Five Tips to Effectively Incorporate Recruiters into Your Job Search

by Jessica L. Hernandez, JD, APC, CPCC

Recruiters (aka “headhunters” or “search firms”) play a unique and important role in a legal job search. This article is designed to explain how to effectively use recruiters within the context of your search. 


Like most BigLaw associates, from early on in my career as an attorney I often received calls from recruiters about other positions.  I would sometimes send a resume over when the job sounded interesting.  But over the years, I began to learn that there were norms and strategies that make working with recruiters more effective.   


Additionally, I began to appreciate the fact that it is not wise to conduct a job search by only sending resumes to recruiters when I thought I might be a strong candidate for the particular role about which they were calling.  I realized that the most effective job searches were those where I took control, and sought out what I was looking for in a new role, instead of applying only reactively. 


Types of Recruiters 


First, it is important to understand the nature of recruiter searches.  There are two types of ways that organizations can hire a recruiter: on a retained basis or a contingent basis.   


  • In a retained search, the recruiter and the company sign an agreement for the recruiter to search for a candidate to fill a particular position.  Retained searches are generally exclusive, meaning that the retained recruiter is the only one who has that job listing.  In a retained search, payment is not contingent upon placement; instead, the recruiter is typically paid in installments leading up to the final installment when the candidate starts the jobIn-house searches are usually done on a retained basis.  It is very rare for an associate search to be done on a retained basis.  This article is mainly applicable for contingent searches (below). 


  • In a contingent search, the recruiter only gets paid once a candidate is placed.  Typically, this means that recruiters will present a candidate to more than one employer, in hopes that one will hire the candidate and, therefore, pay the recruiter.  Law firm associate searches are generally conducted on a contingent basis. 


An important thing to note about contingent searches is that they are typically not exclusive.  This means that multiple recruiters may be submitting candidates to fill the position; only the one that submits the candidates that ultimately gets hired will get paid.   


In a contingent search, the firm only pays the one recruiter who submits the successful candidate.  It is, however, possible that a candidate could be submitted another way (through the firm’s website, a job board, or through an employee, for instance) – in that case, the firm will not have to pay any recruiter’s fee. 


The fee is substantial, so using a recruiter to apply for law firm jobs that you already have access to (through job postings or, even better, your network) makes you a more expensive candidate for a law firm.  All things equal, most law firms would prefer to hire the candidate that applied for free over the candidate that comes with a price tag.  


Knowing how these searches work makes it easier to understand how recruiters operate.  With this in mind, below is a list of best practices for working with recruiters in your job search. 


Rule #1:  Submitting through recruiters is one part of the job search; it is not the entire job search!  By only submitting through recruiters, you will miss a variety of potential positions in the market. The best way to navigate to such positions is by a combination of doing your own research on open positions and effective networking. This is for a few reasons: 


Job postings sometimes make their way to recruiters because they have been difficult to fill; if you only consider openings you are called about, you will miss other job vacancies that firms are looking to fill.


Many law firms do not allow recruiter submissions.  Therefore, recruiters do not present those opportunities to candidates. 


Sometimes law firms are looking to hire opportunistically and do not post the job opening publicly until it becomes a more active search. Many career coaches refer to this as the “hidden job market.  Networking is key to uncover this “hidden job market” as many firms try first to hire directly (through personal referrals or otherwise) for an opportunistic hire that is not an urgent need. 


Firms (particularly smaller and midsize firms) have varying hiring criteria, and may therefore be more open to hiring outside of the traditional recruiter route. 


Additionally, if you only submit your resume through recruiters, you may be missing the opportunity to think more strategically about your search. Make sure you are clear on why you are leaving, and what you are seeking in your new role. Working with a career coach can help you clarify these goals and determine how best to engage with recruiters in order to maximize your candidacy. 


Rule #2Be sure that the recruiter will not send your resume to any potential employer without your permission.   


To share a cautionary, but instructive, tale, as a junior attorney looking to lateral, I had been working with Recruiter A, and pretty far down the line of interviewing with a firm.  I then received a call that I would be out of the running, as the firm had realized that I was submitted by Recruiter B a few months prior to being submitted by Recruiter A.  The firm was unwilling to get into a dispute over the fee between the two recruiters; as a result, my candidacy was terminated. 


In order to avoid this predicament, it is imperative to keep track of and have final approval over where and when each recruiter has sent your resume out, as well as your direct applications.   Use an application tracker.  If there is any question, be transparent with the recruiter about others who have sent your resume to a particular firm in the past.  


Rule #3:  Understand the reputation of the recruiter before sending your resume.  Not all recruiters are the same; there are better, more established organizations and smaller outfits; national search firms and more local organizations; and, of course, different individuals have different ethical and moral standards. 


In order to get a feel for a recruiter, you should spend some time getting to know them.  In addition to the important question in Rule #1 above, you should ask them about their knowledge of the market, who they have placed in the past, and what firms they work with.  Find out what level of contacts they have at different firms.  Be sure that the recruiting firm is well-represented and connected in your geography.  You should, of course, feel personally comfortable with the person; references are helpful, and you should always trust your instincts.  If you are working with a career coach, that person may know the recruiter who has contacted you and may also be able to provide referrals. 


Rule #4:  For each firm, understand the recruiter’s value in submitting you.  For instance, there are times when you have a high-value contact at the firm – either a high-level attorney, one in the particular practice you are trying to break into, or one with whom you have worked extensively.  If you strongly believe that your resume would get better consideration in going through your contact, that might be a better route (as you would save the firm from paying a recruiter’s fee).  This is why networking can be so important. 


However, there are times when it may be a better bet to work through a recruiter.  For instance, if you are unsure if a specific firm is hiring, if you have no meaningful contacts at the firm, and/or your application needs an additional “push” from a recruiter to sell your candidacy.  


Rule #5:  Recruiters may not work with ideal candidates, but that doesn’t mean that those candidates can’t find jobs!  Since a firm pays extra to hire through a recruiter, some recruiters may use more effort to advance a candidate that easily ticks all of the boxes for the position.   


Some recruiters may be less willing to work with candidates who have a non-traditional career path or meet most (but not all) of the firm’s qualifications.  Many firms are still interested in these candidates nonetheless. 


As a result, candidates whom some recruiters aren’t willing to submit often find themselves better served by applying directly and/or effectively networking. 


In conclusion, it is always advisable to be strategic, as opposed to reactive, in your job search.  An effective and streamlined job search includes the use of various tools, such as coaching, publicly available job listings, and recruiters. But the key is to be thoughtful about how you use these tools, including recruiters, to ensure the best possible job search for you. 


Jessica L. Hernandez, JD, APC, CPCC is a certified coach and professional development consultant who partners with attorneys and organizations to enhance career fulfillment at all levels. Jessica has helped lawyers successfully navigate issues in areas such as career transition, leadership, delegation and supervision, business development, personality conflicts, time management and delivering and receiving feedback.  Prior to her coaching and counseling career, Jessica practiced corporate and securities law in New York City for over a decade at law firms and in-house. 

Jessica is the Principal of JLH Coaching and Consulting and is the co-author with Jessica Natkin of the new NALP publication, Let’s Coach All the Lawyers: An Essential Primer for Professionals Developing Legal Talent Jessica is also the Co-Founder with Jessica Natkin of Law Career Center. 

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