Legal recruitment: a broken model?

by NZ Lawyer22 Sep 2014
Sean Walters, co-founder of the alternative outsourcing recruitment firm virtualRPO, says the legal sector needs to rethink its recruiting practices. He tells us why:
There are traditionally two ways the legal sector recruit: the first is through personal networks where a suitable person is approached directly, usually through an ‘off the record’ chat, and usually in a bar somewhere. With this more informal, networked approach, it is ad hoc and it doesn’t mean you are covering the whole market. It’s more often a case of leaving your talent sourcing to chance and connections.
The second way is through a recruitment or search agency. The advantage of this practice is of course that the agency does all the legwork and can usually tap up candidates anonymously, without initially revealing the employer brand they represent.
But I’ve got to say – that second model is deeply flawed, and it’s something that needs addressing.”
A flawed model
Most agencies that recruit in the legal space will have more than one client, meaning that many of your competitors will be off limits to directly head hunt out of.
The truth is this – once you recruit for a law firm, you can no longer head hunt from them, which means the talent pool for their other clients is severely limited.
Next time you engage a recruitment agency, or even if you are currently working with one, ask them which other law firms they are working for because that will reveal who they can’t get talent from. If there are other law firms on their books, you should question the value that recruitment agency can add if they cannot approach the top talent from your competitors. Of course, motivated talent might respond to an ad on Seek or LinkedIn, but if you are targeting the top biller of another firm, and your recruitment agency already represents that firm, a shoulder tap to that tip biller is off limits to you through an agency approach.
The reality is your chosen recruitment agency may only give you access to a third of the market.
Some traditional recruitment agencies are essentially saying: “Unless you give us business we will take your staff for our other clients.”  To combat this, I’ve heard of law firms that will engage with a specialist legal recruiter purely to make sure that their staff are not head hunted by that agency for competitors.
The traditional model can work, but there are some pretty significant pitfalls, and the list of people you can poach from is actually quite limited. Rest assured though, recruitment firms will never tell you that unless you ask.
A new approach to recruitment
The beauty of having your own internal recruitment function or recruitment contractor working for you means that you can headhunt from any of your competition, at any time. With virtualRPO for example, our on demand recruiters are a contracted directly to you and what they do is solely on your behalf.
The smart legal firms are pushing towards an in-house model of recruitment, which allows you to head hunt from any of your competitors. It’s also worth mentioning that as part of the evolution of recruitment in all industries, progressive firms are moving towards proactive market mapping before a vacancy is even live.
An effective way to do this is carrying out forensic mapping of your competitors – that includes scouring LinkedIn, law journals, media articles, newsletters, having informal meetings with talent etc., and then when your vacancy does go live you’ve already identified the movers and shakers in the industry.
Who really owns your candidate IP?
Another issue that would benefit from some light being shed upon it is the ownership of your IP.
As a lawyer you fight tooth and nail to protect your clients’ IP, however, what about the IP a recruitment agency is collecting when hiring for your firm – who owns that market knowledge?
When your firm briefs a recruitment agency, they then advertise the role, map the market, and compile a list of top candidates. But you only hire one of those candidates, and pay a hefty fee to the agency for the privilege. But what happens to those additional candidates?
Chances are, some of these candidates will be placed by the same agency with some of your competitors.
Worse case, hiring via the traditional agency model can actually help to grow your competitors’ capability. With in-house recruitment, or your own recruitment contractor, you benefit from holding onto that list, which most likely contains your hires of the future.
Strategic recruitment on the rise
Switched on businesses are mapping the market and their competitors, not only from the recruitment perspective, but also to get intelligence on the market – what deals are happening, which business areas are growing and staffing up, which talent is where and what are they doing?
Through market mapping and talking to candidates, you can find out if your competitors are gearing up for a deal, who’s who in your competition’s business, who and how they are hiring, and if staff are leaving a certain area and so on. It’s a gold mine. 
Radical change needed
The most radical – and advantageous – thing the legal sector could do would be to engage senior in-house recruiters, either on a permanent or flexible contract basis, representing only that firm and who has carte blanche to map out and head hunt the whole market. The traditional recruitment model might be well sold by the agencies, but doesn’t run nearly as well for your firm when you look under the bonnet.
Sean Walters is co-founder of alternative recruitment firm, virtualRPO, offering a better hire for half the cost.