The War on Talent

By Sandford A. Lechtic
Daily Journal

The fight for talent is more intense and more ferocious than I’ve seen in the last 20 years.

While I often hear how tough and competitive New York City is, attorney recruitment in Los Angeles, especially at the partner level, has reached a feverish pitch. I only expect it to intensify in 2008 and 2009. In fact, our search portfolio has grown to the point that I’d hire three recruiters in a heartbeat, if I could.

Consider that, until recently, a law firm’s name and reputation was enough of a calling card to attract the best and the brightest. Today it is simply not enough. Quite frankly, some of the first tier firms have become second tier and vice versa.

Losing key lawyers and being unable to recruit outstanding laterals are two important factors. While profitability and branding are important, a law firm’s success in talent recruitment is increasingly separating the haves and the have‐nots. And the gap is widening.

As a headhunter, I have spent two decades working closely with senior level partners and leaders of large and small firms, and another decennium in the corporate executive search arena. With that experience, I can state without equivocation that never have so many firms been chasing so few, especially partners with practices over a million dollars. With rare exceptions, law firms do not want service partners, even if they were first in their class at Harvard, Yale or Stanford.

The wish list of many firms, especially non‐California firms invading California, are remarkably similar. Almost all our searches are for partners who specialize in complex business litigation and patent litigation, especially first chair trial lawyers, corporate and securities partners, real estate lawyers, “dirt” lawyers and employment litigators. We are getting ever more requests in the areas of insurance coverage, white‐collar crime, products liability and health care. In short, with so many national firms setting up shop in California, plus the existing cast of characters looking to grow, demand has far outstripped supply. Bill Quicksilver, chairman of Manatt, Phelps simply said, “It’s a war for talent”.

Surprisingly, many firms still don’t get it and often exclaim, “We heard so and so just moved his group to ABC firm, why didn’t we get a crack at them?” or “Why did he go there, we’re much better than that firm”? Nov. 18, 2007 The reality is that a relatively small handful of law firms, some large and national, some regional, some small, are simply more effective at CTL, capturing top laterals. Success begets more success and momentum increases their “capture ratio”.

Who wouldn’t want to move their practice to a vibrant, well‐managed, profitable firm that is bursting at the seams, full of excited, hard working lawyers with growing practices and, best of all, making the attorneys feel loved and wanted? Many law firms do not understand the importance of courtship, thinking that they can get a candidate to say yes simply by throwing enough money at him. Wrong.

If you hope to become a BSCTL (big success in capturing top laterals) firm, you should live by the following principles:

  1. Know thy product Know thyself. Know thy enemy. Know thy competition BSCTL firms better understand and articulate their vision, platform and growth objectives. They have a true sense of what they’re all about and what strategies will yield the best results. They play to their strengths and replace their weak links. A law firm that simply tells prospective candidates how collegial they are or that the firm is not a sweatshop is simply not good enough.

    BSCTL firms understand the competition for attorneys just as acutely as the competition for clients. Sometimes these firms actually contact us with their “short list” of ideal candidates, especially on high priority searches.

    Talent recruitment for BSCTL firms is a major, high‐priority objective. In fact, for some, it is second to none. They recognize that their ability to capture laterals, especially in key practice areas, will create the necessary “critical mass” to help win more beauty contests and clients, capture impact players, and grow their firm and profits.

  2. Create a Rapid Response “A” Team Approach We were recently working with an extremely prominent multi‐million dollar revenue practice group in Texas. Our law firm client knew timing was critical. They quickly assembled their “A” Team (chairman, managing partner of that office, and key partners). They were able to put on a full court press within ten days. BSCTL firms often take a blitzkrieg approach to capturing top laterals. The best firms assemble hard‐hitting partners who are not only outstanding lawyers but also effective advocates for that firm. Most leaders (and their firm’s most effective recruiting partners and administrators) have engaging personalities, a sense of humor and the ability to engender trust. If they weren’t lawyers they would probably make terrific headhunters.
  3. Bait the Hook to Suit the Fish Each law firm has a unique history, personality and story to tell. Different characters and the role they play can make all the difference in the world. Different practice areas often have different needs and different clients. Therefore, the pitch for a corporate partner may be much different than for an intellectual property litigator. What works for one individual or practice group may not work for another.

    To reel in the best prospects, top firms tailor their presentation to the key needs of the candidate. In some cases, they simply outbid the competition. But in most cases, key partners and marketing professionals identify compelling business opportunities and synergies that can be leveraged together.

  4. Create Partner Relationships with Legal Search Firms BSCTL firms at the top levels are working more closely with their most productive legal search firms. Our success in finding the core group of partners and associates for Winston & Strawn’s new L.A. office was based to a large degree in working closely with James Thompson, Winston’s then‐chairman and former four‐term Governor of Illinois, and Jim Neis, Winston’s managing partner. The several meetings we had with James and Jim gave us a greater sense of their strategy and vision, what they brought to the table, their personalities and how to most effectively share that vision with prospective laterals.

Our credibility was obviously enhanced by working closely with top management. Those relationships aided in moving the process along, easing compensation negotiations, and eventually closing the deals. Increasingly, more searches are retained and exclusive, more closely resembling non‐contingency searches in the corporate sector.

A firm’s reputation, client roster, profitability, people and culture are all important. However, with so many firms with partner profitability hovering around the million dollar mark, a few more bucks will usually not suffice as a clincher.

At the end of the day, law firms that more effectively adapt to changing market realities and prioritize their recruitment activities will continue to attract rainmakers, mist‐makers and those in‐between.

Sanford A. Lechtick is president of Esquire, Inc., a Los Angeles‐based legal search firm. He specializes in partner recruitment and law firm mergers and practice group acquisitions. He can be reached at www.sandy@esquiresearch.com