I recall, from the days when I was on the “other side of the fence,” i.e., when I was a practicing lawyer, that it was a bit mysterious as to how recruiters operated. This was especially the case as to in-house openings, as it seemed a lot murkier than law firm opportunities, which appeared to be more skill-set focused (for associates) and portables driven (for partners).
As I have been conducting searches for 13 years now, the process has been demystified for me, but it likely may remain a puzzle for most readers. I’ll temporarily lift the veil, at least as to how in-house searches are operated. In so doing, I do not write this on behalf of all legal recruiters who conduct in-house searches; I have no such position of authority and suspect some recruiters may have differing views. Nevertheless, after having worked in a large, national legal recruiting firm and having spoken to many other recruiters over the years, I am confident that the points raised here will ring true for most.
• Your resume is scrutinized much more closely than you would expect.
Everyone knows that resumes will be carefully reviewed for content, as it is an essential means of determining whether skills are in alignment for the opportunity. Additionally, no one would be surprised that formatting is important, as it may be reflective of how someone presents himself or herself. And, of course, things like spelling are carefully checked, as errors of that type are clear red flags.
The review that a seasoned legal recruiter conducts, though, goes much deeper. A key reason for this is that most in-house opportunities result in a slew of resume submissions. The interest in these positions has risen even higher than normal post-recession, particularly as pressure has mounted on law firms and lawyers who practice in those environments. Many private-practice attorneys see a move in-house as a panacea.
Consequently, since the number of interested candidates is likely to be higher, the ability to even initially sift through the deluge of applicants becomes even more important, especially since it is incumbent to find those who truly match up with a client’s key requirements.
The differences among candidates, at least at an initial resume screening level, thus become important due to how competitive the field is. So, even if spelling in the resume is perfect, how about syntax? I recently reviewed the resume of a lawyer with some impressive credentials — top-20 schools (undergrad and law school) and honors such as Phi Beta Kappa/summa cum laude in college and Order of the Coif and law review. Despite those plaudits, I caught three syntax and grammar errors, which raised the questions of whether this is an area of deficit or, perhaps, whether there is an issue with attention to detail, such as closely reviewing final work product.
Word choices can also tell a recruiter a lot about a candidate before there has even been an initial discussion or meeting. For example, one does have to wonder about the level of humility a lawyer has when it is touted that he or she works for a “prestigious law firm.” If it truly is a prestigious firm, a recruiter already knows that and there is thus no need to tout it.
Similarly, some lawyers have a penchant for overstating the impact they had in a matter. To wit, although possible, it is highly unlikely that a second-year associate played a crucial role in saving a company hundreds of millions of dollars in a settlement or verdict — the odds are good, in a case of that magnitude, that at least a few partners and senior associates led the way. As such, pick and choose your words carefully in the resume.
• You are checked out more thoroughly than you may have imagined.
Recruiters are careful to protect a candidate’s confidentiality and should not contact references without permission. Similarly, background and credit checks, and similar investigative efforts, are left to the experts and are only conducted after a candidate has specifically authorized such actions. Nevertheless, there are quite a few other avenues that are fair game and normally will be checked.
For example, consider the example of a search that ideally sought junior-level candidates who had litigation and corporate experience. This is a unique requirement, especially since the client hoped to find a lawyer who worked in a major law firm. A candidate surfaced who seemingly had significant experience in both areas and the resume was slanted in just that direction. As this seemed too good to be true, a check of the law firm’s website revealed that the candidate, in fact, was only in the litigation department. The so-called corporate experience was a byproduct of aspects of commercial litigation matters; needless to say, the candidate was out after this was discovered.
Internet searches are conducted, as good recruiters don’t want to be embarrassed by a client finding something in a candidate’s history that the recruiters should have discovered. In some cases, this is rather straightforward, as LinkedIn and other sites that contain a candidate’s bio or experience will be cross-checked to determine how much of a discrepancy, if any, exists between what was stated in those fora and what a candidate has submitted for the new opportunity.
Additionally, articles, postings or other information that are found in Google and other searches may raise issues that merit discussion. Candidates would be wise to conduct such searches of their own, to attempt to remove such references (if that can be done) or to at least be prepared for the questions that are likely to be raised.
• Every interaction with the recruiter is carefully weighed.
As noted, there is a surfeit of candidates for an in-house opportunity. The challenge is to find the very few who truly fit a client’s need; otherwise, companies would have been able to complete these searches on their own.
In light of this, every interaction — whether it is a phone call, voicemail, in-person meeting or email is mentally weighed by the recruiter. It is easy for a candidate to be “on” in one or two interactions; as a search proceeds, though, deadlines, stress and other factors help to better reveal the character and personality of a candidate. As the line that separates very talented candidates from one another is ordinarily razor-thin, these interactions are telling.
Discretion, for example, is as important in-house as it is in a law firm. In-house lawyers are often called upon to protect crucial information and confidences. As a result, if a private-practice candidate asks a recruiter to send information to his or her work account — or transmits data from that email address, it calls into question how discreet the lawyer is. This is even more telling considering how easy it is to obtain a personal email account, as it only takes minutes to do that. The same holds true for candidates who talk to you while their door is open. Unless I hear the obligatory “give me a second while I close my door” comment, I wonder about a candidate’s carefulness.
Once a candidate states his or her interest in moving forward, something as simple as promptly returning phone calls takes on magnified importance. Recruiters know, of course, that there are work and family obligations that understandably take precedence, but, nonetheless, it is important to at least follow up in a prompt manner, even if it is with a text or email. Recruiters realize that a consistent inability to do that may be sending an important sign of disinterest and that the candidate, even if he or she gets an offer, may be someone who may not take it. Candidates who think that “playing it cool” gives them more leverage make a big mistake in this regard.
Finally, be careful how you describe your law firm or company (including former employers) and other lawyers with whom you work. A firm or company, for example, may have challenges, and openly and straightforwardly describing them, especially if they are the impetus for a move, is fine. Do this in a professional manner though, as candidates who take it to the next level and rip their organization and its lawyers hurt themselves in the process. In some cases, the recruiter may actually know those organizations and lawyers better than the candidate. In all cases, though, it is off-putting to hear an organization or individual slammed and a recruiter’s client is almost always going to be wary of flamethrowers, which just may doom your candidacy. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.