organisation wants to risk being responsible for two recruitment fees, so once your CV has been presented to the firm by another source, in the absence of formal disinstruction, the law firm or organisation will not work with another recruiter for at least this amount of time and you or any new agent you are working with will be prevented from sending your CV during this period.


© Edwards Gibson


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