December 4, 2022

Volume XII, Number 338


December 02, 2022

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Don’t Pay Headhunters to Do Your Recruiting. Do THIS Instead.

Recruiting is the legal profession’s hottest topic today and, if you think of it, recruiting is marketing―with a different target audience.

Firms can achieve far better lateral-hiring results using strategic and creative marketing tools than by seeking one-off hires from headhunters. And for the cost of just a couple recruiter fees, you can achieve both (1) better results and (2) long-lasting reputational benefits.  More on that in a minute.

Legal business is booming nationwide, and law firms are growing as fast as they can find the talent to bang out the work. I’ve spoken with many firms who despair of January, anticipating the departures of hordes of lawyers soon after they receive their hefty year-end bonuses. How are they going to replace them quickly enough?

I was talking to a senior partner at a national law firm that’s turned down millions of dollars in legal work because they just don’t have the available bodies, and they can’t pile more hours, or more stress, onto their existing associates―fearing that they’ll simply quit, knowing that they can promptly get hired by an equally desperate competitor down the street.

Why don’t Marketing and Recruiting Departments talk?

What’s irked me for decades is how lawyers see recruiting and marketing as fundamentally different activities. In many firms, the Recruiting and Marketing people aren’t integrated; they’re territorial, almost adversarial. Rarely do they deeply understand the value of blending their skillsets and working together. That’s a squandered opportunity.

I’ve worked with some legal-recruiting firms who are polishing up their own brands, desperate to attract more lawyers who might be persuaded to relocate to a new firm with the promise of more money, quality of life, better work, different work, work from home (or … better coffee―they don’t care why, they just need to shuffle bodies around). They’re all playing “law firm musical chairs,” filling their open contracts by shoving willing lawyers one chair/firm to the left, and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruiting fees per seat.

Half of your laterals won’t last 5 years.

Typical recruiting efforts disproportionately reward the disloyal job-hoppers who are willing to pack up every 3-5 years―and will probably be gone again in a few years. You don’t want them.

Large firms willingly pay millions of dollars per year to headhunters to attract fresh laterals, half of whom won’t last 5 years.

Seek like-minded laterals―don’t just “buy from inventory.”

If the firms had invested that same money in building their brand within that lateral audience, firms could attract compatible lawyers directly, without paying a hefty fee. They’ll call YOU. If you have something unique or valuable to offer―if you’re indeed a better option to some type or category of lawyer or have a better story to tell―then you need to proclaim that story.


For example, when Levenfeld offered a more dynamic culture, they sought a specific type of lawyer who’d excel under that platform. They sought lawyers who felt stifled at their current firms (“like anonymous cogs in a machine”) and longed for an environment where they could look forward to coming to work every day. We advertised boldly to the local Chicago legal community and quickly achieved their dramatic hiring goals. And Levenfeld’s reputation as an innovative firm with a strong, positive culture, has lingered for over a decade. That is what you should be striving to build.

The entire initiative cost less than one headhunter fee.

The dissatisfaction rate among lawyers is distressingly high; they’re looking for more, or better, or differentAnd if you showed them that you offer the thing they’ve been looking for and make yourself available to them, they’ll call you.

But so few firms understand why, or how, to play that game.

I think Sidley gets it.

They just offered something more to their associates, an impressive-sounding leadership and executive-training program conducted through top universities (that counts toward their billable-hour requirement). According to “Above the Law”:

“[A]ssociates will have access to executive leadership programs at business schools such as Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, The University of Chicago, and Northwestern. Which is in addition to internal executive leadership academies focused on business, client, and professional skills. As they move through the program, they’ll also be afforded the opportunity to work on ‘hands-on passion projects’.”

I don’t know if Sidley’s program is credible or not, but I thought it was simply brilliant from a marketing and recruiting perspective:

First, it helps brand Sidley among clients and prospects as a progressive firm whose lawyers have greater understanding of real-world business than their competitors. Next, it will proactively attract the type of lateral associates they want, i.e. those who would value having a practical business education.

And finallyit locks in the top Sidley associates who are participating in the program, increasing retention. (Oh, and presumably it’ll teach them valuable professional skills too, but that’s almost beside the point.)

Do something great. Then tell EVERYONE.

Then Sidley cranked up their talented public relations machine to persuade prominent publications to write about it, e.g. Above the Law, Reuters,, Law360, and other popular sites.  That’s the type of initiative I’m talking about!  Sidley gets it. There are so many innovative new recruiting ideas―low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked off the tree. If only firms would execute.

I predict that within a year, other firms will start offering their own leadership programs, but Sidley will have earned first-mover advantage, an 8-12-month head start, and all of the publicity. (The media doesn’t waste column inches proclaiming that more firms are offering the same program they detailed a year earlier. That’s not news.)

Headhunter fees are costly one-offs. Building your brand lasts for YEARS.

Most importantly, this becomes an investment in the firm’s future, building a brand that will linger persuasively for many, many years. That requires an innovative strategy, followed by an effective use of marketing and branding tools to spread the word, e.g. print and online advertising, social media, professional announcements, direct mail, etc.

And in my experience, if done right, you’re also attracting the right lawyers―the ones who best fit your culture and are most likely to succeed within your system.

© 2022 Fishman MarketingNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 326

About this Author

Ross Fishman legal marketing expert  Fishman Marketing

National Law Review Thought Leader 2018

Of Counsel magazine wrote: “Many people consider Ross to be the nation’s foremost expert on professional services marketing.” He uses powerful brands, websites, and marketing training to help lawyers and law firms dominate their markets and dramatically increase profits.

A former...