Career Path Q&A: Legal Recruiting
The law sector has taken its share of blows in the years following 2008's economic meltdown. Professionals at every level felt the effects, be it in staff reductions, diminished recruiting or partnership restructuring. Yet, however staggered, the industry remains on its feet due in part to its multifaceted range of applications, and the expansion of recruitment and guidance services to meet the new challenges of the market. One professional quite familiar with this is Jennifer Bird, who has seen both sides of the industry as a practicing attorney and a recruiting consultant.
Ms. Bird exemplifies the variety of opportunities to be found in the legal profession. A graduate of Yale Law School, Bird gained a wealth of experience even before launching her career: Her resume includes experience as a legislative assistant to a U.S. Senator, an internship with the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, and even serving as a Law Clerk to the Australian Federal Court. Although she began her career as a tax and trusts and estates attorney with White & Case in New York, she eventually left the practice and made the transition into legal recruitment. Now, as the vice president of Empire Search Partners, she places attorneys at all levels with a range of firms and corporate counsel seats, and conducts workshops to instruct candidates on managing their careers. In an interview with Vault, Ms. Bird discussed the many roads that brought her to her present position, the challenges facing law professionals in the current economy, and her pride as the older sister of a professional basketball player.
VAULT: Prior to entering the legal search field, you were a tax and trust and estates attorney at White & Case. What prompted your shift from practicing law to recruiting?
Jennifer Bird: I really enjoyed the practice and the people I worked with at White & Case, but over time I found myself drawn to the relationship-building aspect of the business. When I left the firm, I took some time off to explore other options and was attracted to recruiting because it allowed me to utilize my knowledge of the law and law firms while focusing on relationship-building and career advising which I love. At the same time, I get to continue to work with lawyers, which is a lot of fun for me and also very rewarding.
V: When you first entered a legal career with the firm, what was your perception of the recruitment process? How do you feel that outlook changed, if at all, when you transitioned to the legal search field?
JB: As an attorney, I was fortunate to get to know a recruiter (another former practicing tax attorney), Scott Yaccarino, who advised me during my own career exploration and with whom I now work at Empire Search Partners. I always enjoyed speaking with Scott and he was incredibly helpful in explaining the market so I had a very positive experience with recruiters on the whole. (Funny how the world works as I had no idea then that I would one day be working as a recruiter with Scott at a search firm he went on to co-found with Jonathan Ross and Andrew Regan.) Back when I was practicing though, I did not realize how much time recruiters spend both getting to know candidates, law firms and corporate clients, and how much thought goes into matching candidates with clients.
Now that I am in the legal search field, I have a much better appreciation for the knowledge of both the market and the interviewing process that recruiters can bring to the table. What I like too and think is unique about the practice at Empire is that we take a long-term career advising and relationship-building approach, taking the time to get to know our candidates as individuals and helping them to stay well-informed about the market, evaluate the long-term impact of their choices, and figure out what path makes the most sense at any given time throughout the course of their careers.
V: In addition to direct consultation, you lead workshops for legal professionals. As the industry undergoes a period of instability, what are some of the frequent concerns you address for attendees?
JB: The workshops I have led with good friend and career coach, Suzanne Grossman, have primarily been for attorneys who are thinking about the next steps in their careers, whether it be moving to another firm, the government, the nonprofit sector, going in-house or leaving the law altogether to pursue another path. A common concern for attendees is “how do I figure out what I want to do next?” In the workshops we encourage attorneys to explore internally and externally, examining who they are and what they want out of life and identifying possible career paths by networking and talking to professionals in different industries. We also spend time advising attorneys on how to position themselves to get the careers they want once they figure out where they want to go. The current economic climate has made transitioning more difficult, but at the same time has provided a great opportunity for attorneys to take the time to explore and figure out what they really want.
V: Your background includes experience in legislation, social aid and even the Australian judicial system. Did you approach each of these ventures with the expectation of launching a career, or with intent to broaden your skill set for an eventual career elsewhere?
JB: I’m not sure if I was entirely aware of the benefit that the array of experiences would eventually have on my career. I adopted a sort of trial and error method in terms of trying on different kinds of jobs, with law as a common thread among them along with a desire to help others and have an impact. With each position, I was able to explore a different aspect of the law and to both learn more about the field and whether it might be a good fit for me long-term. What I’ve found through all of these experiences is that finding a good career fit is definitely a long-term process. I often advise candidates that although a position may not be perfect, every experience, every interview, provides an opportunity to learn more about what you like and don’t like, eventually helping you get to where you want to go.
V: The law sector is seeing the emergence of "new model" firms, such as Axiom Legal and FSB Fisher Broiles, where traditional structure is eschewed. How do you perceive the impact of these firms? Do recruiters take them into account when advising and placing professionals?
JB: In my experience, the “new model” firms pose an interesting way to handle the challenges presented by today’s legal market, as they have the potential to provide both attorneys and clients with more flexible working arrangements. I have not yet seen a major impact on the day-to-day business of more traditional law firms, but that may change over time.
V: Achievement appears to run in the family—your sister Sue Bird is a star basketball player with the WNBA, and an Olympic gold medalist. With all the legal complexities that go along with a professional sports career, did you provide her with legal advice when she went pro?
JB: Hard for both of us to believe that it was so long ago, but Sue turned pro in 2002 while I was still in law school. Luckily she hasn’t needed any legal advice along the way, but my door is always open! Seriously though, even though she is my younger sister, Sue has been an incredible role model and an inspiration to me. She’s a great example of someone who identified her passion, pursued it wholeheartedly, and has achieved excellence in her field. I also really admire her determination and focus, not to mention her skills on the court.
V: What would you advise for those interested in a career in legal recruiting? Is it necessary to have a firm or two on your resume, or might candidates be able to jump in straight from law school?
JB: Although firms may seem similar from the outside, they can be quite different in terms of substantive practice and culture. Experience working at a firm can give a recruiter invaluable insight into what being an associate at a firm truly feels like and also help a recruiter to better understand and appreciate the differences between practice areas and firms, which is incredibly useful in advising candidates. I think having practiced at a law firm has significant advantages, but there are exceptions to the rule and I know a few non-lawyer recruiters who have been very successful.
I think recruiting takes a combination of knowledge of the market, intellectual agility, interpersonal skills, an ability to ride the highs and lows that come with the business, tenacity and patience, lots of patience. To anyone who is interested in recruiting, I would advise talking to a number of recruiters who are currently in the field and figuring out whether it has the potential to be a good fit. Overall, I love the profession and think it’s a great field to be in.
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