Return of the recruitment giants

There’s a sweet symmetry to the news that Joe Macrae and Gareth Quarry are both hatching plans to get back into the London legal recruitment market: both built their businesses from scratch; both companies were taken over by much larger ones, allowing their founders to pocket plenty of money – £30m in Quarry’s case. Their parallel careers may have made them rivals, but happily with a certain amount of good temper.

Five years after Macrae and Quarry quit the scene, they’re both plotting their comebacks. It’s interesting timing. The recruitment market has fragmented considerably since the dominance of ZMB and QD in the boom recruitment years of the 1990s. It’s no longer a sector dominated by two main players, but up to a dozen. And some of these, such as First Counsel and Shilton Sharpe, have been founded by former QD employees. The top 10 recruiters by volume, according to The Lawyer’s own statistics, are: Taylor Root, Hays Legal, Hudson, Lipson Lloyd-Jones, Shilton Sharpe, Michael Page, Chambers, Hughes Castell, First Counsel and Garfield Robbins. The competition is fierce.

Where things have changed is on the search side. Five years ago headhunting was virtually unknown. Headhunting giants such as Spencer Stuart and Whitehead Mann dabbled, but they never committed. So, back then ZMB or QD could stick an ad in The Times looking for a £1m partner and get serious candidates. Nowadays most US law firms rely on headhunting, not recruitment advertising, for their trophy hires. Small wonder that Fox Rodney is doing spectacularly well, while Hoar Marshall has also started to get active. All QD dissidents, they spotted an obvious gap.

Meanwhile, when Quarry trousered all that cash five years ago, The Lawyer asked him at the time what he was going to do with the money. He was stumped for an answer. Indeed, the question everyone is asking is this: why on earth does Quarry want to get back into recruiting at all? It looks bizarrely unimaginative.

And while everyone is trying to figure out Quarry’s psychology, London recruiters are trying to work out Macrae’s business plan.

Mlegal has built a West Coast business with clients such as Howrey Simon, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, Orrick, Paul Hastings and White & Case, to name just five. Macrae has a US contact book to die for and three years of invaluable experience. He’s got a head start over Quarry. Macrae’s operation, then, looks like being the smarter bet.