« How to make a job description work for you | Main | First steps in an alternative career search: GoldPASS - the University's job resource »

Working with search firms (headhunters)

Junior lawyers in large firms and at some public agencies begin to get calls from headhunters within the first year of practice. How should you react?

1. Be polite. Even if you aren't interested today, you may need these people next week.

2. If you are interested in seriously exploring a change, try to meet the search firm reps. You want to work with people who you can trust with this part of your career development. At the outset, don't expect more than a few minutes of a search consultant's time, and don't expect career counseling.

3. Pay attention to the experiences of your friends and colleagues and ask for referrals. It's easy enough to get into this business with a cell phone, a basic website and a subscription to www.martindale.com, which is vastly superior for search-firm purposes than the free web version. Established firms with strong connections to decision-makers are worth seeking out.

4. Get a clear description of the position for which you are being presented. Why is the employer adding someone at your level? How much does the headhunter know about the firm and the department? Consider these two calls:

a. "Hi George. My client is looking for a second year associate who knows about government contracts. Are you interested?"

b. "Hi Jane. I have a client with a 300-person office of a New York firm here in Washington DC. The firm just acquired a new partner in its government contracts group who came with two mid-level associates. This partner wants to add a junior associate to her sub-group, and the need is for someone who has exposure to the FARs and the DARs and to export controls. Would you like to know more about this position?"

5. Do not allow a search firm to release your resume without your prior written (or email) permission. This keeps potential headhunter fights to a minimum. What is a headhunter fight? If employers get your resume from two search firms, many will simply decline to interview you because they don't want to get into a "who referred you and who should get paid" conflagration. Your search consultant should know the time limits on her referrals. Some firms consider a referral live for a year, others limit it to six months.

6. The search firm works for the employer, not for you. So, while headhunters may not drop everything to meet you, they will go to the ends of the earth to find you when their clients need someone with your credentials and experience level.

7. One more reason to keep track of the travels of your resume: if the employer receives your credentials from one of its attorneys, search firms are out of the deal. While this may mean that you get hired without a search fee (25-30% of your first year salary), because the firm's recruiters must take time to document the timing and the source of the referral, it will certainly create more work and require awkward and, perhaps unpleasant conversations for the firm's recruiting staff.

Other considerations about lateral moves:
* credit for clerkships (you may received time-to-partnership and/or $ credit)
* expedited evaluation and review (you want to know how you are progressing in 6 months)
* "catch-up" in the firm's training programs