13 minute read

Tips for Using a Headhunter

Headhunters—also called recruiters—broker talent. They act as liaisons between law firms and attorneys, find out about openings, market candidates who may fit the profile, and help convince both parties they are a good match. Once the match is made, they receive hefty fees for their services (typically, 25 to 35 percent of the candidate's base salary). Sounds easy enough. In reality, however, their jobs can be difficult and mundane. Headhunters spend days making cold calls, writing and responding to e-mails, following up with firms, and trying to drum up new leads.

How to Find a Headhunter

Usually, headhunters find you. If you have been practicing at a medium or large firm for a year or longer, you have probably received a number of phone calls, e-mails, and letters from headhunters. When deciding to make a move, most attorneys make a mistake by zeroing in on a headhunter who recently called them. This is not the best way to find a good headhunter! If you want the best of the best to represent you, you must do some homework. Start by asking your friends for recommendations, and rely heavily on word of mouth. Spend some time conducting your own research, too. The National Association of Legal Research Consultants is a good place to start. It lists reputable legal recruiting firms, which are required to comply with strict ethical guidelines. Also, if your credentials match the strict criteria of elite headhunting firms, you can ask them for help. Once you come up with some names, research them online. Aim for headhunters with a Website, good references, solid credentials, and prior firm experience. Check out their references, if possible. If any of these components are missing, proceed with caution.

What to look for

The following characteristics can help you distinguish between bad headhunters and good ones:

  • • Good headhunters provide honest feedback. They will tell you if you are applying too soon, if your desire to switch practice areas will hurt your chances, or if they cannot help you at all.
  • • Good headhunters are willing to help you prepare for an interview or answer questions even when it does not generate a fee.
  • • They spend at least 30 to 60 minutes preparing each candidate for an interview.
  • • They are responsive to your requests, questions, and concerns.
  • • They call you periodically, even when there is nothing to report.
  • • They try to meet you in person.
  • • They try to be available at the time convenient for you (provided you gave advance notice).
  • • Good headhunters, just like good lawyers, will acknowledge your inquiries and let you know when you can expect to hear from them.
  • • They show sincere interest in your career development.
  • • They serve as career counselors by helping you polish your resume and prepare for interviews, by advising you about your job prospects, and by providing you with helpful information about specific employers.
  • • They come highly recommended.

What to watch out for

Stay away from headhunters that do not have a Website and whose references do not check out. Beware of headhunters that are unresponsive or that promise you the stars but never deliver. There are some headhunters who will take your resume and promise you a job without ever intending to follow up. This behavior usually indicates that the headhunter does not have any leads and is simply keeping your application on file in case something comes along. Avoid these kinds of headhunters, as well:

  • • Ones that try to match you with employers with bad reputation.
  • • Ones that target employers that do not meet your criteria.
  • • Ones that do not take the time to brainstorm options that may not generate a commission.
  • • Ones that do not instruct you to contact certain employers yourself.
  • • Ones that push you into accepting without helping you work out the pros and cons.

It is your responsibility to figure out whether to use a headhunter, whether to replace them, and when to be more proactive in your job search. If your headhunter is not being responsive, this is the first sign of trouble. And, of course, if it has been months, and the vague promises of jobs with top-ranked firms have not materialized, you should probably seek help elsewhere.

Who Can Use a Headhunter

For obvious reasons, headhunters do not represent candidates they do not think they can place. Generally, they work with candidates who have at least a year of firm experience. So you may not be able to work with a headhunter if your experience is limited to clerking, working for the government, working at a small firm, or working for less than a year. The key is to highlight a particular skill or experience that will make you an attractive candidate. Excellent work experience, publishing your work, and developing an expertise are all different ways to enhance your marketability. Make sure to mention these selling points to your headhunter when you first contact them.

Headhunters sometimes even turn down senior attorneys. This is because they do not want to put their reputation on the line with candidates who may not work out. So a partner who was de-equatized or a senior associate who was asked to leave his or her previous employer may have a harder time finding a reputable headhunter. As one recruiter says, “I would never work with candidates with a questionable past. I had a partner once ask me to help him move to a different firm. Excited about earning a six-figure referral fee, I did not do any homework about the partner. It was discovered later that the partner was fired from his former firm because he hired a female escort and billed it as a firm expense. I had put my reputation at stake by marketing him. I learned my lesson.”

Sometimes, a headhunter may simply turn a candidate away because of the candidate's unreasonable demands or strong sense of entitlement. One respectable recruiting firm was rumored to have turned down a female partner after she commented, “Find out how much that job pays, because I am not commuting downtown for less than a million a year.” Regardless of your level of seniority or experience, if a headhunter declines to work with you, do not be discouraged. Instead, ask them what you can do to make your candidacy more desirable, and take their feedback to heart. Then contact other legal recruiters to see if someone else may be interested in working with you. Mention that you would agree to representation even with the understanding that your chances are slim.

When to use a headhunter

Here are some situations in which using a headhunter might be helpful:

  1. If you are pressed for time. The most important reason why lateral attorneys use headhunters is because of the tremendous amount of time and resources it takes to apply on their own. Let's face it—you cannot exactly ask your current employer to provide you with fancy resume paper and free mailing labels for your job search. You may also find it difficult to conduct a thorough job search and to go through the application process while you are billing hours at the office. Once you submit your resume to a headhunter, they do all the work for you. They are the ones polishing your resume, making phone calls, writing e-mails, drafting cover letters, and following-up with potential employers. They can also ensure that your job search is as thorough as possible. And she can help you make your move fast. When you are applying on your own, it can take months before you receive any feedback about your applications. But with a headhunter's help, you can move in as little as three weeks.
  2. If you are relocating. Michael Allen, a cofounder of Lateral Link, says using a headhunter is practically mandatory if you are moving to a new job market. This is especially true if you do not have a lot of free time on your hands. A headhunter will help you navigate through unfamiliar territory, educate you on market-specific cultural differences, and offer their regional knowledge to help with your job search. Furthermore, they will help you ensure that your interviewing schedule in the new market is neatly packed into one or two trips, rather than the multiple trips you may face if applying on your own.
  3. If you have questions or need someone with connections. Good headhunters are resourceful. They hold your hand throughout the process, answer your questions about the firm, and address your concerns. They also serve as a liaison between you and the firm, and give the firm an opportunity to ask you questions it would not be able to ask otherwise. And, if they are really good, they will be on a first-name basis with the recruiting coordinators, so their submissions receive priority attention. They also have good connections and a solid reputation in the legal community. Many headhunters are known for working only with those candidates who have strong credentials or who are otherwise a perfect match for the advertised positions. These headhunters can vouch for their candidates, as they always verify resumes for accuracy. So employers commonly rely on these headhunters to do their screening for them, and they view submissions from these headhunters as more credible.
  4. If you need extra cash. Some recruiting companies now offer an added incentive for lateral candidates. If you work with their headhunters, you can receive a placement bonus after you accept an offer you secured with the headhunter's help. For some, especially for junior candidates burdened with student loans, this bonus can be a huge incentive.
  5. If you need to up your negotiating power. Headhunters can help you gain greater bargaining power with legal employers. Although you should always try to negotiate with your employer about things that are important to you, headhunters are always in a much better position to negotiate with the firm on your behalf. They know how to use your offer from one potential employer as leverage in negotiations with others. They can also help you raise the issues with the firm you may be reluctant to raise on your own. Finally, they can ask sensitive financial questions that should not be asked in person. For instance, if you want to inquire about a signing bonus or an extra year of credit, or ask the firm to match incentives offered by another firm, it is easier to have the headhunter do the talking. That way, you do not risk coming off as greedy—it is just the headhunter, doing his or her job.

When not to use a headhunter

There are some not-so-obvious disadvantages to working with a headhunter. For starters, headhunters do not always have your best interests in mind. Driven by the incentive to collect their fee, they may push you into accepting with a firm that is not your ideal fit. Additionally, headhunters charge firms substantial fees, and this can make it more difficult for you to land your dream job. For example, when presented with two equally qualified candidates, the firm may choose the one who did not use a headhunter in order to save on the hiring expenses. In fact, certain firms may not interview any candidates who apply through headhunters. This is especially true for smaller, regional firms and for candidates with little work experience. Moreover, employers who are flooded with qualified applicants do not have the need to shell out headhunter fees.

Finally, you may have to forego a headhunter if you are hoping to receive a significant signing bonus or reimbursement of your debt to the old firm. In some cases, employers are more reluctant to sweeten the pot if it costs them money to hire you. Therefore, depending on your job preferences, you should weigh your options carefully.

Arianna, who was looking to make a lateral move as a third-year associate, retained an elite recruiting firm to help her with her search. Even though she practiced in a large city, there were only eight firms to which she could apply, due to the nature of her practice and her desire to work at a large firm. Fortunately for Arianna, she had excellent credentials. Even so, because of the limited number of options, she decided to apply to three law firms on her own and to the other five using a headhunter. She ended up with invitations to interview at the three firms where she applied by herself. The other five firms that were approached via a headhunter either declined to interview her or indicated they would keep her resume on file “in case something came up.” Notably, because there was an economic slowdown that year, it was a bad year to be making a move. The five firms to which Arianna applied with the headhunter would have hired her, but they were discouraged from interviewing her due to the added expense of the headhunter's fee.

When in doubt

If you are unsure whether you should work with a headhunter, consider splitting your duties. Ask the headhunter to approach certain firms, indicating that you will apply to other firms yourself. This way, if the headhunter's fee turns out to be a discouragement for some firms, you will still have other opportunities available to you at the firms where you applied on your own. Furthermore, a headhunter may be willing to reduce their fee for cost-sensitive firms, so remember to ask if that is an option.

Another important tip to keep in mind is that you should never work with more than one headhunter in the same geographical area. Inevitably, they will end up submitting your applications to the same employers, creating confusion and making you appear unprofessional. The only time you should use two headhunters for your search is when you are applying in two different locations and want to work with headhunters who know the intricacies of both geographical areas. And even then, be sure to inform them about their mutual existence to help avoid duplicate submissions.

Finally, in some circumstances, you may find that an internal referral by someone who knows you and who already works at your dream firm may work much better for you than a referral from a headhunter. However, make sure that your reference has a solid reputation at the firm. If you are in doubt regarding his or her reputation, only use this person as an information resource, and submit an application on your own.

If you decide to move, headhunters—especially good ones—can make your life a lot easier. Before you retain a headhunter, however, consider your particular circumstances and market conditions. Make certain that the headhunter's fee will not deter employers from hiring you. If you work with a headhunter, ask them to lay out a realistic career trajectory for you, and do your own research to ensure you are getting the whole picture. Finally, make sure that your headhunter keeps in touch with you and does not put your career goals on the back burner. Remember, a headhunter can be a great resource, but, ultimately, you are responsible for your own career.


  • • Typically, candidates with at least one year of law firm experience can use headhunters.
  • • Share your key selling points during your first conversation with a headhunter to ensure that they get the full picture.
  • • Do not rely on cold-calling when choosing a headhunter; do your own homework and check references.
  • • Pros: They act as gatekeepers for the firm, possessing all the inside information about openings and ensuring that your resume gets noticed. It is also much easier to make a move with the help of a headhunter rather than it is doing it on your own.
  • • Cons: Their work is fee-driven, and they may attempt to influence your choice for the sake of making a placement. Some firms may also pass on your candidacy because of headhunter fees.
  • • If you are not getting enough attention or feedback from your headhunter, start looking for a different one or apply on your own.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw Job Interviews