Why a retained legal search is the best way to recruit

If you have friends who are higher-ups in most other sectors of the business world, you know that retained work typically happens at the executive level, so, why not for law firms?

Well, the truth is retained legal search for partners does happen (we do it all of the time) as some extraordinarily highly savvy firms are reluctant to alert the world that they are interested in either building a practice area, or have a hole they are interested in filling. In most cases if you are looking for a partner, it is the better way to go. As a client, you receive better focus and (typically) better results from retaining a recruiter, and the client-agency relationship feels more like, well, a relationship. Right now lateral partner hiring is a dominant force in the market. The partners with books are in the driver’s seats, and they have a wide range of opportunities available to them. If a recruiter is working on a contingency fee with multiple law firm clients, it is not interested in building a long term relationship with just one. Instead, it is constantly looking for it’s next one-off placement, as opposed to digging deep, learning everything it can about a client, and zealously advocating on one client’s behalf. Where would you rather place your strategic plan for growth? In the hands of a recruiter who is working with all of your competitors, or in the hands of one whom you know, and with whom you have a relationship built on trust and a mutual commitment to long-term growth?

Let’s follow this to the next logical conclusion: if retained search is better for partners, why not associates?  As a client you get better focus because the recruiter knows you have some skin in the game, and the recruiter is happy because, well, I know I’m going to get paid. Some top tier executive retained search firms don’t want to work on associates because they are less lucrative. Ok. I think however, that associate retained work would happen if there was a more robust client need. Again, savvier firms are coming to the same conclusion. Many people believe there is an abundance of talent available tin the legal profession. There is not currently, and judging from recent reports regarding significantly decreasing numbers of law firm applicants, this pool is going to decrease even further.

At Harlan Scott, we believe in the value of a retained search model, especially when backed with our performance guarantee. If by some bizarre and has-yet-to-happen circumstance where we aren’t delivering the quality of candidates, you should get your money back. In general, though, our clients have shared with us that they have received better candidates more quickly when utilizing our retained services program. We know our clients are serious, and we put every last ounce of our efforts to finding the best candidates for your opening. Conversely, contingency recruiters work where their efforts yield the most likelihood of financial success. They end up being in the game of balancing easier-to-fill openings against hard, and have loyalty solely to their pocketbooks. If your position is a challenge in a list of much easier fills, then frankly speaking, you will not be getting very much attention…can you blame them? Wouldn’t you do the same? No one likes to work for free. However, when looking at a partner who can seriously add value to your efforts, our clients have appreciated and thanked-us for our focus and the consistently high-quality results we have achieved for them.

So why, do you ask, are so many more legal recruiters in the contingency search business? I think the answer lies both with some law firm clients and some legal recruiters themselves. Frankly, it’s an easier sell for many recruiters to be in the “pay for performance” game, and a much harder sell for a recruiter to get paid prior to presenting candidates. Some clients simply don’t/won’t/can’t understand or appreciate the value, and with so many agencies on the market, it’s difficult to figure out who is good and who is not, so it’s perceived by clients to be a much lower risk to give searches to contingency recruiters. Some law firms seem to like the idea of engaging several agencies so they get competition for their business. I am always for competition, and I would agree for certain positions this mentality makes sense. Similarly, I also realize that clients like working with contingency recruiters because they could ’get lucky’ and fill the position through other or internal channels, and not have to pay a fee at all. But, since the commitment level in the contingency world is lower from both the client and recruiter, I think ultimately the client gets hurt.

At Harlan Scott we do both retained and contingency search. It so happens that most of our Partner Searches are retained, and most of our Associate Searches are contingency. In serving as a legal recruiter for many years, I have witnessed the benefits and costs of both retained and contingency searches, and have concluded that retained search should be a more frequently utilized tool when filling challenging roles. At the end of the day, the placement fee will be close to the same and you as the client will likely yield a higher rate of success.




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