David Stuckey, the former Commercial Director of the Legalis legal recruiting agency, describes the rules of engagement.
CEELM: You spent many years as a legal recruiter. Tell us a bit about what you did, and where.
D.S.: After many years as a lawyer in the United States I joined Legalis (then part of Hudson Legal) in 2007 – a career shift that brought me from San Francisco to Budapest and began what turned out to be a wonderful decade in this part of the world. In 2010, still with Legalis, I moved briefly to Prague, then on to Latin America, where I assisted with the set-up of the company’s Latin American operations. I lived in Sao Paulo until the fall of 2011, then returned to Budapest, where I stayed until leaving to co-found CEE Legal Matters in November 2013.
As Commercial Director I specialized in partner-level and team moves across CEE, and I took special responsibility for the Turkish and Brazilian markets. I was especially proud of my work in Turkey, where I helped a number of strong lawyers find new and better positions and helped many firms fill critical positions – while, in the process, making many good friends I retain today. I also helped several international firms open offices there. I like to believe I was, for a few short years, a positive factor on that market.
CEELM: Can you tell us which international firms you helped open offices both in Turkey and elsewhere in CEE?
D.S.: Unfortunately, no. Probably not the one you’re thinking of. Or did I?
CEELM: Let’s take a step back. What’s the status of the legal recruiting industry in CEE?
D.S.: Not particularly developed, I’m afraid. Most countries have essentially no full-time legal recruiters on the ground, and there are relatively few competent and effective full-time legal recruiters with real regional expertise. Legalis, the company I worked for, is one of them, I believe, though not perhaps the only one. There are also some of the global chains, such as Laurence Simons, Michael Page, etc., that claim to have regional legal recruiting coverage, but – although they may be competent in one or two specific jurisdictions, I don’t believe they are genuinely competitive across the region.
That being said, there are of course legal recruiters who work in specific CEE markets who are strong, and I would never want to bad-mouth them. I kept my head down during my days as a recruiter and didn’t pay much attention to my competition, but I have no doubt there are strong recruiters in some specific markets.
Finally, there are executive search firms and other agencies that do not focus exclusively on legal recruiting who nonetheless have good reputations at being able to execute specific searches. These agencies do not usually maintain such close connections to the legal markets and are not as likely to have databases of good lawyers looking to move or immediately familiarity with market conditions, but on a one-off basis may be able to help you get the senior partner or team you need.
On the subject of market sophistication, I’m reminded of a couple days I worked out of Hudson Legal’s London office in 2008 or 2009. I went with some colleagues to meetings with senior partners of several well-known law firms in the City, and those meetings were a revelation: After a few minutes of small talk, my colleagues pulled out their notebooks, the partners put on their reading glasses, and they started going down the firm’s list of needs and wants, with no preface, no explanation, and no skepticism. Just: “Here’s what we want. Get it for us.”
It was shocking. In CEE most of my meetings were spent trying to explain the value we could add and reassuring the partners that we weren’t trying to deceive them somehow. Those partners would, almost inevitably, only grudgingly describe the kinds of lawyers they might be interested in speaking to if they were available, and only after receiving multiple assurances that they wouldn’t be charged for the opportunity to talk to them. It was like pulling teeth.
By contrast, in London and New York, I learned, legal recruiters – at least those who had established themselves as credible and professional – were greeted as valuable consultants, able potentially to help firms fill gaps and make strategic additions. Some day, I believe, CEE will reach that same level of sophistication – but we’re not there yet.
Or at least we weren’t when I left the business. Maybe things have changed.
CEELM: Indeed, not everyone likes legal recruiters – perhaps especially, based on what you report, in CEE. Are you proud of your work?
D.S.: You know, I am. I learned quickly that lawyers often view legal recruiters the way non-lawyers view lawyers: As an unfortunate annoyance … until they’re necessary. Good legal recruiters strive to maintain the connections and market knowledge that will be useful when that particular need arises, and I worked hard to be ready for the call. Especially during the financial crisis, that meant a lot of time establishing and nurturing relationships with clients and candidates alike, as far fewer placements were made in that period than in the more booming years before, but that made those placements we were able to assist with especially worth celebrating. I am proud that, even during the darkest days of the crisis, I was able sometimes to help.
Of course, as with everything – as with lawyers themselves – there are ethical and unethical members of the profession, and there are individuals who strive to establish and maintain a good reputation and those who find the quick buck irresistible. Even that latter group has a role to play, however – sometimes law firms need someone highly aggressive and fully committed to getting the relevant target lawyer for them, even dissembling where necessary, without concern about the potential fall-out. I was never that kind of recruiter, for good or for ill, but I have some admiration for those who are.
But to answer your question: I remain in contact with a number of the firms I worked with and many of the lawyers I was able to assist, and yes, I’m pleased to have been able to help make so many lasting connections. I used to joke that, as a litigator, a good day was when my side won and the other side lost, but as a legal recruiter, a good day was when my company made a placement, the law firm found a previously missing piece, and a lawyer had a new and exciting job. Rather than win-lose or even win-win, it was win-win-win. You can’t beat that!
CEELM: Still, sometimes you would have partners at law firms frustrated with you, or even expressly angry. How did you deal with that?
D.S.: It didn’t happen often – I stepped as lightly as I could – but sometimes partners at law firms reacted strongly to learning that I was speaking with their lawyers. Usually, over time, their feelings would mellow – often when they discovered that the lawyers had in fact initiated contact with me or when they discovered a need for my services themselves. But not always. Indeed, there are, even now, one or two managing partners who retain their sense of outrage. I truly regret that – I’m confident not only that I did nothing wrong but that I actively proceeded with an excess of sensitivity and professionalism – but I suppose it’s an unavoidable part of the job.
It’s certainly not a part that gives me any pleasure though. I had colleagues who were much better at shrugging off the accusations and anger than I was. I envy them.
CEELM: Following up on that, how should managing partners deal with legal recruiters and the threat that they will “take” lawyers from them?
D.S.: That’s really the key question, isn’t it?
I think managing partners should do three things: 1) Make sure to distinguish between those legal recruiters who are responsible, professional, and ethical, and those who are not (a distinction that does not turn on whether those recruiters have helped lawyers from their firm move); 2) Stay in close communication with their lawyers to make sure they feel comfortable talking about competing offers they’ve received and their reasons for wanting to move to see if they can be addressed; and 3) Keep some perspective, and remember that lawyers who want to leave, at the end of the day, may not be maximizing their efforts for the firm anyway, and can often be replaced with stronger/better ones.
Let me break those down a little bit.
1. Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
First, there’s a difference between recruiters who make promises or representations about other opportunities – perhaps about the salary being offered, or the path to partnership – that aren’t justified, and those who don’t. There’s a difference between recruiters who honor the spirit of Off Limits agreements and those who don’t (though, as I’ll explain later, I think an over-reliance on Off Limits agreements is a mistake). There’s a difference between recruiters who flood you with resumes of patently unqualified candidates or who waste your time putting together useless interviews and those who don’t.
It is not always easy to separate the more responsible and trustworthy recruiters from their less scrupulous counterparts – just like it is not always easy for in-house counsel to separate external counsel that regularly pads its bills or chooses dangerous short-cuts over the more labor-intensive processes from those who are more responsible and professional. It takes personal meetings, careful monitoring, and occasional trial-and-error to develop that kind of trust. But it’s part of the job, and in both contexts – a law firm looking for a recruiter or a General Counsel looking for external counsel – finding the right consultant will inevitably will help the client prosper and thrive.
2. Keeping Channels Open
Second, if a lawyer is considering moving from your firm to another, worry less about the legal recruiter that’s involved (which is like worrying about the particular taxi service he’ll take to his new position), and think more about why the lawyer is considering the move. If financial considerations are the reason, perhaps a re-evaluation of your own pay scale is necessary, and it will be possible for you to match the offer. Alternatively, perhaps the lawyer about to move isn’t aware of the kinds of work he or she will be given at the new firm, the prospects for partnership, or other considerations that might encourage him or her to reevaluate his/her choice.
Either way – whether it comes to matching the offer or helping the lawyer reconsider – those options are only possible if lines of communication are kept open and if a relationship of mutual respect and professional regard is maintained at every stage – including when a lawyer finally does decide to leave. Managing partners who hide behind closed doors or treat their associates as fungible drones should not be surprised if those same associates respond positively to the opportunity to move to more respectful environments … or at least to opportunities to make more money for the same treatment.
Ultimately, the suggestion that your business model depends on your employees being kept in the dark about better options elsewhere is problematic, to say the least … and, in these days of the Internet and social media, almost laughable. If a lawyer leaves for a better job, wish him/her well. If he or she leaves for a worse job, then blame yourself for not communicating that message effectively (or blame him/her for not thinking clearly). Either way, blaming the legal recruiter – at least a legal recruiter that made no false representations in the process – is pointless. It’s like blaming a newspaper that publishes an advertisement for an open position.
3. One Bad Apple Spoils the Bunch
The last item is a simple reminder: You’re better off without employees who are dissatisfied and want to leave. You may not know the lawyer considering a move is dissatisfied … but forcing that person to stay by denying him access to information about opportunities elsewhere will only allow his dissatisfaction to fester, potentially infecting colleagues and coworkers.
In this context, the analogy of the surgeon is unavoidable. A patient may not know a gangrenous limb is unsavable – indeed, that patient may resist attempts to remove the limb. Ultimately, however, that limb may have to be removed for the patient to survive.
It would be foolish to push the analogy between legal recruiters and life-saving surgeons too far, of course. Still, I would encourage managing partners to view recruiters more as useful service providers than as problems – even when the cutting is, in the short-term, painful.
One quick personal anecdote. When I was a young associate at an international law firm in San Francisco, I received multiple calls each month from legal recruiters. I was polite but clear in my expressions of disinterest. It was only down the road, when I became actively dissatisfied with my job, that I began responding positively to their calls – I ended up getting lunch with the first legal recruiter that called me. The suggestion that I would have stayed with that firm for additional years had no legal recruiter reached out to me is laughable. I was ready to go. The legal recruiter was just the tool I used to make my escape.
Of course, I can’t deny that my answer is, for legal recruiters, self-serving – and even now, much easier to propose from outside than it might be to implement from inside. Still, I know many managing partners across CEE who operate under those principles, and whose firms – open, respectful, and professional – are the better for it.
CEELM: So how can managing partners make the best use of legal recruiters, then?
D.S.: The first way is the easiest – don’t think of them as the enemy. Encourage them to come by for a coffee regularly – if not once a month, at least every two or three months. Pick their brains about what’s happening in the market. You can even ask them what they’re hearing about the satisfaction of your own employees – without, of course, pressing for the source of the information. This accomplishes three separate things: 1) It can provide a useful source of information you are unlikely to get from your own employees; 2) It helps you evaluate the personality and trustworthiness of the recruiter, which may be useful in deciding who to work with down the road; and 3) to some extent it coopts the recruiter, making him/her less likely to target your firm in a search for possible candidates.
Also, use them. At least, find one recruiter you like to work with, and use him/her. Make it very clear that, in return for your business, you expect the recruiter to provide genuinely valuable add-on services, not just by forwarding each and every CV he or she gets to you, but by performing first interviews and making informed decisions about who not to waste your time with. I’m convinced, in the long run, this can save you money. Indeed, since good recruiters are much better informed about who may be looking for a new position or otherwise interested in a move than your own internal HR team can be, outsourcing the relevant components of HR to them can make real financial sense. It’s not for everybody, obviously – but consider. And maybe even schedule a meeting with that reliable professional recruiter to discuss budgets. It can’t hurt!
Ultimately, make yourself open to ways they can assist. Nobody is forcing you to hire anybody. But by cutting off relationships you are, effectively, cutting off your nose to spite your face. Better to establish and maintain good relationships on the off chance they can be useful, out of misplaced pride, deny yourself access.
CEELM: When are recruiters particularly useful?
D.S.: Most recruiters work on a dual basis. One is simply putting law firms that are open to learning about quality lawyers that may be available with lawyers who may fit their needs in the hope that a particular match will come out of it. That’s useful – indeed, as I said, I encourage all firms to develop relationships with recruiters to stay informed of lawyers that may be a good fit for them, on a no-obligation basis. That’s useful, but hit-or-miss.
Where recruiters are particularly useful, I think, however, is on a more targeted search. If a particular need arises in a law firm – or of course in a company looking to find a good in-house lawyer – for a lawyer with a particular skill set, or seniority, or expertise, retaining a recruiter to research the market, identify and communicate with you about those lawyers who most fit the bill, and then contact potential targets to inquire about their interest is extremely useful. A good recruiter should be able to work quickly, professionally, and efficiently in finding the right person for you and communicating your interest in talking to that person in an attractive and appropriate way.
Such retained searches are the lifeblood of most recruiting agencies, and their reputation – and long-term viability – depends on their ability to get the job done to the client’s satisfaction. When I was a recruiter, I remember that we jumped at the opportunity to work on such projects, and that we would drop everything else until we managed to satisfy our client’s expectations.
CEELM: What about from the candidate side? Any tips for partners or associates looking to move?
D.S.: I’d recommend developing a healthy and informed understanding of what recruiters are prospective employers are actually looking for – and then being prepared to demonstrate your ability to provide it. The more senior you are, the more law firms are going to be looking for an established ability to generate business, either through clients who will follow you or a reputation or list of close contacts that will allow you to generate new business quickly. That’s Business 101: Nobody’s going to hire you as a partner, or even as a senior sssociate, just because you’re a good guy. There are always exceptions, of course – but you should be prepared for that question both from recruiters and prospective colleagues/employers.
As a side note, this is why it’s very difficult for senior in-house lawyers thinking about getting back into private practice. I was regularly forced to break it to those in-house lawyers who called saying they were ready for a change that the odds were against them. If they could represent that their current employer would direct its business to whichever firm they joined, there was a chance. But without this representation, few firms are willing to hire someone who’s been out of private practice for many years and has little or no business development expertise and no immediate sources of business. The fact that you may be a hard worker or, again, a nice guy, won’t get you very far.
If you’re a candidate who is attractive, however – who does have something specific to offer law firms – you should remember that you are in charge of the process. If a recruiter tells you she’s calling you for a specific client, ask who that client is – and ask what the status of the search is, how your name came up, and what exactly the client is looking for. It may well be that some of that information is confidential – but push as much as possible. During my days as a recruiter I loved working with the lawyers that took their careers seriously and took the process seriously – I knew they possessed precisely the kind of personality traits that would impress my clients as well. As a lawyer you are supposed to be smart and self-aware and be comfortable employing critical thinking skills – how strange to avoid using those same skills on your own behalf! If you’re comfortable with the answers you get, feel free to take the next step. If you’re not, don’t. It’s that simple.
Finally, if you’re a younger lawyer looking to escape a bad situation, feel free to contact recruiters to see if they’re looking for someone exactly like you. And be honest with them – it’s much better to say “I’m not happy with where I am” and give reasons, than it is to leave open the possibility that you’re looking for work because you’ve been laid off. And if, by chance, you have been laid off, be honest about that too, and be prepared to explain why. Perhaps there was a personality conflict, perhaps the firm was downsizing, etc. Again: Take control of the process, and of the narrative – and, for that matter, of your career – rather than allowing others to assume the worst.
But also, remember that – despite what recruiters may tell you – often there’s very little they can do for you that you can’t do for yourself, except perhaps present you to their clients anonymously (or, conveniently, to suggest that you’re not actively looking, but they happen to know that you might interested in considering a good offer). But when it comes to sending your CV to a new firm, you can do that just as easily as a recruiter can, and if you don’t mind the new firm knowing who you are, it’s probably even more effective. Recruiters add a significant amount of value, but when it comes to sending CVs of people looking for new jobs around a particular marketplace, think carefully about whether it actually makes sense to outsource that process.
We contacted law firms across CEE to ask which legal recruiters worked in their markets, and followed up with every name we were given. The following recruiting companies sent us their contact details.
We provide this list as a convenience to our readers, but we make no representation as to the quality, connectedness, value, or market knowledge of the consultancies listed below.
Alexander Hughes Executive Search Consultants
Contact Person: Ludovic Coquillet
t: +385 1789 98 89
Contact Person: Iris Bajo
Tel: +355 4 2227612
Contact Person: Ellen Hayes
t: +36 20 926 9162
Metis Global Recruitment
Contact Person: Jasmin Shoch
t: +36 20 392 8398
MM Legal Executive Recruitment
Contact Person: Martin Mueller
t: +43 660 80 60 366
Pedersen and Partners
Contact Person: Mona Neagoe
t: +40 722 22 77 50
Target Executive Search
Contact Person: Dr. Klemens Wersoning
t: +421 2 5441 1617
Contact Person: Paul Wood
t: +40 723 365 594
BCSystems Legal Recruitment & Business Advisory
Contact person: Ewelina Skocz
t: +48 504 217 591
FIT Specialist Recruitment
Contact Person: Malgorzata Tylec-Gusakov
t: +48 606 471 071
TKMC Executive Recruitment
Contact Person: Tomasz Kosnik
t: +48 697 550 987
Contact Person: Dmitry Prokofiev
t: +7 (499) 579 84 50
CEELM: You mentioned Off-Limits agreements earlier. Why do you describe that as a mistake?
D.S.: To be clear, an Off-Limits agreement may be useful to keep recruiters from regularly contacting your associates during the course of business simply to inquire about potential interest in moving, establish contact for future reference, get CVs for their database, inform of them of general opportunities, and so on.
But firms that believe that by entering into an Off-Limits agreement they can keep their lawyers from being specifically targeted are deceiving themselves. A competing firm that retains a recruiter to approach a specific lawyer is unlikely to be dissuaded by the news that the recruiter has an Off-Limits agreement. Either that firm will simply retain another recruiter for that specific contact, or it will contact that specific lawyer directly. Either way, that lawyer will be contacted, regardless. That puts great pressure on the recruiter to find ways around the specific wording of the Off-Limits agreement, which is a bad situation all around. Essentially, it hurts the recruiter you’ve established a good relationship with, while not in any way helping you. This, to me, seems like a problem.
I’m not meaning to suggest that Off-Limits shouldn’t be entered into, but … firms should not deceive themselves into believing that by doing so competitors won’t be able to reach their lawyers. Those agreements should instead focus on, as I said, prohibitions on simple contacts made outside of specific searches and course-of-business business generation. They’re useful – but only so far.
CEELM: Do you miss the work?
D.S.: Sometimes. I made good friends both inside Legalis and outside of it, and I miss the rush of making a placement – helping someone find a new job is a remarkable feeling, and knowing that your bank account will benefit from the process is an undeniable add-on. But I certainly don’t miss the conflict and the pressure of having my income be dependent on whether or not a particular firm chose to hire a particular lawyer. Still, it was an exciting and rewarding part of my life. I’m glad I did it.