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March 10, 2009


Dear SJL,


I am a third year transactionalassociate at a large firm in New York. Overall, things have been going prettywell for me here--I've received consistently positive feedback in my reviews, Icontinue to have access to high quality deals and genuinely like most of thepartners and associates with whom I work. I have, however, been feeling a bitless sanguine of late about a couple of things, including the long hours andhow specialized my practice has become. I'm not sure whether my best move is tostay the course here for a few more years, consider another firm or maybe evenan in-house opportunity. I receive calls from headhunters on a daily basis. I'dlove to ask these questions of someone who can offer some honest feedback andinsight as to what else is out there, but I must admit that I am skepticalabout whether I can trust any of them. I worry that if I open the door to aheadhunter, I'll find myself being bullied into applying for or taking a jobthat I don't want. Worse still, I'm concerned that my resume could end up allover town. Yet, I'm not sure how else to access the kind of information I seek;I certainly don't have a lot of extra time on my hands to spend researching allof this stuff. So, I guess my question is, how can I find a headhunter I cantrust?




Uncertain on the Upper West Side


Dear Uncertain,


First, congratulations on buildingwhat sounds like a very solid start to your career. Regardless of whether youdecide to stay at your firm or move on, your focus on performing to highstandards, valuing your access to quality work and building good relationshipswith colleagues will serve you well.


I am so glad that you've written inwith this question--and not just because I can weave some shamelessself-promotion into my response. Having sat on your side of the phone, I knowhow difficult it can be to differentiate one recruiter from another. Whetherthe person comes across friendly, aggressive or simply non-descript, thatinitial chemistry might give you a bit of data, but certainly not enough toreassure you as to whether they are trustworthy. Moreover--what do headhuntersactually do? Can they offer the type of advice you seek or are they justshuttling your resume from your desktop to that of a potential new employer?


When I started exploring a move intothis industry after practicing at a large firm here in New York for a number ofyears, I will confess that I, too, was skeptical. That skepticism was not basedon any direct experiences I had with headhunters, but rather on the myriadstories I'd heard from friends, colleagues and yes, the occasional legal blog.The more recruiters I met with during my job search, the more educated I becameabout the differing philosophies and personalities within the legal recruitingcommunity. I was definitely impressed (far more impressed than I would haveimagined) by many people with whom I met and my skepticism evolved into realenthusiasm and respect. I'd be happy to share with you some of the things thatI've learned over the course of my journey into the world of legal recruitingthat might help you to find a recruiter who can truly partner with you in ameaningful, honest and productive way.


Ethics for Headhunters?


Absolutely! There are plenty ofethical folks who chose to become legal recruiters, and who conduct theirbusiness accordingly (and of course, as in any profession, the reverse isunfortunately true). The good news is that there are groups in the recruitingindustry, such as The National Association of Legal Search Consultants("NALSC"), who have formalized business ethics to which organizationsand/or individuals can choose to be bound. Founded in 1984 by a distinguishedgroup of legal experts across the country, NALSC's goal is to elevate professionalismin the legal search industry by establishing and enforcing a standard ofethical business conduct. (For more information about NALSC, including a listof member organizations, please go to Unfortunately, not allorganizations choose to sign on. Now, this doesn't mean that non-memberorganizations and individuals are de facto unethical, but it's arguably lessclear where they stand. Learning that there were definitive "rules ofethical play" certainly set me at ease in my own job search, and providesanother objective measure by which to learn about a recruiter.


Timing Isn't Everything


Many associates disregard cold callsuntil the actual moment when they seek to make a move. This can (and as I'veseen, unfortunately sometimes does) lead to trouble. I can't overemphasize thevalue in approaching this career-crossroads thoughtfully. Why should thedecision of who you're trusting to provide constructive professional advice,and potentially represent you in the market, be unimportant after the thoughtyou put into deciding which college and law school to attend, which law firm tojoin, and all the hard work you did in school and at your office once youarrived? It might require a more significant investment of time up front, butyou can avoid a starring role in one of those nightmare headhunter stories. Thedesire to move on ASAP sometimes results in associates foregoing some basicdiligence. I suspect this is owed, in part, to the idea that all headhuntersare the same. All headhunters are not the same. Actually, this one bearsrepeating--all headhunters are not the same. Recruiters subscribe to differentethical standards, have different relationships with clients (read: law firmsand in-house counsel employers) and approach the recruiting process quitedifferently.


It's worthwhile, if at all possible,to start building relationships with recruiters before the moment you have onefoot firmly out the door. When you receive a cold call, rather than instantlycutting the recruiter off (yes, I was guilty of this, too!), when time allows,consider taking a few minutes to get a sense of who's on the other end of thephone. With the busy lives that associates lead, there's real value to begleaned from the opportunity to get familiar with the market of professionals(and in eliminating the "not-so-professionals"), who might well be anintegral part of your transition to the next great opportunity--even if thattransition is not imminent. Do they call with the perfect opportunity eventhough you've never spoken with them before? If you askprofessional-development questions such as yours about the advisability ofstaying at your firm or moving on, do you find the answer to be thoughtful orflip? What kind of relationships do they have in the industry? Do they seeminterested in your goals and interests or are they trying to tell you what yourgoals and interests should be? Is the recruiter a former practicing attorney?Do they want to meet with you in person (more on this below) or are they askingfor you to forward your resume on without putting a face to name? Do they havea website? What's the organization or individual's message; does it resonatewith you? While none of these answers is dispositive, they all provide usefulinformation which will help inform your gut sense of whether that anonymousvoice on the other end of the phone might be worthy of your trust, and yourtime. Which is the perfect segue to...


But I Don't Have Time for a Meeting!


I know, I know--you don't keepdinner plans with friends and family, you neglect doctor's appointments andhave taken to online shopping rather than indulging in-person because it's moreefficient--how are you supposed to make time to meet with a headhunter? Let'stake a moment to consider what you're doing when you make a decision to workwith a recruiter.


Once again, this is a determinationas to who can effectively represent you in the market; that's a pretty bigdeal. Being that you're a darn good judge of character, it seems worth theextra hour or two of your time to get a clear sense of who that voice on theother end of the phone belongs to. If you find a recruiter impressive, there'sa pretty good chance that the recruiter's clients find them to be similarly so.But if you don't, well...perhaps it makes sense to continue the search.


When you meet with the recruiter,what types of questions do they ask? Do you feel comfortable asking questionsabout the process and, if it's relevant, the advisability of staying at yourcurrent firm? Is there transparency in their approach? Is it clear that youwill remain in control of your search process at every stage or are you handingyour resume over and hoping for the best? Will your explicit authorization berequired before your resume is submitted to potential employers? What if you gothrough the process and decide that you don't want to take an offer that's beenextended to you; is that ok?


It is worthwhile to keep in mindthat the employer, not the candidate, is the recruiter's client. Having saidthat, better recruiters (and frankly, the only ones I take seriously) willrespect that it is not just a commission that hangs in the balance, but yourcareer. That is a big deal--and while it obviously matters to you, I believethat it should matter in an obvious way to the recruiter with whom you chooseto partner. Other than the clear benefit of being able to look at oneself inthe mirror each day, it seems that bringing about a thoughtful match between aclient and candidate is just good business. No one--client or candidate--iswell-served by a new hire arriving and being unhappy. That's not to say thatyou don't need to do your own diligence when assessing career opportunities; itdoes however mean that a recruiter should be honest with you and shouldencourage you to ask thoughtful questions (at the appropriate time) to gleanthe information you need to make your decision.


C'mon, All I'm Looking for is SomeCareer Advice


Well, Uncertain, you've invested thetime in getting to know some of headhunters who've reached out to you, checkedwhether they're associated with a clearly delineated code of ethical businessconduct, and perhaps even met with one or two to get a sense of what they'reabout. I suspect that part of what you've learned along the way, is that notall recruiters are interested in having more textured professional-developmentconversations, and if they are, their perspective might not necessarily speakto you. That's okay because I can assure you that there are a number of highlyethical professionals out there who would be happy to. Shamelesslyself-promoting as it might be, some of mine and my colleagues' bestprofessional relationships are with people we've never placed; it's something ofwhich we're all very proud.


A good headhunter provides aninvaluable service--helping to navigate the market and provide access toopportunities, preparing you for interviews, and helping you to weigh offers,among other things. Many law firm associates have never taken on a job searchbeyond the confines of an on-campus recruiting process; lawyers who haveconducted their own searches can likely more easily appreciate the value ofhaving someone with experience guide them through the application process,taking care of the necessary follow-up and providing a textured insiderperspective. A thoughtful job search time demands a significant timecommitment, and to the extent you accept a new job, it should be one aboutwhich you feel excited. It's a headhunter's job to understand the market and tonot only know what opportunities might be available, but to help you ascertainwhich might be appropriate for you (in your case, where you might find a broad,high-quality corporate practice with a lower billable hours expectation, or anappropriate in-house job).


While you are rightly concernedabout recruiters who might betray or sully your professional reputation, anyheadhunter worth his or her salt will similarly value their reputation as anhonest and ethical professional. I don't know about you, but that's the kind ofheadhunter with whom I'd like to partner.


Please do keep me posted of yourprogress. Good luck!








Stephanie G. Wechsler, ESQ.


Joined SJL as a Managing Director in 2007, after more than four years of general corporate practice with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP. Stephanie currently focuses on assisting associate-level attorneys with placement at law firms in the New York metropolitan area. Stephanie graduated with distinction from Cornell University with her B.S. in Human Development. She earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was an Articles Editor of the Journal of Labor and Employment Law. As a practicing attorney, Stephanie gained experience advising clients on a wide array of matters including mergers and acquisitions, securities compliance and general corporate matters. Prior to joining SJL, Stephanie worked at Gilda's Club Worldwide, a non-profit cancer support organization. Stephanie's abilities as a recruiter derive from her commitment to helping candidates realize their professional potential, her understanding of associate life and her appreciation that a successful career is not always linear.




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.


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