Editorial: Insights on Legal Recruitment


Prior to launching CEE Legal Matters, I spent a little over 3 years in a legal recruitment company. Knowing my background, over a recent casual cup of coffee a partner from a law firm in Budapest told me that he noticed a job advert posted by a recruiter looking for a senior banking lawyer. “Who in God’s name would be looking for senior banking lawyer in this economy?!”, he asked me, shocked.

I explained to him a bit about how the recruiting industry works, and the reasons many recruiters may have for posting job descriptions that do not, in fact, relate to specific mandates from employers. In other words, I explained, it’s quite possible that in reality nobody is actively looking to add a senior banking lawyer — but by sending out the bait, the recruiter may land a prize nonetheless. 


First, let me clarify that I do not mean to criticize or belittle the recruitment industry as a whole. Having worked within that dynamic industry, I know that quality recruiters can be of real value to clients and candidates alike. As one Polish legal recruiter working noted in a recent CEELM article (“Hunting Legal Heads” — accessible only for subscribers until October): “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.” 

However … not all recruiters are of such high quality, and all recruiters are pressured to be aggressive — which can, sometimes, cause them to act in ways potentially detrimental to the lawyers they’re representing. Thus, smart job seekers would do well to understand the priorities and practices of legal recruiters before entrusting them with their CVs and the authority to contact firms on their behalf.

Much of a recruiter’s work tends to be speculative

First, a brief introduction to the three broad types of engagement under which most recruiters usually work is instructive:

  • Retained: Under this model, a potential employer (Firm X) pays a recruiter (Recruiter Y) a small fee in advance to start researching the market and sourcing for the right candidates. Once those candidates are identified and Firm X makes the hires, Recruiter Y is paid its full fee (either a flat fee agreed with the firm or a percentage of the compensation package of the hired candidates)
  • Contingent: Under this model, a firm or company engages a recruiter (or multiple recruiters) on a purely success-fee basis (i.e., payment is due only if the right candidate is found and hired)
  • Speculative: Under this model, the recruiter takes the initiative to forward a candidate’s CV to a potential employer in the absence of any specific instruction or request, under the assumption that great talent will always be attractive to potential employers. Many times firms resent this kind of aggressive selling — though others appreciate the help — and this type of work is often frowned upon in the recruitment industry, with many recruiters referring to those competitors who specialize in it as “CV pushers.” 

You often hear recruiters claiming that they tend to focus on “real searches” only (that is, categories a or b), and, indeed — as efforts on such assignments have a much higher chance of yielding fees — all prefer them. Nonetheless, despite this preference, much if not most of recruitment work is actually done on a speculative basis.

And firms often encourage recruiters to work speculatively by hinting at the possibility of a hire — while simultaneously carefully instructing the recruiter not to reveal their identity in any advertisement or message. Unfortunately for both recruiters and job-seekers alike, these instructions may or not be genuine — sometimes clients hint they are interested in receiving CVs simply because they know that recruiters searching a market are unlikely to risk damaging a client relationship by simultaneously headhunting out of that client on behalf of someone else. Accordingly, firms are incentivized to encourage recruiters to believe that scenarios (1)-(3) below are far more serious and probable than they are in reality — and recruiters may thus unwittingly pass that false belief on to candidates who respond to their ads.

In other words, the sad truth is that many job ads posted by recruiters do not reflect searches by firms to fill actual needs, but rather — at most — fishing expeditions for superstars. At best, they come from one of the following messages by clients to recruiters, which can refer to actual searches — though ones extremely unlikely to be filled:

(1) Well sure, if you find someone great in …”

This is the base message recruiters want to hear from their (actual or potential) clients. It suggests that, for the right candidate — meeting whatever standard of academic and professional qualifications the firm requires — the firm could potentially be open to hiring. For firms there’s almost no reason not to work with recruiters on this basis — there’s little for the firms to lose, and it means the recruiter has incentive to work on their behalf at no obligation. For the recruiters, however, it can be a mixed bag — there’s no way of ensuring that the client is actually serious, and in some cases what they really mean is, “of course, if the best lawyer in the market with the most portable business is available, we’d like to know about it.” The great majority of the time, however, the recruiters’ time and efforts here are wasted. Result: a job description with an anonymous client is advertised by the recruiter. 

(2) “Yeah, we’re thinking about growing in ...”:

A Managing Partner from a law firm may casually mention a practice area the firm hopes to “grow strategically” in the near future. Recruiters may react to this information in a variety of ways, but that information is, in the minds of many, a clear sign already that if a great candidate is found for that practice area he or she has a good chance to be hired. Result: a job description with an anonymous client is advertised by the recruiter. 

(3) The “If I found a rain-maker in ...” talk:

Especially in dire economic times, where work is at a minimum, this familiar refrain often leads recruiters into a classic wild-goose chase. It is true that Managing Partners will most likely hire “rain-makers” at any point, especially if they bring considerable portfolios of portable business with them (because who would ever pass on someone bringing in more money than he/she would cost). Many times, however, finding the rain-maker at the standards that the partner envisions is as likely as catching as unicorn, and the work rarely pays off. Result: a job description with an anonymous client is advertised by the recruiter.

On the other hand, of course, because recruiters have their own internal incentives to find good candidates even without any encouragement from their clients, sometimes job ads are posted without any instruction from clients at all:

(4) Second Place is First … Among Losers

While many times a recruiter will be engaged exclusively for a search, clients often have multiple recruitment companies working on the same role, putting recruiters in direct competition with one another as to who gets a candidate’s CV on the employer’s desk first. Because of this, it is critical for recruiters to build their candidate databases proactively, so they can be prepared to act quickly when actual searches do arise. And recruiters know that candidates are much more likely to send their CVs in response to what appears to be an actual job ad than they are otherwise. Result: a job description with an anonymous client is advertised by the recruiter.

(5) More Candidates in Our Database Than Stars in the Sky

If you look at any recruiter’s website, more often than not, you will find that recruiter advertising its network or existing database of “active candidates.” Recruiters need to build up their database both due to the efficiency needed to address point (4) but also because it is one of the most important unique selling points in a recruiter’s pitch for a role. Many times, it is also serves as an excellent business development tool. There is no easier way for recruiters to demonstrate their reach, reputation, and capability than by pointing to its existing database of high-quality candidates. Result again: a job description with an anonymous client is advertised by the recruiter.

What you should do as a jobseeker

Recruiters believe that there is no real harm in luring potential candidates even in the absence of specific mandates from employers — and they may be right. If, however, you want to make sure you’re fully informed about what’s happening, and do not wish to have yourself identified as looking for a new job to firms that may not actually be hiring, there are some things you can do and some flags you should be looking for:

(a) First, it’s worth knowing that no reputable and professional recruiter will ever send your CV to a client without your permission — but not all recruiters are so ethical. Make sure to clarify their approach to this, and you can even ask for it in writing if you wish. At the very least this demonstrates to recruiters that you take your career and job search seriously and are a professional and careful person.

(b) Second, be confident and ask questions. Remember that a recruiter should act as much of an agent or consultant for the jobseeker as he/she does for the employer. Following a brief introduction of your profile, therefore, you should ask directly, and even before you send your CV through, what client they are working for. They may say that the client has asked them to keep their identity confidential (which happens often), but often that instruction ends once a quality candidate expresses interest. There may of course be exceptions — or the recruiter may find a middle ground by saying, “it’s a Magic Circle firm”, or “it’s an American firm”, or “it’s an international firm.” Feel free to ask for as much clarification as you need, until the recruiter finally says no more is available.

(c) Ask the recruiter what type of an engagement their relationship with the client for this search is (retained, contingent, etc). Not only does this demonstrate that you understand how the process works, but it should also give you a feel of how committed their client is to making a hire. I cannot imagine any reputable recruiter lying about this if he/she is asked directly. If they don’t answer, you may want to contact another recruiter.

(d) Responses by recruiters such as “the role has just been closed but we can explore other opportunities,” or “you do not fulfill the specific criteria for this role but there are other options” may of course be genuine — but they may also simply mean that there *is* no actual role, and the job ad was for a speculative search all along rather than a retained or contingent search.

(e) If the recruiter offers those “other opportunities” and you do decide to pursue them, ask them which clients they work closely with in your market. Remember that a recruiter cannot realistically work with all potential firms as some need to be (pardon the harsh term) poaching grounds for them. Get a complete list of which firms you will be presented to, and know that while recruiters may attempt to dissuade you from contacting them yourself or using another recruiter by suggesting that “they’re not hiring at the moment,” this may simply mean that they’re unable to present you. You can then contact another recruiter for those firms or contact the firms yourself. (Do not, however, contact firms or authorize other recruiters to contact firms the first recruiter has agreed to contact. This causes real confusion about priority, makes you look unethical, and is simply unprofessional. If you expect recruiters to be transparent and above-board with you, it’s appropriate to extend the same courtesy to them).

(f) Avoid the overarching “exclusive representation” clause. Some recruiters will ask their candidates to agree to be only represented by that specific recruiter. That is fine if it applies to the scope of the handful of close clients identified in point (d), but you should avoid agreeing to this across the board. 

(g) Finally, and perhaps the most important message of all to job-seekers, is that speculative inquiries are almost inevitably as successful for independent contacts by the job-seekers as they are when made via recruiters. Recruiters may encourage you to believe that they have “inside contacts” or that communications they make for candidates are somehow given special consideration, but the truth is, law firms are almost always prepared to give full consideration to those candidates who contact them directly. Indeed, they usually prefer it, since any hire they make on that basis saves them the money they would otherwise have to give to the recruiter for a fee.

As I mentioned above, recruiters can be valuable and effective agents. And many candidates are happy to engage recruiters even for speculative searches, both to save time and to take advantage of the recruiters’ knowledge about who to best contact and how to make the most effective inquiries possible. But as professional lawyers are as careful about their own interests as they are about their clients’, those considering using recruiters to aid them in a job search should make sure they understand how the process truly works.

Next week, I’ll discuss in more depth the value recruiters add for job seekers.


The publication was reprinted with the permission of CEELM. For original publication, please follow

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