There's more than one way to track down the ideal employee

Splitting from a law firm at a senior level is “a bit like getting divorced,” according to one partner who recently joined a rival practice.

“It is a risk but if you suss out that the people in the new firm share the same goals and ideas, it can work out very well.”

For those involved, a partnership break up is “never amicable”, says another senior partner. “The factions go right through to the secretarial staff. It's something I never want to experience again.”

Matching lawyers to firms requires recruitment consultants to be part marriage counsellor, part talent scout, part psychologist – “there is a lot of handholding involved,” admits one consultant.

The main options facing a firm planning on expansion are a file search of a recruitment consultancies' candidates, recruitment advertising and headhunting – relatively new in the legal profession.

A firm using recruitment consultants bears the cost of the advertising but any fee for the agency would be contingent on a successful placement. An average fee could be 18 per cent of first year salary, although if it involved a team of partners and assistants, a reduced fee may be negotiated. The cost for a team may be £50,000-plus.

Headhunters, who cold call a shortlist of candidates, generally charge a portion of the fee upfront, a second on presentation of a shortlist and a third on someone accepting the job. The amount is calculated either on the time it takes or on a percentage of the first year's salary – on average about 30 per cent.

One consultant says: “Lawyers complain about the cost but they pay a lot less for recruitment services than other professions, particularly banking and corporate finance.”

Two months ago, Darryl Cooke was “laterally hired” by Manchester firm Addleshaw Sons & Latham to head up a new specialist venture capital unit. “I hadn't been looking to move,” he says, “but what tempted me was the offer of heading up a unit in a firm with a depth of resources stronger than any other in Manchester.”

He says one benefit of the increased movement among senior staff may be to make firms look after their staff or risk the good ones being picked off.

A new trend over the last two years has been for US firms to recruit UK lawyers to operate from their London offices.

One US lawyer with experience of recruiting on both sides of the Atlantic highlighted the differences. “UK recruitment is generally by advertising. The natives here find calls from headhunters intrusive, but it is considered gentlemanly to respond to an anonymous advert.

“The US has a completely different culture. You expect to be sought out by headhunters. Advertising is seen as an admission of weakness, that you couldn't identify proper candidates in the market.”

Fiona Campbell manages the legal division of Alderwick Peachell, the search and selection consultancy. She says: “The legal recruitment market is the least developed and least sophisticated market. Traditionally it is done through corporate advertising, rather than a search which we find much more effective. With headhunting, you have to adopt strict on and off limit lists. What you can't do is recruit for someone, bill them and then remove their staff for someone else.”

She says they had been approached by US firms to carry out headhunting work, “but US firms are an unknown quantity in the UK and British lawyers are inherently risk-averse”.