The Inside Agents

The decision of several leading law firms to take all or part of their recruitment process in-house has thrown open the debate about the best way to secure the services of the most sought after lawyers. The initiative is not universally supported, but advocates claim it offers a more focused service and can save both money and time.

Freshfields is one firm which has adopted the strategy. “The key thing is that you don’t separate out recruitment. Recruitment is all about forming relationships between the firm and potential candidates,” says Freshfields’ HR director Tim Cole. “Recruitment people need to understand the partners and the associates and they need to be able to talk sensibly and knowledgeably to the candidates.” At Freshfields, each practice area has a dedicated resource made up of HR professionals, recruitment professionals and ex-lawyers.

Cole says it is important that those responsible for recruiting lawyers for a department sit in that department, something external agencies can never do. “Recruitment is a central part of what we do and it needs to be at the heart of the business,” he says, adding that some of the most important and productive discussions occur after a candidate has left an interview and the resource department, the partners and the associates exchange ideas about them.

DLA has also taken up the initiative, setting up a centralised recruitment department in 1997. Michael Silver, national recruitment officer at DLA, says that previously his job was done by a partner, which cost the firm more money. “We respond to CVs more quickly,” he says, “and although we still rely very heavily on recruitment agencies, the online provision means we are getting more applicants direct.” The team, which is made up of five people, is a separate part of the HR department and acts as an intermediary, or a buffer zone as Silver puts it, between recruitment agencies and partners.

Clifford Chance‘s centralised recruitment unit is split into three sections, with three full-time staff working in the legal section. The team has been set up to integrate pro-active recruitment, previously handled by the different practice groups. “We are working with our lawyers to identify good lawyers in other firms and then approaching those that we believe might be interested in joining Clifford Chance,” says a spokesperson. “Targeting can be very specific and we are able get the people we want.” But the initiative has not resulted in the exclusion of external agencies. The spokesperson says that the team, launched last summer, is in constant contact with the market and has formed stronger relationships with external agencies while freeing up partner time. “The firm’s relationship with agencies has changed for the better. The in-house team now organises courses for the agencies to improve their knowledge about key areas of the firm’s work,” he says.

Seamus Hoar, associate director at QD Legal, says that Clifford Chance and Freshfields are very good from an agency’s point of view. “Freshfields seems to have got it right,” he says. “It has very high calibre people working on recruitment. Turnaround is excellent, feedback is excellent and we can get back to candidates very quickly.” He says that a lot of firms still have significant delays in turnaround, causing problems for partners and sometimes losing them some of the best candidates.

But not everyone supports the use of a separate in-house recruitment department. Martin Pexton, director of personnel at Allen & Overy, says that he is concerned that it would cause prospective employees to be pulled in too many directions. “You suddenly have an awful lot of players – agencies, partners, recruiters and personnel.” He says that recruitment is an essential part of personnel management and needs to be carried out by the personnel department. He agrees that firms need to be more aggressive in directly approaching people but claims this can be done just as effectively by partners and the personnel department. “Firms have to target people because the market is tight and they have to find more and more ways of meeting its needs,” he says.

Pexton does not think that a proactive approach by firms will diminish the role of agencies. He says that most recruits are still coming through agencies and are likely to continue to do so because agencies, unlike in-house recruitment teams, can provide an independent assessment of the job and of the culture of the firm.

John Renz, HR director at CMS Cameron McKenna, is frustrated by the power that the recruitment agencies have. “A huge amount of law firms are over-reliant on lateral hires, which has made a lot of money for recruitment consultants,” he says. Rather than bring in an in-house recruitment team he seconded an HR manager into a recruitment agency in order to control the flow of applications. “It caused a lot of controversy with other recruitment consultants because we made that recruitment consultant the sole recipient,” he says. “I am bewildered by what the advantages are of an internal recruitment department. All it does is add to the cost base. The firm has to pay for trained people who all have to be recruited through a recruitment agency.”

Renz says: “If you need to concentrate on lateral hires then it makes far more sense to farm it out to a reputable consultant. I understand the concept of having a centralised function but why hire someone to do the recruiting?”

At Clyde & Co, there has been a dedicated recruitment manager plus an assistant for the past 10 years. The recruitment manager not only deals with agencies but is also involved in direct advertising and head-hunting. Fiona Cass, head of personnel, says that having a professional recruiter is invaluable. “The control we have is much better,” she says. “The consistency factor is good and we make very few recruitment mistakes.

“People trained in recruitment ask a different type of question. They ask about health. They can explain the package the firm is offering and they talk about performance review, benefits and training.”

Whether recruitment specialists or personnel managers are present at interviews varies from firm to firm. At Herbert Smith, which has one of the biggest in-house recruitment teams with seven people working full time, the partners still do all the interviewing alone. When John Lucy joined the firm as head of HR two years ago, one of the first things he did was bring in specialists and set up a recruitment team. He says that the most noticeable result is that Herbert Smith now has a better chance of getting the best people. “We get fewer CVs but they are better quality,” he says. “Before, recruitment wasn’t getting the attention it deserved and we weren’t allowed to be innovative, but now we understand partners and their needs.”

Beachcroft Wansbroughs takes an entirely different approach and concentrates on retention and training rather than recruitment. “We’ve never skimped on our trainee programme and we always steadily increase our graduate intake,” says Patrick Maddams, director of operations. “This means that our recruitment needs are moderate because we have a very low staff turnover.” Maddams says that the firm has a few preferred recruitment agencies. It expects these agencies to promote the firm to its prospective employees and asks them to agree not to canvass existing staff. In return, the agency gets a monthly update and prior notice of all the firm’s vacancies.

Although all the firms agree that an increasing amount of recruitment is being done through the internet, they still maintain that it is the medium of the future rather than of the present. Graduate recruitment in law firms is taking off online but the bulk of associate and partner level recruitment is still being done through agencies.

Those firms which have brought part of their recruitment process in-house are confident that it provides serious cost and time savings and in many instances has led to a better-focused recruitment process.

While it may prove to be an initiative followed by an increasing number of firms, in-house recruitment teams are unlikely ever to replace agencies because lawyers want an external intermediary who will ease the workload, recommend jobs and set up interviews.

The agencies themselves do accept that, particularly as a result of the internet, their role may change, but are confident that they are here to stay. Peter Thompson, operating director at recruitment agency Michael Page, says: “Recruitment agencies may have a different role to play, but other methods of recruitment will only complement what we do.”