Avoiding the legal headhunter? 5 reasons why you should say ‘yes’ to the coffee (and when to say ‘no’)

Why saying ‘yes’ to legal headhunters can be career-changing.

For many years as a lawyer, I was subjected to terrible headhunt calls: from headhunters who clearly didn’t even know my practice area, to those who just wanted to keep me on the phone (why do this? To grind me into submission?) or simply who launched into a volley in the midst of an approaching deadline. I grew a distinct antipathy towards headhunters, which is ironic now that I’ve been a headhunter for longer than I was a lawyer.

In nearly all other areas of business, being approached by a headhunter is a sign that you’ve been noticed favourably by other businesses or that your skills are in demand and in some areas and is often the key to the next career move.

A friend of mine who works in the telecoms sector recently asked me what he could do to get on a headhunter’s radar. Yet in the world of private practice law firms, headhunters can often be treated as an irritation or worse, despite the growing reliance on law firms to use headhunters to find their future talent.

So – why should you spend half an hour meeting a headhunter for a coffee?

1. Exclusive/retained roles: An increasing number of roles never come onto the ‘open market’. Your ideal role may pass you by, without you even being aware that you’ve missed out on this opportunity. You may well not be looking to move now though, but nearly everyone has an ‘ultimate role’ that they would consider, even if they didn’t have short term aspirations to move firms. This then leads on to:

2. Establishing a relationship with a knowledgeable headhunter, who you trust and who not only understands the market and is well connected, but also understands your motivations, can be career-changing. You will no longer be just a name for them and keeping in touch with a headhunter can mean that when you do want to look at other career options, then you have ready access to an expert. Once you’ve met a decent headhunter, you’ll also then be on their radar for any future roles that come up, even if you’re not contemplating a move now.

3. What is going on in the market? Whilst having a network of friends in the law is useful for getting a little insider knowledge, to gain a true insight into what is going on across the market: who is hiring, who is moving, strategy and plans for firms and teams, etc – these are all things that a decent headhunter should be able to provide.

4. Maybe you are not contemplating a move, but you may also want to hire a lawyer and use someone who is known and trusted to you? A headhunter can also work for you in helping you to hire.

5. You may have no intention of moving firms, but assessing whether you are paid fairly in the market is invaluable. Are you paid at the right level? What is your career path at the firm? Should you be pushing for equity? Or the next level of equity?

Does this apply to all headhunters?

Not all headhunters are the same. For those whom only work on a retained search basis, whilst you may come on to their radar, unless they take on a specific search which fits your profile, they are unlikely to be able to go out to the market and find you options. You should be asking the headhunter to explain how and on what basis they work.

You should also do your due diligence on the headhunter. Ask them for their background, recruitment history and relationships within your practice area and with firms. Headhunting is not a regulated profession. Membership of a recognised body (such as the REC or APSCo) can provide a little assurance, as can awards and recommendations. This is all about creating a trusted relationship with someone who will understand your motivations and with whom you can form a bond – so ensuring that they operate in a professional and capable manner is paramount.

At the outset, you may be interrupted at an inopportune time; any headhunter worth their salt should ask you whether it’s a convenient time to speak and if not, arrange an alternative.

Headhunting is here to stay and, provided it is done in the right way, can be career changing.

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