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Doing Things Differently: Recruiting Without a Recruiter

January 9th, 2006 No comments

One Tampa Lawyer Brings in Laterals On His Own
The Wall Street Journal
By DOUGLAS MCCOLLAM

Doing Things Differently, a new feature on the Online Journal’s law page, examines the people and institutions breaking away from law’s time-bound protocols and traditions. If you have an idea for a Doing Things Differently feature, please email us at lawblog-at-wsj.com, and please put Doing Things Differently in the subject line.

A few months back, Ricardo Fernandez was waiting to board a flight in the Tampa airport when he overheard something that caught his attention. Ahead of him in line, a fellow passenger was talking on his cell phone. With a practiced ear, Mr. Fernandez not only quickly identified the man as a lawyer, but was also able to zero in on his practice area. When the call ended, Mr. Fernandez moved in. Before wheels up, he had the lawyer’s card and had started the delicate minuet of convincing him to jump ship from his current firm. (At press time, the pair were still in negotiations.)

Such tactics might seem standard for a legal headhunter. But Rick Fernandez isn’t a legal headhunter, at least not the traditional kind. He’s a partner at Tampa-based Fowler White Boggs Banker, one of Florida’s oldest law firms. Just over a year ago, the firm named Mr. Fernandez, a health-care litigator, as its hiring partner. Since then Mr. Fernandez has brought in 25 lateral hires to the 200-lawyer firm, about a five-fold increase over the previous year, all without the assistance of professional legal recruiters. “Most hiring partners work with outside services and act as a kind of funnel for lawyers brought to them,” Mr. Fernandez says. “I have a different approach.”

Instead of using headhunters, Mr. Fernandez goes out and prospects for lawyers himself, using tactics often associated with pesky stock brokers and real-estate agents. He works the room at bar functions, pressing the flesh and handing out business cards. He reads legal journals to see who is doing interesting work, then cold calls targeted recruits. He travels regularly to Fowler White’s markets, canvassing local contacts about potential hires. “It’s a sales job,” Mr. Fernandez admits. “I have to sell our product to [the potential hires] and understand what they need and are looking for.”

Mr. Fernandez, in short, has cut out the middle-man, eliminating the substantial fees usually paid to outside recruiters, typically 20-25% of the recruit’s first year salary with the new firm. Keeping recruiting in-house also helps ensure that Fowler, White gets lawyers that are a good fit for the firm. “I’m attuned to cultural issues and only looking to bring in people who are going to stick around,” says Mr. Fernandez, who spends about 20% of his time practicing law and the rest on rolling out the red carpet for potential hires.

But isn’t all this a little, well, unseemly? Just a generation ago, firm-hopping lawyers were often considered pariahs. The last twenty years have changed that, but lawyers still don’t want to be seen as actively poaching their neighbor’s prized assets. Recruiters “add a layer of confidentiality and discretion,” says Christine Rees, executive director of Legal Placements, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based recruiting firm. Ms. Rees says her firm relieves lawyers of a lot of leg work, doing pre-screening of candidates and offering money-back guarantees if, within about a year, a prospect doesn’t work for the new firm.

Mr. Fernandez maintains that, however hard they try, outside recruiters can never be as effective as he can be. “It’s a big difference when I call as opposed to a head-hunter,” Mr. Fernandez says. “Those calls are viewed as annoying sales pitches. I’m calling about something real from a firm with a 60-year history.” And what if others firms don’t appreciate Fowler White’s trying to cherry-pick their best people? Mr. Fernandez doesn’t seem too worried: “My sense is that if you lose a lawyer, you didn’t do enough to keep them. It’s nothing we did. It’s your problem, not ours.”

Copyright 2006 The Wall Street Journal. All Rights Reserved.

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