Ask any recruiter what the most frustrating part of his or her job is, and you’ll likely receive a response along the lines of: “Keeping candidates from screwing themselves.” (Many recruiters employ even less polite terminology). But what does this mean? In many cases, it means that candidates—whether at the partner level or associates—make the mistake of thinking that they know more about legal recruiting than do legal recruiters, and therefore ignore recruiters’ advice. My advice as a recruiter: take my advice, and avoid these all-too-common pitfalls:
Usually, recruiting faux pas result from candidates’ disregarding sound recruiter advice: such as the fundamental admonition to Speak No Evil about current (and soon-to-be-former) colleagues. Nothing is a greater turn-off to representatives of a prospective firm than a lawyer who speaks ill of his or her current firm. In the first place, saying negative things about one’s current firm simply shows bad manners: even when there is nothing nice to say about one’s actual situation, the polite approach is to say nothing it all. Second, badmouthing anyone—especially one’s own colleagues—is a behavior that probably says more about the candidate than about anyone he or she chooses to discuss. Finally, a candidate who disparages any firm naturally raises the possibility, in the minds of his or her interviewers, that their firm could eventually suffer the same treatment from the candidate. Accordingly, a well-prepared candidate knows how to answer the question, “Why are you looking to make a move?” with a reply that shines a positive light on his or her own candidacy, without shining a negative light on anyone else.
Other forms of indiscretion are equally distasteful to prospective firms. For example, publicly discussing that one is interviewing with other firms could signal a disregard for confidentiality generally. Even confiding in a trusted colleague is not advisable, with one exception: that the colleague, either singly or part of a group, is also a prospective candidate who would likely move at the same time.
Other forms of indiscretion relate to telephone and email—and often to the context as well as the content of the communications. For example, an attorney in the process of exploring possibilities with other firms can raise suspicions among current colleagues (including secretaries/assistants) by spending too much time on unaccounted-for telephone calls with the office door closed. And of course, email communications via firm computers or servers should never be considered confidential; even non-firm email accounts (e.g, Yahoo!, Hotmail, or Gmail), should only be accessed if on a personal, non-firm, computer or mobile device. Unsurprisingly, I encourage candidates to minimize communications with me during business hours, and typically spend substantial time working with them after-hours and on weekends.
Playing Coy or “Hard to Get”
Not all recruiting missteps result from being indiscreet. On the contrary, another prominent lateral lawyer pitfall is to appear a bit too discreet, to the point of appearing disinterested.
Lateral lawyers who play coy or hard-to-get, either with prospective firm representatives, or with their own recruiters, do themselves a severe disservice that could cost them offers. Firms that sense that a candidate is unenthusiastic about the prospect of moving, simply turn their attention elsewhere. (Attractive firms have no shortage of candidates applying for consideration—indeed, an initial challenge most such firms face is basic triage, in which enthusiasm is an important criterion for advancement through the lateral lawyer process). This is not surprising: interviewing and considering a lateral candidates is time- and resource intensive, and firms try to avoid sinking time or attention into candidates whom they perceive as unlikely to accept an offer. Accordingly, lateral lawyer candidates are well-advised to be forthcoming with prospective firms.
A specific type of coyness that deserves attention is what I call the I-Won’t-Tell-You-I-Like-You-Until-You-Tell-Me-You-Like-Me-First Gambit. In this scenario, an attorney refuses to give permission to refer his or her name to a prospective firm, until the recruiter first ascertains that the firm would be interested in a candidate with his or her characteristics—i.e., tenure, practice type, size of book of business, annual billings, etc. Nothing is to be gained from such reticence, as the answer is virtually always the same: “Sure, we’re interested . . . if it’s the right person.” As the lateral recruiting process unfolds, this sort of reticence often looks like needless posturing—not a good impression one would wish to leave with prospective colleagues.
Delay is another candidacy-killer. And the two periods of the lateral lawyer process most subject to delay are: (1) completing due diligence forms, or Lateral Partner Questionnaires (“LPQs”); and (2) scheduling interviews. Firms are quite sensitive to the amount of time it takes a lateral candidate to complete the LPQ because without the basic information it furnishes about clients and historical billings and collections there is really no rational way to decide whether to extend an offer. Nevertheless, firms understand that such information may be difficult to acquire or reconstruct, and burdensome to prepare. Accordingly, I recommend that ALL lawyers request, and keep copies of, their annual time/billing records, to facilitate a lateral move if and when required. Any number or reasons may be cited, particularly the desire to track personal business development and billings/collections goals. Likewise, interviews should be scheduled and conducted as soon as possible after a lateral lawyer candidate is referred to a prospective firm.
Foregoing Creation of a Market for Your Practice and Services
Another important mistake candidates make is to approach firms serially, rather than simultaneously, and thereby forego the benefits of creating a competitive “market” among firms. I’m never quite sure why candidates think this benefits them. After all, if you do not approach Firm B until well after approaching Firm A, by the time Firm B makes an offer, Firm A’s offer may have grown stale. And, in any case, Firm A would perceive, correctly, that its offer was being “shopped” and Firm B would likewise perceive that it was considered a second choice. (Firm C is right out). In my experience, candidates hem and haw about why they wish to proceed in this fashion, and I’ve reached the conclusion that the true reason is their own ambivalence about making a lateral move at all. Thus, I’m hesitant to work with candidates who decline to approach several attractive target firms at once: they are less likely to receive offers; they are less likely to accept offers; and the offers they receive are almost axiomatically less attractive than if they had created a market among several competing firms at once.
Conclusion: Saving Candidates from Themselves
Perhaps out of hubris, perhaps merely from inexperience, lateral candidates often ignore their recruiters’ advice in dealing with prospective firms, and thereby make rookie mistakes that can cost them offers. Thus, much of being a legal recruiter consists of saving candidates from making those rookie mistakes.