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Legal head hunting important in New Zealand

Negative reactions by law firms who lose a valued staff member to a competitor appear to have reduced over time, says legal recruiter Lisa Gray of specialist professional recruitment firm Tyler Wren.

“Ten years ago firms would be very emotive about their staff leaving them for whatever reason. Some of that is still true today, but the legal workforce has become more and more transient and the average life span of a job is far less across all industries than it was a few years ago,” she says.

“If a solicitor up to 5 years’ PQE chooses to leave a firm there tends to be less fall out. For staff with over 5 years’ experience there tends to be more sensitivity due to client relationships and it being even more difficult to replace that person.

Gray says employer reputation is also now important – if someone is treated poorly when they leave a firm, word tends to get around.

“With this in mind, firms are much less likely to respond negatively, but rather they try to retain their people with great culture, work conditions and pay and benefits.”

With the current legal skill shortage, Tyler Wren has observed an increase in the targeting of lawyers with particular expertise for roles in competing firms. Some firms are producing their own lists and going after people they want for their teams.

“New Zealand’s law networks have always been tight and people simply have good relationships and reputations, which is why sometimes this shoulder tapping exercise works,” Gray says.

“Firms also approach us to do this on their behalf as they do not want a potential candidate feeling overwhelmed to scare them off or, at the other end of the spectrum, over-flatter them which can result in unrealistic expectations in terms of salary and work arrangements.”

The image of a legal head hunter

Head hunting, poaching, shoulder tapping, targeted contact … many New Zealand lawyers will have been approached by a recruiter seeking to lure them from their current employer to another.

“They are humorously called ‘flesh peddlers’ in the legal industry,” says one Shortland Street partner.

According to Gray, there is a vast difference between the popular image of a Wolf of Wall Street-type character and a good legal recruiter.

“We can be seen as the bad guys for engaging with potential job seekers, but the plain fact of the matter is that if someone is genuinely happy and all of their current needs are being met, they won’t move.”

Gray estimates that of 10 head hunt contact calls or emails, only two people are likely to engage. She says unless someone has a very clear reason for wanting to move – and this could be a need to relocate, a blocked career pathway, a need to change work hours or a change of management – people will generally stay with their current employer.

She finds the response from someone who is approached by a head hunter can range from fear to flattery as well as indignation, which she says is rare.

“Lawyers are traditionally low risk individuals so there is a lot more to it than making a call and a lawyer making a snap decision to move. Some lawyers like firms to approach them directly especially if they know a partner and have worked with them on projects and transactions, others like to keep the distance between them and use someone like us as a buffer, especially if they want to consider more than one opportunity.”

Range of skills needed

Good head hunters need to be able to engage and build a connection from a cold start with intelligent, well-informed, risk-adverse commercial lawyers, she says.

“They are an encyclopedia of information and are not asking candidates to commit to anything until they choose to engage fully with them. They can give advice on the New Zealand jobs market, help to career plan, give salary and benefits information and also act as a sounding board if a job seeker is looking for support from a non-emotive third party.

“For employers they are a great way to find good candidates that are not available through job ads and personal networks.

“They actually work pretty hard. Most head hunters are often talking to potential job seekers outside of a lawyer’s work hours, which we know can be pretty long.”

A long process

Gray stresses that it can take a long time once a person has been contacted to explore their willingness to change firms.

“It often takes many months – even years – before candidates decide that they want to make a move or consider an opportunity. I recently placed a senior person and our conversations were over an 18-month period.”

Research and market knowledge are essential ingredients. Gray says her firm will often market map a particular sector within law and then make direct approaches to people.

“We will ask firms who their competitors are, which firms they respect, which lawyers they think might be a great fit, while some firms will give us a list of people to approach. We also have an in-house colleague based in the United Kingdom to focus on New Zealand-qualified lawyers working overseas, as we all know many go on an OE at some point.”

Sometimes it can go awry. The Shortland Street partner, who has a Legal 500 ranking, has been approached by recruiters (not Tyler Wren) with the offer of senior associate roles at one of the other large firms.

Somewhat jaundiced from this, he observes: “Recruiters will often disparage your firm to your face in attempt to get you to move elsewhere, and then they end up recruiting lawyers for the firm they disparaged.”  

Gray differs of course, and says a good head hunter is not out to make a short-term placement or fee, but to genuinely see if they can improve on someone’s current situation.

“The myth that people will jump for money is an old one and doesn’t attract the right candidates. Firms are making counter offers when one of their team resigns, so it is a lot of work just for someone to use as a leverage tool.

“In my personal opinion, good head hunters are very skilled at what they do. The good ones do their research and approach those who might be ready for a move even if they don’t know it yet. There are a vast number of reasons as to why someone might engage and look at other options – our job is to find out what these might be, if someone is being realistic as to their reasons for moving and whether there is a particular firm that can offer that particular opportunity.”