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Why Retaining a Legal Recruiter Exclusively Yields Better Results

October 19, 2023

Why Retaining a Legal Recruiter Exclusively Yields Better Results

This scenario highlights what can go wrong, and how, so that you can avoid some of the pitfalls and make sure you get the project completed first time, pain-free!

Imagine this scenario from your own perspective as a legal recruitment customer, whether you’re a lawyer or someone who wants to hire one.  

Real Life Legal Recruitment Case Study

Last year, Florit Legal was recommended to a new client from the in-house legal recruiter at an international law firm who knew how we work and vouched for us. 

Following the recommendation, we had an initial discovery call with the client. They needed to hire a Head of Legal and we helped them to do so. But it’s the manner in which the project started which is the subject of this article.

After speaking with us, the client confirmed that they had decided our proposal and recruitment model was the best fit for their needs. They signed off on our terms, and gave us an exclusive mandate to manage the recruitment on their behalf. We then went on site to meet with key stakeholders and developed a full brief. We were excited to present the opportunity to a number of senior legal candidates we had identified and, with the client’s approval, immediately started work. However, no sooner had we started our initial dialogue with candidates than someone got in touch to say that they had actually been telephoned by another recruitment company about exactly the same role a fortnight earlier and so was clearly confused as to what was going on.

Although this is a real scenario, for the purposes of this blog post we’ll refer to the the client by the fictitious name ‘GEM plc’ and the other recruiters by the equally fictitious ‘MEH Legal’.

The candidate was obviously surprised, since they had been expecting to receive some feedback from MEH following the discussion which took place 2 weeks earlier, and now he had learned that we had been formally retained by GEM to undertake the search on an exclusive basis. It was an even bigger surprise to the two directors at GEM, one of whom was immediately telephoned by MEH essentially insisting that GEM interview the six or so candidates that they had put forward which GEM had already decided not to, since they did not meet the brief. We later learned that the CVs for these candidates had been presented without terms having been presented to GEM. For a number of reasons, the HRD and the CEO, to whom the appointee was to report, weren’t at all happy with how MEH had conducted themselves.

This is not the first time this has happened to clients and candidates, or us. But it raises some important questions, such as:

  • How and why does a situation like this occur?
  • What are the consequences for the client and the candidate?
  • And what can you do to prevent this when you have an important in-house legal role you wish to fill?

It’s not the customer’s fault

Let’s start with one undeniable truth. This isn’t the client’s fault.

The onus is on potential recruitment suppliers, like us and MEH, to engage with the client appropriately and establish the correct footing on which to proceed, before doing so. Recruitment businesses need to be absolutely clear on next steps, especially if, like here, the client had never recruited a legal and compliance professional before (having previously opted to outsource all the work to a couple of law firms). They needed more guidance.

Traditionally, one of the options open to clients has been to give the job to multiple recruitment companies concurrently. This is a choice that clients are entirely free to make. If it works consistently well, as it sometimes does with uber-brands, then fine. And whilst this project didn’t even go down the multi-agency avenue there are some parallels which highlight why it’s sensible to consider retaining a recruiter exclusively. The people at GEM were one stage away from that decision, simply having some exploratory conversations with a couple of businesses they perceived might be the right fit for what they wanted. Unfortunately, one of those businesses jumped in and essentially started working on the so-called ‘no win, no fee’ basis whilst we were establishing a firmer footing on how things ought to work on GEM’s project. 

In the last 10-15 years we’ve listened to clients and candidates recount an increasing level of frustration and dissatisfaction with the ‘no win, no fee’, contingent recruitment model for a variety of reasons. And if there is a common theme it can probably be summed up with the words “poor customer experience”. This was a typical example of that. In fact it’s one of the key driving forces behind why three of us started Florit Legal in the first place – in an effort to maintain standards and not cut corners. ‘No win, no fee’ inadvertently makes speed more important than quality. Instead, getting the right result – a shortlist of highly capable potential appointees who are likely to “fit” your culture, and will stay the course – is of paramount importance. Equally important is the way your company is represented in the market for legal talent. Your recruiters are your ambassadors, and need to work in harmony with you, as if they were an extension of your talent acquisition team (if you have one). 

Reasons to Retain a Legal Recruiter Exclusively

Awkward or embarrassing problems that arise when clients use multiple agencies on a no win, no fee basis are nothing new. However, after nearly 30 years in the space I’m still quite surprised that situations like our scenario still occur.

It just doesn’t make sense for MEH to have acted in this way, when the client had immediately indicated (to us, at least), a preference for appointing someone to undertake their Head of Legal search on an exclusively retained basis. Perhaps MEH didn’t ask whether that’s what GEM wanted. Maybe they just assumed it would just be yet another “CV-race” situation because they simply find they end up working on an entirely contingent basis most of the time. 

In recent years, a preference for retaining recruitment businesses on an exclusive mandate is something we have almost come to expect at levels from Senior Counsel upwards and particularly in relation to first in-house counsel appointments like this one. It’s becoming more and more common.

Since GEM had never done any legal recruitment before, you can’t really blame them for wanting to have exploratory discussions with more than one potential supplier first, before deciding who to go with. I can’t think of any B2B scenario where a client doesn’t start by having two or three initial exploratory discussions first, and then asking for a proposal before engaging a supplier.

(Incidentally, although our scenario relates to in-house legal recruitment, exactly the same can be said of any niche market focused on the recruitment of professionals and subject matter experts at all levels – not just Head of Legal, General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer.)

The benefits of retaining a legal recruiter include:

A Better Quality Legal Recruitment Service

By retaining a single legal recruitment consultancy, clients gain the undivided attention and expertise of a dedicated specialist, with relevant contacts, developed over time, in a niche market.

With an exclusive mandate, the recruiter can take the necessary time to focus solely on the client’s needs, developing a relationship of trust, engaging in detailed interviews, and then advising on the relative strengths of candidates presented.

This high level of commitment from each party to the other ensures a higher quality of service, enhanced understanding of the client’s requirements, and greater effectiveness in finding a ‘best-fit’ in-house lawyer for your business.

Perceived Attractiveness of Your Role to Candidates

When a client engages multiple recruiters for a single position, it sends mixed messages to candidates who will be contacted by more than one recruiter about the same career opportunity. However, it’s the impression created more subtly in the mind of the candidate in this scenario that is the most problematic.

To understand this, simply consider how you would feel about viewing a house for sale with multiple “for sale” signs outside it, versus a house with just one or none. The more times you are called about a vacancy, the less attractive it feels.

Candidates frequently comment: “Everyone seems to have this job” or “Why can they not find anyone?”. The underlying message is “there’s a problem associated with it” or “it can’t be that enticing”.

When all is said and done, the opportunity cannot possibly have been conveyed in such a way as to appear as attractive as it would have done had you appointed one legal recruitment specialist exclusively to partner with you. Otherwise the perceived value presented by the opportunity is diminished in the mind of the candidate.

The Quality of Legal Candidates Shortlisted is Directly Proportional to the Quality of the Brief Taken

Hiring managers, HR and talent acquisition teams all have limited time on their hands. When you decide that it makes sense to outsource your legal recruitment, it also makes sense to expect to spend a proper amount of time on giving the recruiter the most detailed brief possible.

You would expect them to be eager to get to know your business. They’ll show this by wanting to have meaningful dialogue with the individual the role reports into (eg CEO, CFO or General Counsel, depending on the level of the role) but also other key stakeholders involved in the recruitment process (eg the Chair, other Board members, HRD and their talent team). To do this well, can’t be skimmed over.

If you engage with multiple recruiters, time pressures will inevitably dictate that quality of the brief they take away will be diluted by a factor equivalent to the amount of time you have, and the number of recruiters you are able to have meaningful conversations with. Very often, you don’t have enough time to develop the brief with all of them. So just brief one. You’ll get far better results and have a much more enjoyable experience, with less stress.

Working in this way enables your recruiter to take time be more targeted and selective – headhunting someone you both perceive will be best suited to your role (whether they are already actively seeking opportunities or not). They will be looking at the widest possible candidate pool. Not just those that happen to be job hunting.

Furthermore, when your legal recruitment partner discusses a longlist of candidates with you – the motivation will be to arrive at an interview shortlist of lawyers you’ve decided on together, based on their relative strengths, and objective advice from your recruiter gleaned from interviews and other candidate dialogue. Contrast this with the ‘no-win, no-fee’ model where you cannot ever extinguish an overwhelming desire on the part of one recruiter or pressure to beat a competitor to a fee. 

To ensure you receive the right quality of candidates and service, the time for recruiters to compete against one another is at the pitch or proposal stage, not the shortlisting stage. Only then can you ensure that you get the best advice on comparative suitability of each candidate from the experts you’ve been recommended to use. 

You Avoid Confusion and Miscommunication

Both these factors were evident in the scenario we faced with this client and competitor.

If you don’t go exclusively with one legal recruiter, candidates can end up receiving conflicting information about their application or the ongoing status of the hiring process. This causes frustration and reflects poorly on both the client and the recruiter.

By appointing a single recruitment consultancy, clients can mitigate the risk of miscommunication, ensuring a clear and consistent message is given to candidates throughout the process. More importantly, as a client, you maintain the same level of control of the situation as you would do if you had carried out the process yourself. Ultimately, everyone avoids having to send or receive messages like the one in the (appropriately redacted) example below. Confusion benefits nobody, and can inadvertently reflect poorly on your business.

Ethics and Professionalism

How do you actually feel about recruiters who rush off and present a shortlist of candidates without you having agreed terms first? Have they really fully understood your needs or the brief? 

Regardless of which industry you work in you wouldn’t expect any supplier to act unilaterally because they perceived you needed their services – “leaving 3 pints of milk on your doorstep and expecting to be paid”, as one GC client of ours once described CVs that arrive in their inbox out the blue. If a recruiter does this, doesn’t it just leave you feeling they are wasting their time, candidates’ time and yours? And what if one or two candidates look okay on paper, but the recruitment partner you appointed exclusively subsequently engages with one of them, not realising that another recruiter had already jumped the gun? This situation gets messy, wastes everyone’s time and, at worst, could end up in a fee dispute. Keep things simple. Select a reputable, specialist recruitment consultancy to work with, exclusively, and your recruitment process will be handled transparently, ethically and professionally.

Why does this still happen? 

We actually asked some clients and contacts for their views, and here’s some condensed snippets of what they said:

  1. Misunderstanding: “I suppose it’s possible that [the recruiter] simply misinterpreted the situation when he heard us say that we were reaching out to them and a couple of other recruitment businesses in connection with an in-house legal recruitment project”. Fine, misunderstandings occur. However, not seeking clarity on how the project should be conducted after an initial discussion is the fault of the recruiter, not the client.
  2. Pressure of revenue targets: “When I turn to recruiters who claim to specialise in a particular professional niche, it’s easy to tell the difference between salespeople and true consultants”. Some recruiters may feel the need to secure a sale by way of a placement and demonstrate their effectiveness by presenting shortlisted candidates, even without terms having been signed. “Perhaps they are feeling the pressure of high targets for the number of CVs sent to the jobs they are looking to fill”. The fear of missing out on a potential fee can drive recruiters to take shortcuts, focusing on speed rather than service and quality.
  3. Lack of Integrity: “Unfortunately, not all recruiters operate with the highest ethical standards…. We’ve had situations where it’s obvious that some are simply prioritising their own interests over ours as a client, in an attempt to gain an advantage over the competition and see if they can get away with it”.  
  4. Short-Term Gain Mentality: “Ever since I was a relatively junior in-house lawyer, right up to building a team as a Head of Legal, it’s clear to me that some recruiters seem to prioritise quick wins over establishing a relationship of trust and delivering a proper legal recruitment service”.
  5. Lack of Confidence: “Having worked as a recruiter before I became a lawyer, I sometimes wonder if some recruiters just lack the confidence in their own ability to secure exclusive mandates, or the right spread of candidates, and/or simply don’t want any pressure to deliver if the brief turns out to be difficult”.

In Summary

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself the question, if MEH Legal (and there are others like them) feel that it’s perfectly okay to present half a dozen candidates really quickly, without having taken the trouble to present the option of working in an exclusively partnership, or to take time to meet the client and develop a full brief, or even get clear terms signed off before starting work, then whose interests has the recruiter placed uppermost in the transaction?

In any recruitment scenario, the practice of engaging multiple recruiters simultaneously can have detrimental effects on both clients and candidates. By appointing a single recruitment consultancy exclusively, clients unlock numerous benefits, including elevated service quality, maintaining a positive market reputation, high quality candidate briefs and the highest chances of getting the best result at the end of the process. Such an approach also ensures ethical conduct and fosters professionalism within the industry.


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