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17 February 2014
Gill Jones, a 35-year-old director of the London law firms practice at Taylor Root, has typically strong feelings about the profession she fled some eight years ago. "I just hated the law and had to get out," she says bluntly.
Her own antipathy towards being a solicitor was nothing to do with the firm she worked for, she stresses, and everything to do with the nature of the job. "I thought that it was extremely tedious and I spent my whole time deciding where the full stops and commas go rather than doing anything sensible," says Jones, who trained and qualified in the litigation department of a large City firm. "I just found big-ticket commercial litigation deeply unattractive."
But surely that is supposed to be the glamorous end of commercial law. Apparently not. You "just end up spending 14 hours a day for about six years working on a very small part of a big deal", says Jones.
She has friends who have been litigators with that firm now for 10 years and have yet to go to trial. "All the big QCs do the exciting work and then the case settles," she says. "As a junior solicitor, youre just the runt for the QCs. Its fundamentally boring."
"My heart was never in it," admits Dan Wilkins, an associate director of Hays Legal, who qualified with Ashurst Morris Crisp in 1998 and went into recruitment one year later. He felt at a disadvantage in his career for not having a law degree and the rigid hierarchy of law firm practice did not suit him. "People always said to me at the time that Id miss the academic rigours of being a lawyer, and that might be right for some people, but I actually hated that part of the job," he recalls.
By contrast, Wilkins says the great thing about recruitment is that the fundamentals of the job are "very basic". "People come to me looking for jobs and law firms come to me looking for people; you match the two together and make money," he says.
But while the fundamentals might be simple, being a good recruiter is a real challenge, he adds.
And being a good recruiter in a buoyant legal market is one of the few exit strategies that will deliver you safely from City law firm hell without wasting all your experience. Not only that, it could also allow you to top the salaries of your peers without having to endure their slavish work conditions. A flick through the back pages of The Lawyer will acquaint you with the handful of big-name recruiters which have established themselves as leaders in the legal field. Of course, if you are not happy with your job, the chances are you will be on first name terms with them already.
For someone starting out, recruitment salaries vary, and according to a director in one of the biggest agencies, in a bad market it would be "highly unlikely" that you would make less than 40,000; and "if the wind was blowing in the right direction" you could make as much as 60,000. A large chunk of pay is based on commission, and so consultants earn a base salary ranging from 25,000 to 50,000, depending on seniority. As a recruiter you will need to be a self-starter.
Those players at the top end of the industry can make just as much as the magic circle clients that they place, if not more. Gareth Quarry became "the richest man in the law" (as The Lawyer put it) when he sold the QD recruitment businesses to global recruitment company TMP Worldwide in July 2000 for approximately 30m. He practised law for a mere two years at Richards Butler before leaving to become a recruitment agent.
Apparently, a traumatic early experience in the legal profession is not all you need to qualify for an exciting career as a recruiter. Penny Terndrup is a director at EJ Legal who qualified at aviation practice Beaumont and Son and then went on to Field Fisher Waterhouse. What are the qualities she looks for from someone who wants to start in recruitment? "You really need to understand what its all about, and just wanting to help people is nice to hear but its not actually the point," she says. "Its a fairly hard-nosed business and you need to have done your research on what it really means." She adds that if you do not like talking about money, then it is not the job for you.
The EJ Group has five companies legal, HR, tax, company secretarial and mergers and 28 consultants. Terndrup has been with EJ for eight years and has placed partners with, she says, "most of the top 40 firms. Recruitment can be a reflex, knee-jerk reaction to not wanting to be a lawyer anymore," she continues, "but it wont be a long-term career if thats all there is to it."
Jones points out that, while dispirited lawyers might assume they can pursue a new career in recruitment as a fall-back position, Taylor Root actually turns away a lot of lawyers because they lack the "personal skills set". "You need to be really chatty, absolutely fearless, willing to get on the phone and quite pushy," she says. She adds that candidates also have to be well organised and have a good memory.
It is a sign of the relative maturity of legal recruitment that agencies are not simply relying on lawyers to be recruiters, reckons Wilkins. "People appreciate that, of course, having the legal background is very useful. It means they know the difference between a private equity lawyer and a capital markets lawyer," he says. "But thats just the technical stuff. The challenge in this job is being a good recruiter."
There are also opportunities for those lawyers who want to ditch the law but remain in private practice. Clare Johnson, a global resourcing adviser at Linklaters, made the move from lawyer to recruiter with the firm where she qualified. "I enjoyed the environment but not the work," she says. She has now been doing the new job for four years, "and hasnt looked back".
So does it help to be a qualified solicitor? Johnson believes that it does, although she adds that her HR colleagues might take issue with her. "You have a certain amount of credibility because you understand what it is to be a lawyer and what it takes to be successful," she says.
The global resourcing team is a relatively new part of Linklaters and involves everything from recruiting partners to top roles within the firm
to working on worldwide projects, advising on the firm brand and handling its website. She advises that it is worth having a word with your current employer because Linklaters, and other City firms, are supportive of internal moves from fee-earning to HR, personnel and professional support roles.
Legal recruitment is still in its relative infancy and 20 years ago a career in the field "didnt really exist", reckons Jones, and it has only become "quite serious" as a profession in the last 10 years. In her time with Taylor Root, Jones has helped set up its US and international division. But the business has also become increasingly strategic, with consultants having to advise on candidates careers, which used to be beyond their job description. "Its not just about sticking CVs into envelopes," she says. "You get involved in the strategy of your clients and the resourcing of their firms." She was recently behind Ian Nisses defection from Ashurst to Shearman & Sterling to launch the US firms real estate practice. It was reported that Shearman had been actively hunting for a figurehead to establish a property group for almost a year.
Wilkins has been with Hays Legal for more than five years and has recruited for the vast majority of the top City firms and the majority of US firms in London. Can a career in recruitment match the longevity that a career in the law has? As he points out, there are not many legal recruiters that have been in the business for longer than five years and many of the big names have made their money and got out. "The challenge for me, and for a lot of people like me who stay in recruitment and see it as a long-term career, is how to move across into the running of the business," he says. But very few people move the other way and go back into the legal profession. "Id never think of going back to be a lawyer," he adds.
Alex Wiseman is a 23-year-old law student who only got as far as completing the LPC before deciding that a legal career was not for him. He is now a recruiter with Taylor Root. Any regrets? "The nice thing for me has been comparing my experience so far with all my friends, who started their training contracts at the same time as I started here," he says. "In terms of career satisfaction, theres no comparison." Financially, he reckons that he is doing better than most of his peers. "I sort of fell into it, but within a few months I realised Id landed on my feet," he says. "And I look forward to the future."