In Carrie's Court: So Why Did You Become a Headhunter?

by | March 10, 2009

"So why did you become a headhunter?" A lot of attorneys have asked me this question since I left my law firm over a year ago, some of whom I used to work with. Most ask it with a mixture of incredulity and suspicion, as if I've quit working altogether and bought a million lottery tickets, hoping to cash in big with one or two. I used to feel defensive when my former colleagues asked me this, even a bit embarrassed. But now, having helped a fair number of attorneys find their way to greener legal pastures, I am confident in the value a good headhunter can add and therefore comfortable with the question. So here's my answer.

The steps involved

Being a headhunter may not be rocket science but there are a lot of moving parts to master. The process of bringing together the right client (in my case law firms and/or companies) and the right attorney (the "candidate") is intricate; it begins with your first contact with the candidate and continues with gathering her story (who she is, why she became a lawyer, what she likes and dislikes about her job, what her future goals are, and so on), building trust with the candidate, formulating a search strategy, promoting her to your clients, fixing her resume and deal sheet/case list, preparing her for interviews, setting up interviews, and finally shepherding her through the offer and acceptance phase.

These steps occur while you are learning as much as you can about your clients and their needs, and it requires a lot more than simply pushing a button on a fax machine. It requires patience, empathy, good judgment, and perhaps above all -- selflessness. This may seem counterintuitive to attorneys, since their perception of headhunters is often that they are aggressive and opportunistic, preying on job-seekers' weaknesses in order to gain a quick buck. But a headhunter who focuses on his bottom line at the expense of the needs of his candidates and clients won't last long, especially in this economy.~

To be beneficial to your candidates and clients, you have got to be able to empty your head of your preconceptions and priorities and fully absorb theirs. Getting into the brains of your candidates - understanding and appreciating what makes them tick -- is critical to earning their trust as well as enabling you to represent them intelligently. Similarly, understanding the "sell" of your clients - what makes them unique and particularly appropriate for certain candidates -- is the only way to maintain your clients' respect and preserve your relationship with them long term.

Acknowledging the skeptics

Lawyers are often skeptical of the role that a headhunter can or should play in their careers. I remember feeling suspicious of headhunters when I started out at a top-five New York firm straight out of Harvard Law School in 1997. Part of my distrust of headhunters around that time was justified; the legal market was hot, which kept a lot of unscrupulous headhunters afloat. But when I analyze myself honestly I realize that my distrust was also motivated by an arrogant presumption (or hope?) that I didn't need them, that I was smart enough to fend for myself and that to admit to a complete stranger that I may have failed to think through all of the implications and potential pitfalls of my career choices would somehow feel humiliating. Who were they to advise me anyway?

Now that I find myself on the other end of that dialogue, I've had to hone a new skill set. While it was once my job to advocate from one, inflexible position, acknowledging alternative arguments only in order to better dismantle them, now I am learning to tease out all of the awkward contractions, the buried bogeymen, and remind highly-credentialed, accomplished people that it is ok not to have all of the answers. Removing your ego from the process to focus on theirs, with the ultimate aim of improving their professional development prospects, is what my new job is all about. And it's a real one.

Carrie A. Mandel is a Managing Director in the New York office of Major, Hagen & Africa. She earned her J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School and her B.A. summa cum laude in comparative literature from Princeton University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Carrie practiced as a litigation associate, focusing on intellectual property, at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.

Filed Under: Job Search


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