The trolls’ bridgehead

The Dewey & LeBoeuf story has it all: sizeable debt, a culture of secrecy, seemingly profligate guarantees to laterals and a partner exodus.

And the firm is under threat from another source too: namely, troll headhunters.

Troll headhunting works like this. The recruiter calls the managing partner of Smith & Jones on the pretext of acting for a team from Titanic & Co. It only takes the most limited interest expressed by the managing partner to constitute an informal mandate in the recruiter’s mind. The troll then calls partners at Titanic saying Smith & Jones is keen to hire them and he or she can broker the deal. (This can be a high-risk strategy, since it can unravel at the first meeting. One recruiter notes wearily that the firm will inevitably ask a candidate why they want to join, only for the candidate to counter: “Didn’t you ask me here?”)

But, more often than not, the partner is induced to consider an exit when no such opening existed.

As a prominent search specialist once famously quipped: “All’s fair in love, war and recruitment.”

I’ve spoken to several senior management figures from City firms who have been on the other end of those telephone calls from trolls offering up random Dewey partners in London.

“I don’t like it,” says one senior partner uncomfortably, who likens the business to sharks circling and is aware that he could be in a position to damage Dewey further. “I like a lot of the people at that firm.”

But Smith & Jones has no duty of care to Titanic & Co. And if the question is whether the candidates on quasi-offer are worth looking at, shouldn’t you take the opportunity?

In a sense, whether Dewey is in better shape financially than is popularly supposed is almost irrelevant. Law firms tend to fail for two reasons: debt (usually through dodgy property decisions), or lack of confidence. It’s a fragile dynamic. If you don’t trust your fellow partners any more, the troll offering you an exit looks appealing – this wasn’t about leaving a sinking ship, the emotional logic runs, I was simply poached. So long as the human need for justification exists, trolls will flourish.