December 12, 2005 Vol. 19, No. 50
'Tis the season for networking, career moves
By Amanda C. Tinnin
This holiday season, as you get ready for parties, remember to go easy on the eggnog. Santa Claus may not be the only one keeping an eye on you.
December provides plenty of opportunities for lawyers to mingle with both co-workers and colleagues in a more casual setting. It also provides plenty of opportunities for lateral recruiting.
Every week of the year, firms proudly announce an attorney has left a firm to join theirs. Lateral career moves are as much a part of the legal world as litigation, said Thomas A. Prince, a partner with Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin. Along with his regular practice for the firm, Prince also works with lateral recruiting.
"Lateral recruiting is a way of life in the legal environment," Prince said. "What we try to do is identify lawyers in the community who we think might be a nice fit for our firm and talk to them."
But as a way of life, Prince quickly pointed out that he was not the only one talking to St. Louis attorneys.
"We're not unique in this," he said. "At the same time, we're not naive enough to think our guys are not being talked to as well. But it is done gentlemanly and with respect for client concerns and concerns of other firms."
Robert J. Tomaso, managing partner of Blackwell Sanders' St. Louis office, agreed.
"It's a delicate process," he said. "Lawyers are always approaching each other. There are many friends among law firms. Some of it's fairly innocent where someone says, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if we worked together.'"
Tomaso said something similar happened between himself and attorney Michael A. Kahn. At the time, the two friends were lawyers and touting the advantages of their respective firms. And as it happened, a need opened up and Kahn made the move to Blackwell Sanders.
"With Mike, and with others, we needed to expand our Intellectual Property Litigation Group because our intellectual property lawyers were spinning off so much litigation," Tomaso explained. "Some of my best friends are people I used to work with. But it's an accepted fact of life. It's like free agents in major league sports."
And as lateral moves became more commonplace, Tomaso said the business of head-hunting grew.
"You might be sitting there behind your desk and you might get a call from a headhunter," Tomaso added. "Most managers owe it to their partners to talk to people who want to join their firm. By the same token, head hunters can call somebody who wasn't necessarily thinking of moving, but might be flattered by the call and say, 'You know what? I would like to talk to another firm.'"
Tomaso immediately named Aaron Williams, one of St. Louis' early, if not first, legal head hunters.
Williams, founder and president of Aaron Consulting, Inc., a nation wide attorney search firm based in St. Louis, began his business in 1980. Back then, he said there was a misconception that attorneys went to law school, graduated and got a fabulous job which they would stick with.
On his way to work one morning, he realized attorneys were like any other employee.
"I was a typical kid out of college," Williams said. "Flat broke, one or two suits to my name. And I walked to work."
But if he was running late, Williams would hitchhike. He had some regulars who would pick him up and give him a ride to the office. One was an attorney for a title company.
"He knew I worked in an employment agency and was hoping I'd have my thumb out that day," Williams said.
Williams also recalled how astonished he was that an attorney would ask him for help in finding a new job.
"Nobody did this," Williams said about the type of work he now does. "If they did, it was probably one every five to ten years. It was all based on who you knew. You have recruiters for doctors now. You have recruiters for lawyers. Probably even plumbers. You know it's hard to find a good plumber," Williams quipped.
When the attorney asked for employment assistance, Williams was surprised, but he also saw opportunity.
Tomaso understood Williams' surprise.
"It's interesting. Prior to 1990, lateral moves and especially moves laterally by partners were pretty rare," he said. "Something happened in the early '90s and lawyers started to become much more mobile."
Williams has been an attorney recruiter since 1980, when he founded the Executive Division of Snelling and Snelling. He pioneered his exclusive attorney recruitment specialty into a nationwide practice involving client representation of major corporate law departments and law firms.
In 1990, Williams purchased the Executive Division he founded from Snelling and Snelling and renamed it Aaron Consulting, Inc.
"We're moving more and more into attorney search and away from attorney recruiting," Williams said. "There are 7,500 attorneys in the St. Louis area. Two out of every seven attorneys in St. Louis have their resume on file with us. We call people whether they are looking or not looking, whether they're happy or unhappy."
Williams said he also tracks attorneys. Whether they make a career move with his help or not, Williams said he keeps tabs on what's going on in the legal community so that when an opportunity arises he can match the best possible candidate with the job and at least give the lawyer the option to think about it.
"That's really what our professional service is all about," Williams said. "We provide an opportunity for employers to hire people they would normally not attract or much less consider on their own."
And to find the right person for the right opportunity, Williams said he needs details.
"Many of our clients will only have to read one resume, even on a nation wide search basis," he said. "There are one million lawyers in this country. How could you get it down to five resumes? We ask them specifically what they would like to have. What precisely is the perfect background and personality? How much do you want to pay? What's the experience you're looking for? Do you want us to screen on academic credentials, even if the attorney has been out of law school for 15 years? Do you want them to have roots in the community?"
Prince agreed that when he decides to talk with another attorney about a lateral move, it's for a specific reason.
"We look at their skill, their area of practice, their client base, their compatibility with firm culture," Prince said. "Typically when you are looking at a law school class you are looking at four, five or six people. Lateral recruiting is much more a rifle shot than a scatter shot."
While an attorney might impress the managing partner, both Prince and Williams said it's not always the employer going after a new employee.
Williams noted that many lawyers have contacted him to get their resume on file with Aaron Consulting. Prince said many of the lateral moves he sees happen the same way.
"It's not like we're talking to somebody every day of the year," Prince said. "We're not constantly knocking at other law firms' doors. Often times we're contacted. Sometimes it's done through a firm targeting a particular individual. But sometimes a lawyer might be sitting in his office and say 'You know, I don't like the guys I'm working with. I think I'd rather work across the street.'"
And this time of year seems to lend itself to those kinds of assessments, Prince added.
"I would think the primary reason falls under the phrase 'Show me the money.' By this time of year most lawyers realize what their year end results are going to be," Prince explained. "Another reason is there are a lot of social activities. There are a lot of third party gatherings. St. Louis is very sociable. There are a lot of opportunities to mix and mingle and talk to your counterparts in other firms."
But Tomaso cautions lawyers not to make career moves based solely on economics.
"I am so proud of my law firm that I love to tell people about how great it is to work there," he said. "A lot of lateral recruiting is just that. 'Tell me more about your firm.' Ok, here's the economics. Here's how we can help you service your clients better.
"But in my opinion you should never change law firms or combine with a law firm unless it's client driven. If it doesn't help the client, it's probably not going to help the lawyer making the move."