Inside knowledge

Attracting the very best lawyers is crucial for all law firms, but it is a task that has become increasingly challenging over the past few years. In response to law firms’ growing demands for lawyers, headhunters have been very successful at encouraging more movement between firms, with partners and associates now much less likely to feel they have to stay in one firm for the duration of their careers.

What is perhaps surprising is that law firms have been content to rely solely on outsourcing this critical requirement. External headhunters have a vital role to play and building strong relationships with the very best headhunters is worth its weight in gold. However, it is not the only way to unearth talented individuals.

For Berwin Leighton Paisner, relying solely on external headhunters was unlikely to fully satisfy our ongoing recruitment needs and ambitious plans. Having recognised this, the solution seemed clear.

We needed to recruit our own in-house headhunter who could keep close to the market, promote our strengths exclusively and help us to seek out and attract the very best talent available. Luckily we were able to identify Jonathan Brenner, the joint founder of Hays Legal and one of the most successful recruiters in the market, and bring him in-house. We have found that this has been highly successful.

Not only has it helped drive our recruitment programme to new heights, but Brenner’s knowledge of the market has helped us to respond to opportunities as they have come up. It has also been highly cost-effective.

In addition, talented individuals at all firms have become used to a regular flow of calls, many of questionable quality, trying to tempt them to pastures new. But in fact most firms have unique and often untapped access within their own ranks to the best headhunters around: their own staff. Particularly at associate level where there is still relatively little independent research available into valuable skills and areas of expertise, a personal recommendation from inside the firm to target someone can work wonders.

Individuals are much more likely to be receptive to a call from someone who genuinely recognises their abilities and knows Once potential candidates realise that lawyers from the interested firm have identified them as stars, they may at least be prepared to open a dialogue even if they are not actively looking to move.

Nevertheless, within the process two things were very clear. First, establishing a successful in-house headhunting service is not a short-term project. Many conversations take months to come to fruition, so inevitably it takes time to see the real impact and value of such an investment.

Second, bringing talented individuals into the team is only half the challenge. Keeping them and helping them succeed in a new environment is also key. So as well as creating the new in-house headhunter role, we have invested heavily in the HR frameworks that enable talented individuals to progress.

In particular, we have improved the integration process for new partners, making their transition into the new firm as smooth as possible, helping them meet people from around the firm and giving them a clear understanding of how the firm operates.

On top of this we have introduced numerous related initiatives to help demonstrate this focus on training and development to recruits. These include the new associate director role as an alternative career path for associates; our structured career development frameworks, which describe what experience and skills individuals are expected to have at various stages of their careers; and our associates conference, which last year featured a world expert from Harvard Law School in the analysis of professional services organisations and their formulae for success.

As a firm, we believe our approach to recruitment and retention is a crucial element in our plans to deliver even more for our clients. While we value very highly our relationships with the top recruitment agencies and headhunters, we have found that having our own in-house headhunter, a structured programme of integration and a supportive culture are crucial elements in our future success.

Geoff Griffin is HR director at Berwin Leighton Paisner