Corner Office

Hidden Assets

Marina Sirras has been a legal headhunter since 1986, very early in the game for a now fast-growing industry. Back then, Martindale-Hubbell’s lawyer directory was a single fat volume and the primary source for Sirras and others like her from which to glean contact and biographical information and recruit hot hires for their clients.

Then came the Internet and law firm Web sites in the mid-1990s. “It became so much easier,” says Sirras, whose New York City firm bears her name and who is president of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants. “When Web sites first came about, law firms put up pictures of associates and lots of biographical information. There was all the information we needed.”

The cat-and-mouse game between headhunters and law firms trying to head them off was suddenly heavily favoring the cats. But some mice have begun downsizing the hole in the wall to keep the predators out.

Some firms that once put up rich offerings about their associates have cut back to a minimum, with no direct phone numbers, nothing about specialty areas and often nothing to indicate who might be in that very poachable three-to-six-year term on the job.

When news reports surfaced recently about law firms cloaking associates to keep headhunters at bay, there was a buzz and outcry on several prominent legal blogs. Kevin J. Heller, editor of Tech Law Advisor, created a new directory on his blog called “Decloaked Associates.” There they can list all their biographical and contact information. But there were no immediate takers.

“They either don’t know about it or they’re afraid,” says Heller, who practices law in the New York City area. Letting bosses know you are open to being recruited can be an exceptionally bad career move.

There is one truism known to headhunters and managing partners alike: If an associate, or a partner for that matter, wants to leave, there is no way to stop that person.

But the lack of associate data on Web sites is proving difficult for headhunters, especially those who are less experienced. “Old-timers like me are used to picking up the phone and calling general numbers and getting past receptionists and secretaries,” Sirras says. Not that there aren’t other new tools. Along with the rapid growth in legal headhunters came services selling lists with otherwise unavailable information on lawyers, often provided through Web sites or services such as Martindale-Hubbell and West Legal Directory.

Precious Specialties

Firms may be vulnerable to poaching because of worker unrest or simply because of coveted practice areas.

An example of the latter is New York City’s Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, which has long specialized in technology and intellectual property while building a more general practice. It was mentioned recently for cloaking associates and has no plans to change. (The firm did heed a request from associates and change its compensation structure to be more in their favor.)

The firm’s Web site offers a lot of information about partners, but associate listings only give names, e-mail addresses and bars to which they’re admitted. There are about 125 associates among the 260 lawyers, and 50 to 60 of them are in the three-to-six-year cluster, says managing partner Richard Raysman.

“We’re not going to change our approach,” Raysman says. “We know we’re a good target for headhunters. And, yes, it was a conscious decision to limit the information.” “If we can retain three to five associates a year who might otherwise go, what we’re doing is a success.”

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.