Everyone knows by now that the lateral market for law firm associates is unusually hot. Firms are routinely offering associates five-figure signing bonuses, and in some special cases bonuses are as high as $150,000. Firms are also increasing commissions for recruiters assisting with lateral placements in certain practice areas, in some cases doubling the usual rates.
With so many firms looking to hire laterals, a candidate might be tempted to think recruiters are unnecessary in this market. In the narrowest sense, that may be true: many candidates could likely land a lateral offer on their own. But the better question is: will the services of a skilled recruiter make it more likely that you will find the best lateral fit? The answer is unequivocally yes.
Who needs a recruiter?
For some lateral searches, the need for a recruiter is obvious. Partner moves are the best example. Competing offers are the only way to achieve a material compensation boost as a partner, and a recruiter plays an essential role in creating that market.
For associates, the value of a recruiter is less in stoking a bidding war and more in mitigating the asymmetry of information that lateral candidates face. As partner moves have become more frequent, the rankings and assessments available through annually updated sources such as Vault and Chambers are less likely to align with the current reality. In contrast, well-informed recruiters like Lateral Link are in a strong position to explain the market in real time. For example, we frequently know that a firm is about to gain a key partner in advance of the public announcement. We can therefore anticipate that the firm will need lateral associates in the relevant practice area and position our associate candidates accordingly. Candidates who choose not to work with a recruiter inevitably will have less information and will make less informed decisions in this highly fluid and dynamic market.
There is no downside
Candidates sometimes worry that firms will be less enthusiastic about hiring them as a lateral associate if the firm has to pay a placement fee to a recruiter. Although this concern may seem superficially reasonable, it does not reflect the market reality. To understand why, it helps to think through the economics of the law firm business model.
Associates are profit centers for law firms. For every day that a firm has fewer lawyers than necessary to meet the full demand for its services, the firm is losing profit. In a robust market for legal services, firms have a strong incentive to fill empty seats as soon as they can find a qualified candidate—in the context of the profit the firm is forgoing by not having that seat filled, a recruiter fee is basically a rounding error.
We can illustrate more precisely with a stylized example. Let’s assume that a firm seeking to hire a lateral associate expects to collect on 1600 of the associate’s billed hours, at an average rate of $625/hour. That will generate an annual contribution to the firm’s gross revenue of $1 million. Assume the associate’s base salary is $240,000 and that the firm must pay a recruiter 25% of the base, $60,000, as a placement fee. This amounts to a 6% transaction fee on the revenue the associate produces in her first year with the firm.
6% of the year equates to just over three weeks. If relying on a recruiter enables the firm to fill the seat 22 days sooner than it could have otherwise, the firm will come out ahead. Sure, the firm could refuse to work with recruiters, advertise vacancies on its website, wait for candidates to apply directly, then sort through the applications to identify the promising candidates. But in the current hot market that would be a totally irrational strategy. The fact that firms are not just willing to work with recruiters right now but are in many cases increasing the fees that they offer is proof of this basic economic logic.
In summary, there is no downside to using a recruiter and plenty of upside. Firms will not shy away from hiring you due to the placement fee. And you will benefit from non-public information about the market, increasing your likelihood of landing with the firm that best fits your unique selection criteria.