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Working with search firms

Q from email: I was contacted by a representative of A SEARCH FIRM. They help laterals/clerks apply to certain firms. The service is free for me. If I end up obtaining a job through the service, the firm has to pay SEARCH FIRM. Notably, if the company applies for me, I do not write my own cover letter. The cover letter is instead written by my representative, which is akin to a letter of recommendation.

Always the skeptic, I was wondering what you thought of such an arrangement? Can my use of such a placement service negatively reflect on my application? Can it positively reflect on my application?

A: As a former headhunter for lawyers (6+ years before joining the Law School), I have the following advice for you:

1. Remember that a search firm fee adds between 20 and 35% of your first year salary to your first year cost to the employer; AND
2. This economy is a tough one, and grads at your level (some practice and some clerking) are not necessarily in premium demand.

Should you use a search firm:

1. Make sure that you have absolute moral certainty about where your resume is being sent BECAUSE YOU HAVE GIVEN WRITTEN permission for your credentials to be presented;

2. Review the documents sent on your behalf. The search firm will, indeed, write the presentation memo, which is not your own cover letter. In the best of all possible worlds, the presentation memo reflects that the search consultant has gotten to know you on a more than superficial level and is able to present more about you THAT IS RELEVANT to the firm and to the practice group for which you may be considered. When I say “more about you,� I mean more than your GPA, clerkship and law review status.

3. The best search consultants present a very small number of candidates for each opening because they know their clients well and they have gotten to know a great deal about their candidates. It is folly to prevaricate or gild the lily when working with a search firm because the consultant’s representation of you needs to be in sync with who you really are. [This does not mean that you are completely frank about your interest in working for a firm long enough to pay off your loans before you go to something altogether different from law.] The candidate who shows up and demonstrates that he or she is entirely different from the persona presented to the search consultant will be dropped like a hot potato by the search firm, and may not be well-received by the employer.

4. Should you be presented by a search firm (with your permission), the referral by contract may last between six months and a year. Any other route into the firm will not work for you because the search firm’s referral takes priority over a pal or networking contact having passed on your resume. Firms would prefer not to pay these fees and they really, really hate headhunter fights. When working with more than one search firm, should your docs be sent by both, most of the time neither will make the placement because the firm will say “A pox on both of your exorbitant bills!� and hire someone else.

5. Having said that, search firm fees are a fact of life. Depending on the city or cities in which you have interest, your credentials and genuine interest in the city may make the fee more palatable to the Executive committee.