The following is an interview with Law Firm Matchmaker Jennifer Gillman. Jennifer discusses her history, her approach to partner-focused recruiting, and her process.
How long have you been doing what you do? and how did you come to focus on partners in New Jersey?
I went straight to law school after college, having always been interested in the practice of law. I was very strong in subjects like English and history. And, most of my family (father, grandfather, uncle, etc.) and lots of other people we knew were lawyers. I always found what they did very interesting.
Although I didn’t like law school quite as much as college, I did find the practice of law very interesting. This was especially true when I transitioned to focusing on employment law, which had such a human element to it.
Because I graduated from law school in the mid-90’s, there was not much advancement in computer research. In fact, most law firms didn’t even have websites yet. Therefore, most recruiters or “headhunters” used the Martindale Hubbell directory. This was a hard cover book that listed every practicing lawyer, their schools, their current job, and a phone number. Because I was lucky to attend a top law school, I received many calls from recruiters about job openings.
It struck me that most of them seemed like used car sales men. They never seemed interested in getting to know me or what I might be looking for in my perfect job. They only tried to talk me into applying for any opening they had to fill. Some of them even hung up on me when I told them I wasn’t interested in the job they were pitching but would like to speak about something different I was looking for!
The two or three recruiters over the years who seemed more genuine really stood out. Even though I wasn’t interested in applying for the position they had called about, or in changing jobs at all, we agreed to keep in touch. Because if I ever was to make a move, they were the type of people I like to work with. I came to look forward to speaking with them every so often.
Strangely enough, when I had my check in calls with those recruiters, and others who seemed worth talking to, they would often mention a recruiting opening at their own company. They said that they thought it was something I would really enjoy. For years, I put them off because I really enjoyed my legal practice. I thought recruiting was for people who didn’t like the law or couldn’t hack it at a law firm.
Flash forward to 10 years later, when I had my first child. I was looking at the prospect of going back to work at my firm. Although I really liked much about my day to day practice, I didn’t have a lot of control over it. While I liked advice and counsel, training, drafting, and other non-litigation tasks the best by that point, I was slated to come back to jump head first into helping with a trial. I was sure that we were going to lose (and the client refused to settle). This was happening while my newborn was still waking up several times a night.
For the first time, my law firm practice didn’t seem like the right fit. As luck would have it, a former coworker called me. She left two years earlier to start her own employment law consulting business. Her business only worked on the non-litigation parts of the practice I really loved. She had some overflow work for me to do. I was able to balance working with her company as a new mom with a more flexible schedule. Then a former client asked me to help with a short-term project. This turned into two years as their first in-house counsel. I did all the non-litigation employment law tasks I enjoyed, as well as some HR tasks that included recruiting.
That position was great until I moved to the suburbs and got pregnant again. I had to manage an arduous commute as I got larger and larger. It was bearable only commuting into New York City three days a week. I worked one day from home, spending one day with my daughter. I was able to make my own schedule since I was a consultant. Then, the CEO told me they wanted to hire me into a permanent role as an employee not a consultant. I would have to commute into the city five days a week, have less flexible hours, and actually earn less money.
As much as I liked everyone at the company, I couldn’t wrap my head around not seeing my children during the workweek. So I had to regretfully decline. I wound down my work a couple of weeks before I had my second child. I took almost six months off to spend with my children and decide what to do next.
Having decided that the long commute didn’t work for our family, I had some interviews with several New Jersey firms. I also applied to many in-house legal positions in New Jersey. Unfortunately, it was late 2008, and the downturn in the economy meant that the part of my employment law practice wasn’t happening at law firms anymore. Clients would pay lawyers for litigation services. But, they no longer had the money for preventative services. And in-house legal departments were often laying people off, not hiring.
I finally got an interview with a pharmaceutical company, for a job that sounded like a great fit. I was working with a recruiter. We clicked as she seemed very good at her job and was very genuine. I no longer found it surprising when she mentioned that I would like recruiting. There was an opening at her office, but I told her I enjoyed practicing law. The pharmaceutical job really interested me. I made it to the third round of interviews, and was one of the final candidates. However, someone else got the job.
In the midst of the three rounds of interviews, another recruiter had contacted me about the same job. When I told him that I had already made it through two rounds, he said that I had done better than his candidate. He said that we should meet so that he could submit me for another job opportunity. I agreed to have lunch with him if I didn’t get the job. So, when I found they had chosen another candidate, I set up our meeting. During lunch he made a convincing case for finally trying recruiting. He also agreed to train me if I would work with his company.
The 2008 downturn meant that many firms were forced to lay off attorneys instead of doing their usual hiring. We found that our New Jersey law firm clients hadn’t been in the same mortgage-backed securities markets as the large New York firms. Therefore, they weren’t experiencing the same losses. As suck, they were in the rare position of being able to attract better talent than before. And they could still afford to hire.
We developed a niche practice moving associates from the best law schools and firms to anywhere they wanted to go in New Jersey. In turn, those lawyers got a better chance at partnership, better work/life balance, and more job security. As a result, I had a chance to really get to know the people and practices in New Jersey. The New Jersey marketplace became my focus.
As time went on, I found that although I liked working with superstar associates who wanted to move to New Jersey, the candidates who interested me the most were partners. I liked their entrepreneurial style and the more complex analysis I had to do to find just the perfect fit for their practices. Since then, I’ve placed numerous partners at better fitted firms. I also keep in touch with many more who are gearing up to make a move. I feel like it’s the best use of my combination of skills and interests.
Who are your clients exactly?
I work with successful law firm partners or groups, with their own clients, who have realized that their law firm is the wrong fit for them. This prevents them from best serving their clients and maximizing their compensation.
The wrong fit can be for a variety of reasons. One is the lack of necessary practice areas at the current firm. This means that the partner has to turn away work or not go after it. Another is that rates are inflexible or incompatible with their practice. The wrong fit can also be caused by the inability to attract and retain the right team, lack of cross-selling/cross-marketing opportunities, or simply the wrong firm culture. These partners are already successful lawyers but they could be even more successful if they had a better platform.
How are you different from other recruiters?
Because I focus on partners with clients, I’m not filling job openings. As such, there are no ties to any particular law firm. In fact, I can consider the entire array of the New Jersey legal landscape focusing solely on finding the perfect fit for my clients.
I take a very long-term view of this process. I am a true teammate in finding what the partner needs at the next firm. The matchmaker in me does not rush anyone into these big decisions. I want to make sure that this law-firm “marriage” has the potential to last forever.
I’m also very honest. When necessary, I will tell a partner when it’s not possible to find what he or she is looking for. But I don’t give up there if what the partner wants is realistic. I’m very creative and think outside the box to create what a partner is looking for when it can’t be found at an existing firm. For example, I’m in the process of putting partners from three separate firms together to form the right team at a fourth firm.
What types of personality do you work best with?
I work best with clients who want to truly partner with me to let me help them find a better fit. Once we agree to start this process, I will expect you to answer several questions. These questions are about your clients, collections, billing rate, and other relevant issues. We need to work as a team, so I don’t want you to negotiate with me. I need complete and accurate information so that I can negotiate on your behalf.
Although you are very busy, it’s important that you make time to have initial meetings with the small number of firms that interest you. You will also need more time to follow up with the smaller number of firms that you would consider moving your practice to.
This is an important decision, so you have to give it some time and attention. Of course, the firms understand how busy you are and will try to set meetings at the most convenient times. Most even understand if there is a client emergency which necessitates rescheduling.
What type of professional will your services not work for?
I want to team up with my clients, not compete with them. Therefore, my services won’t work for a partner who wants to use me to contact some firms, but also contact some firms on his or her own and try to work independently with them. The process works better when I am the initial point of contact with all of the firms under consideration.
While I understand the busy life of a partner, this won’t work well for either of us unless you commit a little time to the interview process. Likewise, you need to answer my questions and those of the firms you get into the later stages with. It’s also a bad idea to continually cancel and reschedule interviews, unless it’s a true emergency.
What exactly do you do to help your clients find the right fit?
If we decide to work together, I will partner with you throughout the entire process. First, we will meet and get to know each other. We will discuss your current firm, clients, and practice and what can be improved about your situation.
Because I know this part of the legal market so well, I will likely think of some possibilities during that initial conversation. However, I will also do some research on my own to make sure that we consider all of the alternatives. Then I will present you with a list of firms I think meet your criteria. Further, I will describe to you why I think each might be a good fit. We’ll talk through my list and you’ll decide how many of the firms you would like me to approach.
Once I approach the firms of interest to you, we’ll set up initial meetings with those that want to meet you. I’ll find out who you’ll be meeting with and help prepare you for what to expect during those meetings. We will debrief after each initial meeting and you’ll let me know if it’s a firm worth pursuing. If it is and the firm is interested in you, there will be additional meetings, for which I will help you prepare. You will be asked to complete a Lateral Partner Questionnaire (LPQ). I will assist you with this.
During this entire process, I am available to you by email, text, phone, and in-person meetings. We will weigh the pros and cons of each firm still under consideration. We can decide if it makes sense to add any additional firms later in the process. I will be there to negotiate any offers you receive to make sure that we maximize your compensation. Also, I will negotiate all of your non-monetary needs.
I will be with you the entire time, through the time you reach a decision, assist you with transitioning to the new firm, including conflict checks and how to give notice to your current firm, and check in periodically once you get there to make sure the transition is smooth. In fact, I hope that we stay in touch on an ongoing basis throughout your career.
What results can I expect if I move to a law firm that’s the perfect match?
Once you move to a firm that’s the right fit, your work will start to feel more effortless. You’ll have all of the practice areas your clients need. You will be able to handle all of their work, at rates that make sense. You’ll be able to attract and retain the right team and enjoy cross-selling with your colleagues.
As a result, no more working crazy hours at the office just to keep up. You’ll have a team to assist you with your practice and receive generation credit for your client work that goes to other practice groups. Therefore, can work fewer hours for increased compensation, with happier clients, and have more time outside of the office.
What’s the timeline for this process?
Part of the answer is under your control. It depends on how motivated you are to make a move. It also depends on how quick you are to set up meetings and how responsive you are about getting firms the necessary information. The faster this is done, the faster their management team can reach a decision on making you an offer.
Of course, part of this schedule is based upon the availability of the law firm partners and decision-makers that you have to meet. So we don’t have complete control. Generally, once you make the decision to move forward and approach some firms, it can be as little as a month until you accept an offer. That said, it usually takes a number of months, and of course firms will understand if you’d prefer a slower timetable.
I’m so busy as it is just serving my current clients, how will I find the time to do all of this?
Not finding the time to find a better fit is part of the reason that you’re so busy. The longer you put this off, the longer you will be stuck in the office for long hours, knowing that you’re not fully serving your clients’ needs and not maximizing your compensation. Finding a better fit is important enough to your future to make some time for. And I will be there to help you the whole way through doing as much of the legwork as possible.
How do you get compensated?
The firm that you join pays me. My compensation is based on a percentage of your guaranteed first year’s compensation. You are not responsible for paying me.
You may be thinking “Then aren’t you really employed by the firms you want me to apply to and have their best interests in mind and not mine?”
No, that’s not the case for many different reasons. First of all, my professional reputation depends upon finding the best fit for my clients. My singular focus is to find a place where they excel and are happy.
Although I do have ongoing relationships with most of the firms in New Jersey, I also plan to maintain an ongoing relationship with you once I find you the perfect firm.
Secondly, this is just the standard legal recruiting industry method of compensation. All of the firms I submit you to will pay that percentage, so even if you did not trust my professional integrity, and I hope you do, there would be no reason for me to prefer one firm to another.
I probably know people at all of these law firms, why can’t I just do this myself? What value does your company add?
You might know people at many of the firms we approach, but something has stopped you from approaching them. And, you’re still at a firm that isn’t the right fit for you. It’s easier for me to discreetly approach these firms for you because then there are no awkward conversations if one of your acquaintances isn’t interested in having you join his or her firm.
I also have a lot of insider information about the strategic plans of each of the firms. I know which practice areas they want to expand, as well as their usual billing rates, compensation methods, and the general firm culture. And I know a lot of the partners you’ll be meeting.
Since you’re so busy, I can work behind the scenes to keep your search for the right fit moving forward while you serve your existing clients and market to new ones. I can take care of all the back and forth on scheduling and other mundane matters. I will only involve you in the parts you care more about. Therefore, we can get more done as a team than you can on your own.
OK, you’ve convinced me. I would like to work together. How do we get started?
We’ll set up an initial meeting (or at least a long call) so we can get to know each other. I will get a good sense of what you’re looking for. Ahead of that meeting, I’ll send you some questions I need you to answer. This will provide enough information to maximize our time together.
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