BY BEV CLINE
As competition for in-house jobs heats up, in-house counsel legal recruiting has become a growth industry
When it comes to recruiting for in-house counsel, candidates and law departments are finding that it’s a much more competitive world than even a few years ago.
As the role of in-house counsel has become more alluring, more lawyers are looking to move into law departments. At the same time, more companies are establishing in-house legal departments. As a result, competition for jobs and for candidates has heated up, recruiters say.
There has also been an evolution in how both sides of the legal equation approach recruitment, says Coreen Lawton, Legal Consultant with RainMaker Group. “There’s a real difference in the sophistication of both candidates and clients in the past five years,” she says.
Widespread access to information means that candidates and law departments come to recruiters already having done a fair amount of preliminary research. Consequently, she says, they have much more general information about what’s happening in the sector than ever.
As a result, “they both approach recruitment armed with generalized knowledge and look to recruiters to do much more than fill in the gaps,” says Lawton. “Candidates and law departments look to us to provide both the macro level of information about what’s happening in the world of in-house counsel positions and the micro level information about specific legal departments,” she says.
For recruiters, market intelligence is key, says Lawton, who notes that “good old-fashioned communication can make all the difference” in acquiring the “right” information — and that means literally speaking to general counsel and lawyers at all levels in legal departments.
And, then, in addition to keeping up-to-date internal charts on all the information gleaned during these talks, “we provide clients with the latest buzz on the streets,” she says.
For Christopher Sweeney, President of ZSA Legal Recruitment, the rapid growth in the number of law departments and their internal growth is a far cry from when he opened his company 13 years ago. At the time, in-house legal departments were small and their recruitment was usually done by word of mouth, he says. “So [legal] recruiters generally put little focus on the in-house counsel market.”
Fast forward to the legal services market of 2011, when in-house counsel legal recruiting has itself become a growth industry. “During the recession, private practice legal recruiting collapsed but in-house hiring continued unabated,” says Sweeney, noting that “over 50 per cent of ZSA’s revenue in 2009 was attributable to in-house hiring, working with both candidates and legal departments.
“Building your in-house legal department was a way during the recession of cutting down on external legal spend, a cost savings,” says Sweeney. Yet looking forward, Sweeney sees this as a trend: “It’s a phenomenon that, in my estimation, will only continue to grow,” he says.
A focus on the intangibles is important — they can make all the difference in whether or not a legal placement is successful, says Adam Lepofsky, President of RainMaker Group. “As a recruiter, you need to know your candidate as so much more than a resume. You have to look much deeper.
“It’s all about perspective, personality and potential,” continues Lepofsky. For example, “why is the candidate looking to move from a law firm position to that of an in-house counsel? Why does the in-house counsel want to move to another in-house position with another organization?”
A key strength recruiters provide is assisting the law department in determining their options as to what it really wants and needs. “Part of our role is in assisting the client in taking a fresh look at their current situation, says Lawton. “Do you need an absolute replacement of the in-house counsel? Does the work require an in-house lawyer at the current level [of experience and expertise] as the lawyer who has left? If you are looking to expand the department, could this be the time to juggle responsibilities internally?
“Needs and wants can morph throughout a recruitment mandate if it is not really well articulated and thought through prior to meeting candidates,” she says. The skill sets, experience level and cultural fit that were originally on the must-have list may be quite different once the department has stopped to take a fresh look. Candidates who might have been on the original list are no longer there, so it is integral to define the in-house counsel role prior to meeting with candidates, she says.
Given that “it’s currently a buyer’s market, with more candidates than in-house counsel positions,” candidates need to understand that they are in competition for these positions and ensure they don’t inadvertently put up barriers, says Lawton. They need to be readily available and prepared for interviews.
In addition, in-house counsel candidates need to work with recruiters to provide the level of detail that legal departments want to see on a resume. “It’s not enough to say that you ‘worked’ on X transaction,” says Sweeney. “What on earth did you do?”
In his experience, lawyer candidates – and he counts both law firm lawyers and in-house counsel in this assessment – “tend to undersell themselves.” If the reality is that the candidate saved the deal, then he or she should say so, says Sweeney. “Or if they worked non-stop on the deal, their CV should reflect that and say, ‘I worked 72 hours non-stop in Paris on this deal and here’s the successful result.’” ZSA recruiters work closely with each client to prepare for the environment they might be working in as in-house counsel. “We work closely with the legal department on the job description; skill set is important, but equally so is the cultural fit,” says Sweeney.
For example, ZSA recruiters may tour the office or facility and meet as many people as possible who work there. “A candidate for an in-house counsel position might be stepping into a quite unfamiliar environment, especially if the person is coming from a law firm setting in a downtown office tower,” says Sweeney.
“A manufacturer, for example, might be located in an industrial park an hour outside of a major urban centre. There may not be a receptionist and visitors might need to be buzzed in to the facility. There could be packaging crates and boxes in the hallways,” he says. “So our role is to manage expectations on both sides, candidate and client, to find a good cultural fit as well,” he says.
Based on his years of experience as a legal recruiter, RainMaker’s Lepofsky says that, to effect the best result, close collaboration between recruiter and law department is extremely mportant. So too is the active involvement of a quarterback, whether it is the general counsel, the head of the human-resources department or another key management player. “The more involved we are with the quarterback of the client,” he says, “the more effective the recruitment.”
From the law department’s point of view, “they are relying on us for a tight, short list that really reflects the overall best candidates for their position,” adds Lepofsky. “Our goal is to make it really difficult for the law department to decide which person on the list to hire; they all meet the client’s criteria,” he says.
In the past 15 months, the trend to cutting external counsel costs through increased use of in-house counsel has become a strategic tool for many smaller companies, says ZSA’s Sweeney. “We have been providing in-house counsel – from junior to general counsel – to small companies who previously did not hire corporate counsel,” says Sweeney.
Prior to this use of “contract in-house counsel,” there was a gap in legal recruiting that ZSA recognized and sought to fill, he says. “[Management at] small companies would call us and ask how much it would cost to hire a general counsel,” says Sweeney. “But, in reality, the company really only needed in-house counsel for a day or two days a week.”
ZSA began providing these organizations with “on-demand” in-house counsel. Often, says Sweeney, “these are private practitioners who are successful, but not at 100-per-cent capacity, who have the skills the small company needs, and welcome the opportunity to work a few days a week as corporate counsel.”
In fact, the market for “on-demand in-house counsel” is growing so quickly that, in 2010, ZSA established LexLocom, a new division designed “to provide a more flexible platform for legal staffing and resourcing in response to recent developments in the legal services industry, both in Canada and globally.”
Corporate law departments and general counsel are under increasing pressure to drive costs down. As a result, they are being forced to look at changes in the traditional ways legal services to their organizations are provided, says Scott Ewart, Chief Executive Officer of LexLocom.
In the US and UK, for example, the use of project counsel and contract counsel is a very large and quickly growing business, says Ewart. He anticipates a similar upswing in Canada as well.
For legal departments and the lawyers who choose to work as contract counsel, the key motivation is flexibility, says Ewart. “Associates on demand” [typically two to six years of post-call experience] do more routine commoditized work, especially when there is a limited time horizon in which they are required.
Then there’s project counsel, where LexLocom provides legal departments with lawyers who have specific expertise, for example, during a negotiation or the purchase or disposition of a business. “This type of on-demand position is typically time limited as well,” says Ewart, noting that these lawyers typically have six years of post-call experience. Most often, they are practitioners looking for a permanent job or for a real change of lifestyle from their law firm experience.
As part of its package of recruitment services, in October 2010 LexLocom opened a purpose-built RevDoc Centre in downtown Toronto, providing Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO).
As with most successful companies, recruiters look to repeat business as their core competency. “Very often our candidates become our clients later on,” says Lepofsky. “We place the lawyer in-house and later, when the law department is recruiting, the former candidate remembers their positive experience with us and returns as a client.”
So, “while trends come and go,” says Lepofsky, “successful recruiting doesn’t change with time and with economic climate. You’re hired to find talent, that’s your job, and essentially that relies on good communication — with candidates and clients.
“Transparency leads to trust, which is the best way to start and maintain a relationship,” he says. And, he adds, is also essential to a successful placement.
BY BEV CLINE