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What You Need to Know about Headhunters


The business of legal search, a.k.a. “headhunting,” is the most misunderstood area of job hunting insofar as attorneys are concerned. The confusion the term elicits causes more time wasted by job-seeking lawyers than any other element of the job-search process. This blog post intends to clear up any confusion about headhunters and their utility to you.

What is “Headhunting?”

A typical headhunting operation follows several prescribed steps:

An intermediary–a legal search firm is given a “job order” by a client (usually a major law firm) and asked to find an attorney to fit the client’s specified criteria. The relationship between client and headhunter is usually spelled out in a written contingent agreement covering such points as–

  • the fee to be paid to the headhunter if a successful placement is made (typically 20-30 percent of the first year’s salary or overall compensation);
  • what constitutes a successful placement (usually that the attorney remains with the employer for at least one year);
  • the headhunter’s obligations in the event the attorney does not “work out” (i.e., left of his or her own volition; was fired or terminated for other reasons; etc.). Headhunters traditionally were obligated to find a replacement for the attorney who did not work out, at no additional fee to the employer.

The headhunter then proceeds to research the pool of candidates who fit the client’s criteria and generates a list of names.

The headhunter contacts the attorneys on the list and asks if they might be interested in the opportunity.

After coming up with several suitable and interested candidates, the headhunter submits their resumes to the client.

If the client wishes, the headhunter conducts initial interviews and reports on the results to the client.

The headhunter might conduct resume verification and reference checks and provide written reports to the client.

The headhunter often acts as an intermediary in scheduling the interviews, and prepares the attorney for the interview.

The headhunter receives feedback from the client concerning the interview, assists in scheduling any subsequent interviews, and tries to resolve any issues or questions that may have arisen.

If the client hires one of the headhunter’s candidates, the fee is paid to the headhunter.

Note. A minority of headhunters operate on a “retained-search” basis, where they get paid, up-front, by the client, and keep the money regardless of the search results. In contrast to the “contingent” search described above, a headhunter operating under a retainer is given exclusivity regarding the search.

Who is the Headhunter’s Client?

The law firm, corporation, or other organization giving the headhunter the job order—and paying the legal search fee—is the client. the employer makes the rules governing the serach criteria. Don’t make the mistake of believing that you are the client. Unfortunately, some attorneys who are under this delusion come on so strong in their initial contact with a headhunter that they ruin whatever opportunities might have come their way via the headhunter, assuming s/he deemed them “placeable” candidates at all.

The relationship among the three parties to a legal search is analogous to a real estate transaction: The seller (i.e., the employer) “hires” the realtor (i.e., the headhunter) to find a buyer (i.e., the attorney candidate). The realtor’s client is the seller, not the buyer.

What Constitutes a “Placeable” Candidate?

A placeable candidate is one who fits the rigorous criteria imposed by the hiring organization. These criteria are usually very strict. It is a very rare candidate who meets these stringent qualifications…which is why a hefty fee is paid to the search firm that finds this perfect candidate.

What Are the Typical Qualification Criteria?

The following yardsticks govern almost all headhunter legal searches:


Graduation from a top law school (universally recognized as such);

Law review (preferably via grades/class rank as opposed to a writing competition), or some other exceptional law school honor, such as Order of the Coif;

Class rank in the top 20-25 percent of the law school class (with some occasional variances, e.g., a lower class rank if you went to a top-10 law school; higher class rank the lower your law school’s ranking)[see “Exceptions,” below];

At least one year of experience, preferably two years; and

Experience with a major law firm.


Significant, provable portable business. Law firms who take assertions of portable business on faith are often burned. Savvy firms seek detailed written verification before taking a chance on a lateral partner.


The regional exception to the top law school “rule.” Employers sometimes include the pre-eminent regional law school(s) along with the top schools in the country as a suitable source of attorney candidates. For example, law firms in Georgia may consider candidates from the top schools as well as Emory Law School.

The “arguable”-top-10-law-school exception. There is always debate about which schools are included in any top-10 list. Opinions vary once you get beyond the “consensus” schools like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia, for example. There are about 15-20 schools that often appear on someone’s top-10 list.

The hot-practice-area exception. Certain practice areas in great demand sometimes compel employers to relax their otherwise strict criteria. During recessions, for example, commercial bankruptcy attorneys with good experience, but without stellar academic or professional credentials, are sometimes courted and successfully placed by headhunters. Certain intellectual property lawyers, for example, do not have to be academic superstars happily ensconced in a prestigious law firm to attract headhunter interest.

The very-top-of-the-class exception. Although the Pennsyltucky Night School of Law may not be among the top 100 in the U.S., it is likely that the handful of graduates at the very top of the class at Pennsyltucky will interest certain headhunters.

Where Do Headhunters Find Candidates Who Match These Criteria?

As the moniker “headhunter” implies, they hunt for them. They customarily come to the candidate; not the other way around. The ideal candidate is one who is currently employed in a major law firm and not actively seeking new employment. The headhunter uses all of his or her persuasive abilities to convince the happy attorney that the grass is truly greener elsewhere.

Rarely, superb resumes will come to the headhunter unsolicited. Most placements result from the headhunter’s initiative, not the candidate’s.

Are Headhunters Ever Interested in Third-Year Law Students or Recent Law School Graduates?

No. Don’t waste your time. This is a milieu where experience really counts.

What are the Economics of the Typical Legal Search Transaction?

Finding the “right” candidate is very important to employers. Consequently, they are willing to pay top dollar both to the candidate and for the candidate. Employers are willing to pay high fees only in return for being presented with candidates who meet the exacting criteria outlined above.

If the placed candidate does not “work out” (during the first 6-12 months or whatever other time period is agreed upon by the parties), the headhunter is usually obligated to replace the candidate with a new one satisfactory to the law firm, at no additional charge.

What Percentage of Attorneys Change Jobs Through Headhunting?

There are no precise statistics available. However, a reasonable, educated guess might be in the 5-percent range. The other 95 percent of job-changing lawyers transition from one position to another without the intermediation of a headhunter.

How Should You Approach a Headhunter If You Think You Are a Placeable Candidate?

Send the headhunter your resume. There is no need to call beforehand or follow-up. It is very much in the headhunter’s interests to contact you, determine your professional goals, and present your credentials to prospective employers. Headhunters do not like–and do not need–to be barraged with phone calls. Remember, you are not the client.

Of course, if you fall into the small percentage of truly placeable candidates, it is highly likely that you receive headhunting calls all the time. If you do not, that may be an important indicator that you should be seeking other paths to make a job change.

Do I Need To Worry About Having My Interest in Leaving My Current Job Revealed?

No. A legitimate headhunter (and it is very much in each headhunter’s interest to be legitimate, or s/he will soon be out of business) will not present your credentials to a client without your prior approval.

Where Can I Get a List of Headhunters in a Specific Geographic Area?

The National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) maintains a searchable directory of its members. Here you can also identify headhunters who specialize in certain practice areas or certain employment sectors. NALSC members pledge to adhere to a code of ethics.

Do Corporations Ever Use Headhunters?

Yes, but not often for recruiting attorneys. Their HR and general counsel offices are typically inundated with resumes from qualified major law firm lawyers seeking greener grass in-house.

What about an Employment Agency?

In contrast to headhunters, employment agencies charge the job-seeker a fee. They do not earn fees for placing candidates.

There are no legitimate employment agencies that assist attorneys. If an organization tells you that it is able to (1) get you interviews; (2) get your resume to interested human resources offices; or (3) get you a job, take your money and run the other way. If you cannot obtain detailed evidence of the veracity of such claims (and it is highly likely that you cannot, since it does not exist), don’t throw your money away.

How Much Does Legal Search Cost?

Nothing. Not a cent. Search firms are compensated…totally, completely…by the client on whose behalf the search is being conducted.

Can I Work With More Than One Legal Search Firm at the Same Time?

Yes. You can work simultaneously with as many search firms as you like. However, since you will be responsible for giving specific approval concerning each law firm or corporation to which your resume is presented, you should keep a careful record of the names of these law firms or corporations so other (competing) search firms do not overlap efforts. This is one reason why law firms “date-stamp” each attorney’s resume they receive from a legal search firm. More than one search firm has lost search fees because a competitor was able to get an earlier “date-stamp” on the attorney-candidate’s resume.

Must Attorneys Work With Only Legal Search Firms?

No. The idea of attorneys interesting non-legal headhunters, such as insurance industry, employee benefits, compliance or economic development search firms is becoming quite interesting as the broader economy becomes more aware of attorney capabilities and fungibility. As more and more attorneys prove their worth in law-related professional environments, headhunter interest grows.

Some Final Words

The headhunter option is not for every attorney. In fact, it is limited to a very few.

Regardless of the quality of your academics and legal work experience, you should never rely exclusively on headhunting to find your next position. The primary reason for this final bit of advice is this: You are making a decision that will have long-term career implications. A headhunter, notwithstanding the most high-minded of motives, has a strong interest in filling a “job order” and placing you in an job as quickly as possible. Determining “fit” is something that you should never permit a third party to do without your own research.


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