What is Legal Recruitment?
There was a time as a junior lawyer in England when I attended a networking event with some colleagues.
It wasn’t anything special, just a regular turn-up, have a few drinks, listen to a brief speech, everyone goes home, or onto another bar until the early hours (usually the insolvency or banking guys!), that type of event. Yet, what marked out this event for me was that I first learned what an effective legal recruiter should be.
I had noticed a young guy drifting in and out of different groups near to the group I was in conversation with. He had quite an infectious energy about him. He was shaking hands firmly with a big grin, laughing with the people he was with, and seemingly having a good old chat. Eventually, he came round to our group.
“Hi, my name’s Matt, pleased to meet you!,” he said, shaking my hand firmly. I returned the pleasantries and exchanged cards. His card mentioned ‘legal recruitment’, though I’d never heard of his company before.
Whilst I’d been to a couple of extremely dull presentations at university from national recruitment firms, I still didn’t appreciate what an effective recruiter actually did, let alone a legal recruiter.
“So, you’re a legal recruiter, does that mean you’re legit?” a member in the group joked. He laughed, and replied jovially, “if I only I had a pound every time someone asked me that!”. If he was thinking what a smart-ass, he was polite enough not to let on.
As colleagues of mine were also at this event, I was naturally hesitant to talk with him, in fear that it would raise immediate suspicions among my colleagues that I would immediately be on the phone to him asking him to find me a job (these were pre-LinkedIn and whatsapp days!). He must have sensed it as he put my mind at ease by talking about about the 5-nations European rugby tournament (as it was then known), and how he’d got tickets to fly to Dublin with his girlfriend to watch the match against England. Before long, he’d excused himself and effortlessly moved onto to another group.
After that evening, we kept spotting each other at other events, and even arranged to have coffee and lunch on different occasions. There was none of the high-pressure sales tactics I was receiving from other recruiters, and other lawyers who had encountered Matt also said the same thing about him. Some had been successful in getting jobs with his help. He genuinely wanted to develop a long term working relationship with me, learning about the practice area I worked in and my longer term ambitions. He in turn, shared some of his own career goals and anxieties, there was a genuine two way conversation going on. Sadly, we lost touch as I moved cities and eventually moved overseas.
But that experience restored much of the faith I had lost in the other legal recruiters that I had contact with in my early days as a law student and trainee solicitor, and it gave me some insights for when I decided to set up my own legal recruitment agency in Hong Kong with my sister, also a former practising lawyer.
Definition - what legal recruitment is
Legal recruitment refers to the processes required to find and place suitable candidates for an active job, as well as the art and skill of closing the placement (ie the act of employer and candidate signing contracts).
These processes can be executed through different channels, and those channels can be direct (by the employer), or indirect (through professional recruiters or through referrals, such as friends or employees of the prospective employer).
Or an even simpler definition: legal recruitment is the process of recruiting qualified legal and legal industry staff.
But this definition doesn’t even start to drill into the many layers of legal recruitment!
There’s a common misconception that a job description and a posted advert is all that it takes to attract and find the best quality and most suitable candidates on the market.
It doesn’t take into account the hundreds, even thousands, of hours put in by recruiters that employers don’t see in finding, screening and liaising with job seekers. Without a doubt, no professional recruiter worth their salt can survive in this industry without putting in the grunt work, the networking, the deep-level discussions with candidates, CV evaluations, the meticulous notes recording, and the development of a strong candidate pool.
What legal recruitment is not
Legal recruitment is not transactional.
Or rather, it’s not wholly transactional. Of course, processes must be followed, and followed methodically and meticulously. Every professional service you encounter has to follow processes, whether it be legal, accounting, sales or marketing. But legal recruitment is more than that.
It’s not a clear-cut binary process of “here is a vacancy, here is a candidate, instant match”. A legal recruiter is not worthy of their job-title if they just rattle off a list of firms they can send a candidate’s CV to without any meaningful dialogue with the candidate. If they were to do so, how different is that to your student days when you made a series of application forms to any and all law firms you could think of, in the vain hope that someone would respond?
If legal recruitment were that easy, then I would believe the hype of AI taking over the recruitment industry completely.
But it’s simply not how it works.
It needs the legal recruiter to have a substantive understanding of the client’s business and their goals.
With a trusted recruiter, employers need to speak candidly about the vacancy, the opportunities and the challenges that a successful candidate will face when joining their organisation, the dynamics in both the team and the organisation, their values and goals, the hiring partner or manager’s working style, and the different personalities that a successful candidate will be working with. An introverted “book-smart” lawyer who focuses only on servicing their own work and refuses to interact or socialise with their colleagues is not only setting themselves up to failure long term in that team but also affects the morale and productivity of other team members.
Successful legal recruitment also requires the employer to disclose what they need comprehensively and on a timely basis.
Conversely, it needs an intimate understanding of the candidate’s background, their legal qualification, their area of specialisation and career aims. It's about presenting choices to the candidate. And not all those choices necessarily lead to a mandate that they're working on.
With so many international qualified and multi-qualified lawyers living and working in Hong Kong, it needs a good understanding of where and how those qualifications would be suited to different organisations’ needs. And to do all these things effectively it needs the legal recruiter to constantly nurture and develop relationships with employers and job-seekers alike.
For job hunters, successful legal recruitment requires a candidate to “open up” to their recruiter on their hopes and fears, their ambitions, and their experiences to date. The corollary to that is the recruiter’s unqualified assurance that their conversations are kept strictly confidential and private. This consideration is arguably more important to many candidates than getting results for them which, of course, comes a close second, followed by being kept informed of developments.
Without all these core components and that equilibrium being maintained, a legal recruiter will struggle to do their job effectively.
Why legal recruitment matters
Remember when you made your training contract application? I do. Mine, I mean, not yours.
I made over 30 applications, and was faced with the same questions that had to be answered with hand written responses. To make the process even more frustrating and time consuming, the questions on each application form were either questioned ever so differently or arranged in an ever so slightly different order from the last TC application form.
And whether or not you were invited to a TC interview felt like a lottery.
However, for qualified lawyers, it’s a different story.
Employers know the substantial time required to recruit staff. It’s an endless, exhausting task. And it doesn’t end on the signing of employment contracts and the shake of the hands. Considerable time (and cost) is invested into the new joiner’s onboarding process, the inductions given to new joiners, the ongoing training to ensure that they work to the firm’s procedures and values and to ensure that qualified legal staff are kept abreast with the latest laws and regulations.
And for something as specialised as legal services, it requires expert recruiters who can understand an employer’s needs and a legal candidate’s specialisation. In a multi-national organisation where the in-house legal team is a ‘unit’ (a one-lawyer department) and one function among many departments in that organisation, it’s not uncommon for a talent acquisition manager or an HR professional to have little or no knowledge of what a lawyer does, let alone know what to look for in a ‘good candidate’.
Recruiters who specialise in a particular field, on the other hand, invest an incredible amount of time in identifying, winning and promoting jobs, screening candidates, in understanding candidates’ career goals, their strengths and limitations, and their working styles.
The legal recruiter is all about presenting candidates whose qualifications, experiences, skills, and attributes are most suited to the employers’ needs. And to do that, they need to know their candidate and know their client.
Every employing organisation (be they a law firm or company with an in-house legal team) is different, and every hiring manager is different.
And so, the business needs will differ from organisation to organisation, from team to team, and from hiring manager to hiring manager. Some employers need technically able and highly experienced staff to ‘hit the ground running’ and cope with the present high workload. Others are trying to grow a team organically, to train junior staff up so that the team can cope in times of high client demand. Some are investing in new staff for longer term succession planning, and some are hiring to increase profitability whilst lowering overhead costs overall.
Each employer will have their own reasons and a specific purpose for growing or consolidating their legal team. And by understanding the needs of both the job seeker and client, the legal recruiter can 'join the dots' by understanding where the closest matches are, and being able to explain to both parties why those matches are suitable. Open, honest and timely communications from all parties are key.
So there you have it, legal recruitment in a nutshell.
The industry as a whole is held against a higher standard compared with other industries in recruitment as the costs and risks are higher.
Here are some of the key takeaways, whether you are a qualified lawyer seeking a new role elsewhere, a law firm partner, in-house head of legal, HR, or a junior recruiter learning the ropes in this industry.
At its core, legal recruiting:
Requires a disciplined and methodical approach
Isn’t wholly transactional - soft skills are intrinsic to success
Requires a strong understanding of your client and candidate’s background, values and purpose/aims
Requires openness and honesty from both clients and candidates to their recruiter
Is underlined by an absolute respect for personal data, confidentiality and working in an ethical manner (eg not spamming clients or candidates)
Requires consent at every stage of the process
Is based on a genuine business partnering relationship between recruiter, client and candidate — honest and timely communication increases the chances of success for all
Is all about individual human beings and understanding and appreciation of how no two humans interact in the same way
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