Cheating on your headhunter

by | March 10, 2009

Dear Sang,

I am a fourth-year associate in the middle of a search, and I am getting concerned about my lack of interviews. I am working with a headhunter who isn't very responsive to my calls. Ever since she got my resume, it seems like I have to do most of the work following up with her. So far I haven't gotten one interview, even though I think she sent me out to a bunch of firms! At this point, I'm not even sure who has my resume now, and who has rejected me.

All of my friends are telling me that I should work with lots of different recruiters to get the best results--that I might not be getting access to all the firms that are looking. I feel sort of disloyal, because my headhunter is pretty nice. Is this normal? Should I be shopping around? Would it be "cheating" to find another recruiter? I really have to get out of my firm, and I'm starting to panic. Doesn't my headhunter work for me?

Signed,

Annoyed at My Headhunter

Dear Annoyed:

You pose an excellent but unfortunate question. As a veteran of the legal search profession, it is always distressing to hear of a lawyer having a disappointing experience with a recruiter. Let's try to get to the bottom of your situation and figure out how to move forward.

First, you don't mention how you came to work with this recruiter. Was this relationship the result of one of the dozens of cold calls you receive every week as a mid-level associate? Or was this recruiter recommended to you by a colleague or law school classmate? Did you meet with the recruiter before you gave her your resume? Did you meet with several recruiters before you decided to work with her?

Selecting a recruiter is a crucial step in the lateral search process, because this professional will act as your ambassador to prospective employers. It is important that you find someone who is knowledgeable about the market, can present you effectively to her clients and will offer you meaningful and insightful counseling throughout the process. Most importantly, your relationship with your recruiter must be defined by open communication and complete trust.

As the job search process unfolds, your recruiter should help you each step of the way. First, she should help you to evaluate your short-term and long-term goals and develop a realistic and effective strategy, enlisting her knowledge of the market to identify a slate of appropriate prospective employers. Your recruiter should then send you into the market in the most effective way, with a professional and flawless resume and deal sheet, accompanied by a powerful cover letter on your behalf. A sloppy resume is a non-starter and a typographical error on your resume is the kiss of death. Your recruiter should be an expert in resume and deal sheet revisions, so be sure your paper presentation isn't counting you out--like the job search equivalent of bad breath on a first date. Next, your recruiter should reach out to prospective employers to facilitate the interview process; her relationships with her clients can ensure that your candidacy is afforded careful consideration. An effective recruiter will prepare you for your interviews, conduct follow-up on both positive and negative responses, guide you in evaluating job offers and help you to negotiate the terms of your offer.I know, I'm trying to coach you to make it all around the bases, and you haven't gotten out of the batter's box. At this stage, however, it's important to evaluate your experience with this recruiter. Were the expectations for the relationship clearly defined on both sides? It's never too late to open those lines of dialogue. Schedule a meeting, and carefully review all of the firms to which your professional materials have been submitted (ask for a list of you don't have one); ascertain which firms have responded to your materials and solicit any feedback your recruiter might have about your candidacy. It may be that she has been working very hard on your behalf, but hasn't had any positive responses to your application and doesn't like to convey bad news (understandable, but unprofessional).

Reputable recruiters carefully follow the ethical guidelines set forth by NALSC, the National Associate of Legal Search Consultants. You might want to check out the profession's guidelines at www.nalsc.org. Recruiters who are NALSC members are bound to be honest and forthright to both clients (firms and corporations) and candidates (attorneys). For starters, this means faithfully communicating the results of their efforts.

You need to know how your search is progressing, because you may need to adjust your strategy. Did your recruiter discuss the likely outcome and "yield" of your search? It is very different from what you might have experienced in the summer associate job market in law school. If you are trying to make a move from a large law firm to a boutique firm, you may not have been aware of that these opportunities are quite coveted. Current market forces can also impact your results. The market in your specialty area may be soft, or you may be chasing a particularly "hot" area (such as entertainment and media), where demand always outstrips supply.

Your specific candidacy might be confronting certain challenges in the lateral market. If you chose to submit your materials to a group of firms with strict academic guidelines and you graduated from a lesser-known law school without academic honors, you might need to widen your net. If your firm experience-to-date has lagged behind that of other associates at your level, your candidacy may be less appealing to prospective employers. If you are stepping even further outside the realm of a straightforward job search (e.g., attempting to change the focus of your practice or trying to begin anew in a different practice area altogether), the process becomes more complicated.

These are all things that your recruiter should have explained along the way. So is it time to "start seeing other people?" What I've explained about the importance of the recruiter-candidate relationship may have already convinced you that your recruiter is falling short. At this juncture, it is crucial that you have the complete status report of employers to whom your recruiter has submitted you. If your recruiter has not been responsive to your request for a meeting, contact the head of her recruiting company. For purposes of each of these firms, that recruiter "owns" your application for six months. That means that if you accept an offer with that firm, even if it is through the efforts of another recruiter, a friend at the firm or anyone else, your original recruiter is entitled to the fee associated with that placement. If you have lost faith in this recruiter, you may well choose to seek out the assistance of another recruiter going forward. As for the firms your contentious recruiter has already contacted on your behalf, it is probably best to try to make the best of this situation as you probably don't want to have these firms learn that you're embroiled in a dispute with the person you chose to represent you. Incidentally, you should know that "firing" your headhunter is something you must do in writing, ie., be explicit in stating that the recruiter is prohibited from submitting your resume to any more prospective employers, and be sure to keep a copy of the letter or email.One the other hand, if you can work out a more effective means of communication with your recruiter, it will not benefit you to work with multiple recruiters at the same time. If you have a capable, knowledgeable, responsive, professional recruiter, you should not need another. While multiple law firms frequently compete for business, a company would not enlist all of them on the same case or deal. In the instance of multiple recruiters potentially submitting your application to the same firm, the potential for confusion and difficulty far outweighs any benefit. Most distressing, any confusion or dispute as to recruiting representation takes the focus away from the quality of your candidacy. Remember? You're seeking out a new employment situation that will advance your professional development. Why would you want the focus on anything but who you are and what you want and how you're such a superstar?

Often attorneys get the impression that recruiters have exclusive relationships with certain firms. Upon hearing an intriguing cold call "pitch," they are left thinking that only that particular headhunter knows about the opening. At the risk of tearing away some of the mystery from my own profession, it is almost never the case. In the law firm market, most associate job opportunities are listed on firm web pages and therefore made readily available to all search firms. Occasionally, a boutique firm may choose to ask only one search firm to fill an associate opening, but this is the exception, not the rule. It is not the job opening itself that a good recruiter should provide, it is the actual access to and information about the firm, i.e., the interview and the superior intelligence into the firm's culture and professionals.

The loyalty you express toward your recruiter is laudable. Loyalty is the lynchpin of an effective recruiting relationship. If your recruiter is working tirelessly on your behalf, providing you with sound market intelligence, helping you to create a powerful and pristine application, and communicating honestly and effectively with you throughout the process, she has earned your loyalty. At this point, working with a second or third recruiter is not only unnecessary, it is ill-advised. By showing your recruiter that you are not confident in her representation, she may be less likely to give as much time and attention to your candidacy.

One last bit of insight into the search business. You may have noticed my use of the term "client" and "candidate." While your recruiter does "work for you" in the sense that you are being counseled and presented to the market by this individual, the clients of every search firm are actually the employers. Law firms and corporations look to their recruiters to present top quality candidates and to ensure that they have the "whole story" on each candidate. The professional reputation of a recruiting company depends upon the trust employers have in their recruiters. This is ultimately best for you, too; a recruiter who has a proven track record with law firms has access to decision makers, information and influence--just the sort of person you'll want on your side as your search continues.

Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch,

Sang

Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.

SANG J. LEE, ESQ

Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.

Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.


ABOUT SJL ATTORNEY SEARCH, LLC

Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

We understand the immense value of relationships and so, we have assembled a team of proven relationship builders in the firm. In addition to a research staff that supports our firm's goal to cull and store the best market information, SJL Attorney Search is proud that our consultants include former practicing attorneys with tremendous academic credentials, a former senior law firm administrator, a former law school professor and a former senior marketing executive. Please visit www.sjlsearch.com to learn more about our consultants and our firm.

Filed Under: Job Search


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