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Recruiting is just Marketing with a different audience.

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 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 the Marketing and Recruiting Departments talk?

What’s irked me for decades is how many firms see recruiting and marketing as fundamentally different activities. Often, 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 a single headhunter fee.

The dissatisfaction rate among lawyers is distressingly high; they’re looking for more, or better, or different. And 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 finally, it 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.

Sidley cranked up their talented public relations machine to persuade prominent publications to write about their new program, e.g. Above the Law, Reuters,, Law360, and other popular sites.  That’s the type of initiative I’m talking about!  There are so many innovative new recruiting ideas to explore―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 many column inches proclaiming that more firms are offering the same program they detailed a year earlier. That’s not news.)

Kirkland gets it too.

Not long after, Kirkland & Ellis made its own bold move toward associate recruiting and retention, shortening the firm’s partnership track by a year:

“‘A shorter partnership track may bolster Kirkland’s appeal to senior associates at other firms and may prompt senior associates and non-equity partners already at Kirkland to think twice before leaving,’ said Kate Reder Sheikh, managing director of the associate practice group at legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa.”

“I think every firm right now should be thinking about ways to make themselves appealing,” Sheikh said. “The partnership track is one of those levers they can pull.” Exactly.

Orrick and Sheppard Mullin give billable time to “unplug and recharge.”

According to Above the Law, 

“The firm offered everyone (i.e., staff, associates, of counsel, career associates, and partners) the chance to truly ‘unplug’ by crediting up to 40 hours of bonus-eligible time for everyone to sit back, relax, and simply stop doing work. Many Biglaw firms talk a good game about mental health and wellness, but Orrick was the first firm (that we know of) to offer bonus-eligible hours dedicated to taking time off work. Now, almost one year later, [Sheppard Mullin] is following in Orrick’s footsteps.”

It’s a simple idea really, but one that might help refresh some of the firms’ stressed-out, burned-out associates, many of whom could be seeking some light at the end of the tunnel before they stagger away to a competitor or out of the profession entirely. The firms are not paying additional cash out of pocket, they’re just giving the associates 40 hours of billable credit for the time they spend off duty. (It feels like they’ll make up the hours some other way–the work will still get done, the hours will still get billed.)

But a one-week paid sabbatical in these extraordinary times might just keep some of them from leaving. That’s cheaper than paying a 20% headhunter fee on every $300,000 associate, and much less disruptive.


Other new ideas that just popped up include Quinn Emanuel allowing their lawyers to work full-time from home.

And Mintz Levin, et al. updated its Compassionate Leave Policy “for losses including miscarriage, failed surrogacy, adoption, or fertility treatment.” Don’t you want to work at a firm that seems that caring? Nicely done, Mintz.

Headhunter fees are costly one-offs.  

Building your brand lasts for YEARS.

Most importantly, building a persuasive brand that will linger for many years is an investment in the firm’s future. 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.


Here’s a 12/23 article discussing “the frantic war for talent” that mentions some of these same recruiting incentives, opening with the biggest incentive, CASH:

“The most ubiquitous strategy in Big Law was simply offering attorneys, especially associates, more money in order to entice them to stay or join their firm.”

Perhaps the scariest takeaway from the article was one recruiter’s comment that inadequate recruiting is costing big firms “tens of millions of dollars”:

“And the downside of not having enough talent is more costly. Suzanne Kane, a partner at Macrae, told reporter Jessie Yount in October that one partner estimated the loss of business due to not having enough attorneys to staff matters at 15% to 20% of the revenue the firm could have generated this year.

“’Firms that have lost associates are desperate. It’s affecting their year to the tune of tens of millions of dollars,’ Kane said.”

April 12, 2022 update:

Some firms are going a step farther in their recruiting, according to an article in the ABA Journal entitled, “Law firms increasingly offer title of partner to lure lateral associates”:

“Law firms ‘needed bodies,’ said Adam Oliver, CEO and co-founder of Firm Prospects, in an interview with Law360. ‘The only way they could get people to jump ship was to offer partnership on day one.’”


May 19 update:

I just saw this Quinn Emanuel advertisement in a national legal blog I subscribe to. The firm’s new “Work from Anywhere” policy had garnered significant publicity and now that the media has stopped covering it, Quinn’s pushing it out with paid advertising to its target lawyer audience. Smart.

So, it begs the question, with stakes this high, why aren’t more firms supporting their recruiting with better marketing? 


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