Headhunters are the detectives of legal recruitment, writes Angela Priestley, and their intricate work can drastically alter a lawyer's career. So how should you handle the headhunter's call?
Good lawyers are a precious commodity. The movements of a brilliant partner can send shockwaves through the industry. They can take their reputations, their lawyers, their clients and a great deal of billable hours with them. They can shift the balance of one law firm's ownership of a certain practice area to another, ultimately disrupting the legal landscape in the process.
But finding such talent, and convincing such talent to move is a precious skill in itself, and one that has become big business in the Australian legal sector over the last decade.
Such a skill is all about the headhunter. The recruiter that comes to you. Last month's shock announcement that Allen & Overy would open shop in Australia proved just how significant the movements of precious legal commodities - and the act of poaching - can be. Fourteen partners departed Clayton Utz for Allen & Overy, leaving a large hole in the people reserves of Clayton Utz, and raising questions on just how the whole affair was orchestrated.
The move also showed that getting on the radar of a headhunter, or on a firm's wish list, could be just the key to leaping ahead on career prospects, the salary scale and the best legal work.
A legal game
In the legal sector, not much movement would occur at the top end of talent without the intricate detective work carried out by headhunters. Lawyers are time-poor, and the better the lawyer, the less precious minutes they will have to scout around the job openings of other law firms.
That makes the legal segment an important facet of the headhunting game. Even as the economic downturn strangled billable hours and forced mass rounds of redundancies from law firms during 2009, good headhunters were still working the phones and making coffee dates to build up their contacts and scope out the market to ensure their database was refined enough to exploit from once business returned.
The deep tactics
For large legal recruiters, participating in blatant headhunting would be a fatal error. A large top-tier client would be rather unimpressed to find the same recruiter placing lawyers within the firm and headhunting lawyers out of it to place within their competitors.
But for a recruiter like Charterhouse - with specialised clients - headhunting is a necessary undertaking in order to scope out the best talent. According to Sam Gray, Charterhouse principal consultant, sourcing the best talent is almost impossible by placing job adverts alone. "There are certain areas of law - like information technology law, energy and resources, finance - where you're not going to get people unless you headhunt for the five years' experience to partner level roles," he says.
But not all recruiters welcome the headhunting approach. Shelley Dunstone, an Adelaide-based recruiter from Legal Circles, says she is continually amazed by the tactics of some recruiters - especially in a small market like Adelaide. She says firms continually request that she poach employees from other firms - particularly to poach entire teams of lawyers. "But how would I go about that when those other firms are also my clients?" she asks. "Personally, I operate on the trust that I've built up over almost three decades of being in the profession. I actually want to help firms build their practice, not undo what they have done. That's why I find that headhunting just does not sit with me."
Meanwhile, one Sydney-based source, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she has been repeatedly contacted for a new job by the same headhunter who placed her in her firm just 14 months ago. She's not alone. Other recruiters, law firms and individual lawyers have told Lawyers Weekly similar tactics are used on a regular basis. It's an unspoken crime, and one that for good reasons leaves plenty of legal employers highly unimpressed and cynical about the recruitment game.
It's also dangerous ground for headhunters, and an unethical approach that Gray says will always have repercussions. "Recruiters don't always have the best names," he says. "But it's not rocket science - if you do something unethical, there will be repercussions."
Edward Andrew, former director of EA International, and a headhunter for 13 years who recently left his firm to establish an online headhunting business, says that for high-end talent - particularly in the Allen & Overy case - somebody needs to be able to get in and do the appropriate due diligence before the deal is done. "The reality is that nobody can do that better than a headhunter, who still has the reputation to be impartial," he says. "If you were to pick your leading three or four people for a contested takeover or a rights issue, a capital markets listing, who would you go to?"
Headhunting is a "passive" form of recruitment, explains Gray, an intricate detective-like process that more often than not reaps few rewards for those putting the long hours into it. "Nine out of the ten people you speak to will not be actively looking, but it's worth it for the one person that you get, who, for whatever reason, you find has been thinking about moving for a while."
Even making such contact in the first place will also be an arduous process for the headhunter. "You have to speak to a lot of people and you have to do it delicately," says Gray. "They are often quite busy and you can play phone tag for two weeks or so before you even get hold of them. Then you have to convince them to meet with you, and assist them in updating their CV. Often, by the time that all happens, you might find the role has already been filled (if the headhunter hasn't been deployed on a retainer basis)."
Becoming a target
The headhunting game is a complex business, but one that will remain oblivious to most lawyers who remain too swept up in the details of their legal work to get out and raise their profiles. After all, there's little point being a good lawyer if only your key clients and employer knows you're a good lawyer.
Receiving a call from a headhunter will show that you're on the right track. But following that, if a headhunter calls, top headhunters advise that it's always necessary to be cautious in your approach. "You want to make sure that there is an actual role," says Gray. "You want to ask plenty of questions."
Gray adds that if a potential candidate is interested, he would usually offer the name of the firm, the type of work involved, partners and the size of the team they would be working on. "If they (a headhunter) are not giving you information, don't deal with them. It's an issue of trust," advises Gray. "The onus is on the headhunter to sell the opportunity; we can't just give smoke and mirrors."
Dunstone also advises that candidates exercise tight control over just where their resume is going. "They need to be very specific with their instructions, and understand how recruiters work - that recruiters usually only get paid when they place somebody. It's free for a job seeker, but there's money coming from somewhere."
Andrew, meanwhile, has one golden rule for lawyers looking to get on the headhunter's radar. "You get on the radar by being successful and being touted by your peers as one of the most recognised lawyers in your field," he says. Then, adds Andrew, come the questions of, "How easy are you to manage? Are you a technician, or a rainmaker? How do you treat your staff?"
But Andrew further adds that becoming the target of a headhunter also involves having the history to back up such credentials. "It starts when you're at university," he says. "The most important credentials we look for are academic, where you're working and your level of experience. You need to check all those boxes ... Ultimately, you're getting headhunted for a reason - and the reason is that you're a commodity. That commodity might be in demand today, but it might not be in demand tomorrow."
Andrew has one final piece of advice for would-be scalps - and that is that if a headhunter calls, be nice. "If you come across as condescending, disinterested, or just plain rude, it may come back to bite you ... That phone call can make or break you."