How to work with legal recruiters

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Navigating with NALSC: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly world of legal recruitment.

Joel Poultney, May 2020

A TATTERED stack of legal documents unfurl and flap their way across a scorched landscape. Weather-beaten associates wander aimlessly through the barren terrain. Hidden behind dust-laden rocks, hordes of unscrupulous recruiters crane their necks, ready to lure their unsuspecting prey with promises of groundbreaking legal work and a benefits package like you’ve never seen. Spaghetti Western screenplay drafts are cast firmly to the shadows – for instead, the real drama lay in the legal recruitment world of 1984. “It was the Wild West to a certain extent,” note Stephanie Ankus and Dan Binstock – respectively the executive director and president of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC). They continue: “While many legal search consultants are former lawyers, there is no licensing process required to become a recruiter.” And before 1984, there was no form of official guidelines in place in the legal recruitment industry at all.In this unregulated chasm, the folks at NALSC found their calling: “In response to the potential for abuse and the care that should be exercised when dealing with attorney careers, NALSC was formed.”

“It was the Wild West to a certain extent. While many legal search consultants are former lawyers, there is no licensing process required to become a recruiter.” 

Before we delve into that ‘potential for abuse’ bit, let’s just clarify who and what NALSC actually is. As Ankus and Binstock tell us, NALSC is an organization that is “committed to the highest ethical standards” in legal recruitment.Founded in 1984, it now has 200 members (law firms and recruiting firms alike) from the US and further afield. A glance at some of the names on this list shows a veritable who’s who of the legal recruiting industry and BigLaw. Binstock noted in the organization’s most recent newsletter that “an increasing number of legal search firms are joining, in addition to law firms.”

A Fistful of Recruiters

At this point you might be asking why such an organization is needed. How murky can the practice of legal recruitment really get? Well, according to Ankus and Binstock, the biggest risk from an associate’s point of view is that “a recruiter will send out a resume or biography without consent,” compromising the confidentiality of an attorney’s job search.

“Choosing a recruiter for your career is like choosing a doctor for surgery.”

Coupled with concerns of breaching confidentiality, Ankus and Binstock implore associates to “learn about the recruiter’s experience and approach.” Unsurprisingly, “there is a wide disparity among recruiters in terms of knowledge, ethics, industry reputation, and manner.” So much so that Ankus and Binstock say “choosing a recruiter for your career is like choosing a doctor for surgery. It must be made with care and due diligence. It is strongly suggested that attorneys spend more time learning about their recruiters at the outset to be certain it is a good fit.” If you’re working with a recruiter (or even just thinking about replying to one of those LinkedIn messages) you can find out if they’re a member of NALSC here.

And just like surgery, you should only have one if it’s really necessary. “There is a misconception that legal recruiters can assist everyone,” Ankus and Binstock say, suggesting those that who have just recently graduated from law school “should not use a legal recruiter.” And if you’ve just finished a clerkship, take note: “many employers will not want to pay a recruiter fee on top of a clerkship bonus.” Instead recruiters usually look to work with associates with “at least one year of experience from a prestigious legal employer.”  

The Devil is in the Detail

Caveats aside, job hunting with or without a recruiter’s help can be a laborious minefield. For those who do team up with a recruiter, NALSC offers guidance to help attorneys protect their career and professional interests. Across all pearls of wisdom, the overarching message was this: clarity, detail, and intent. For starters, attorneys wishing to enact the help of recruiters should always “authorize the recruiter in writing to present you to that particular employer.” Clarity.

Secondly (and connected to clarity), a recruiter might have a role with a particular firm in mind, but you might not be ready to start those conversations. So before you send your resume to the recruiter, make sure you label it: “Type ‘draft resume—not for distribution’ on the top.” That’s detail.

“Never provide a recruiter with ‘carte blanche’ to ‘see what’s out there.’”

Thirdly (and unlike those dating apps one might frequent) be intentional about how, who, and where you’re applying to. “Never provide a recruiter with ‘carte blanche’ to ‘see what’s out there,’” warn Ankus and Binstock, as this they find, “is asking for unmonitored disclosure of your interests in considering another employer.” The big three: clarity, detail, and intent.

Ankus and Binstock have more advice for attorneys on the move. “Keep a spreadsheet of where you have been submitted, by whom, and the dates.” Furthermore, “make sure you have protected against dual-submissions,” where separate recruiters send you to the same employer. To avoid situations like this, Ankus and Binstock urge candidates to be shrewd: “Don’t be reluctant to ask the recruiter direct and pointed questions such as ‘How long have you been recruiting?’ or ‘Have you previously placed anyone with this firm?’” While this might feel a little blunt, scrupulous research such as this will hold you in good stead.

The NALSC Code of Ethics: Taming the Wild West

Innovation is borne from the necessity to improve: think microwaves, kettles, and any other streamlining household appliance. More pertinently to the world of legal recruitment, NALSC identified several concerning practices in legal recruitment, braved the frontier, and returned strapped with solutions. Namely, the establishing of the Code of Ethics. This noble sounding code is, according to NALSC’s website, “a code of conduct that every search firm member of NALSC is required by which to abide.”

NALSC’s Code of Ethics has four parts to it. There’s relations with employers (how recruiting firms should work with law firms); relations with candidates (how recruiters should work with you); relations among members (how recruiters should play nicely with each other); and everything else that doesn’t fall neatly into those first three categories. As to that ‘relations with candidates’ part, the code decrees transparency, as well as the points about confidentiality and consent which Ankus and Binstock outlined to us. We won’t go into the details of the other sections, but you can read the full Code of Ethics here.

“If you have a negative experience, you should find a new recruiter.”

Choppy seas require robust lifelines and the Code of Ethics not only holds search firms “to the highest level of responsibility and ethical conduct,” but also provides methodological clarity and transparency for attorneys and employers. In cases of violation of the code, Ankus and Binstock say NALSC will pursue “recourse against a search firm.” A “formal and confidential” complaint process provides a framework where “alleged violations are considered and formally addressed” by NALSC’s ethics committee.

Recruiters Unchained

It’s the age-old tale: candidate meets recruiter, recruiter introduces candidate to firm, and everyone lives happily ever after – or, it seems, perhaps not. While the number of complaints to NALSC’s ethics committee “rise and fall depending on the year,” Ankus and Binstock say there’s a “pretty equal distribution of complaints from potential violations” occurring amongst recruiters, attorneys, and employers.

Putting a complaint to the ethics committee is the worst-case scenario, but Ankus and Binstock point out that there are other measures that can be taken before crunch time. Candidly, succinctly, and much like any alarming first date, “if you have a negative experience, you should find a new recruiter.” But mercifully unlike a first date, “once a recruiter presents you to an employer, the industry norm is that the presenting recruiter is deemed your recruiter with that particular employer for a period of either six or twelve months, depending on the employer.” Commitment issues aside, Ankus and Binstock circle back to the advice that Mom used to offer: follow your instincts. “If your gut tells you that the recruiter is either not knowledgeable, pushy, too fast-and-loose with the facts, or simply not engendering enough confidence,” no ifs no buts, “you should find a new recruiter.” Ultimately the most resounding message from Ankus and Binstock is this: “Do research and trust your instincts.”

And so, as the sun sets over the contemporary legal landscape, with dappled light falling across earth where grass now grows, rest assured that as an organization NALSC will continue to shape the legal recruitment industry. Clint Eastwood said otherwise, but in this world there are actually three kinds of people: those with loaded guns, those who dig, and those seeking to hold the legal recruitment industry to the highest of ethical standards.


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If you would like a complimentary PDF copy of Dan Binstock’s book, The Attorney’s Guide to Using (or Not Using) Legal Recruiters, please email him at