Marketing Matters Boost Your Firm’s Brand

Recruiting Is Today’s Hottest Marketing Topic

Recruiting is the legal profession’s hottest topic today and, if you think of it, recruiting is marketing ― just with a different target audience.

Ross Fishman, JD
I’d suggest that firms can achieve better lateral-hiring results using strategic and creative marketing tools than by seeking one-off hires from recruiters. And for the cost of just a couple headhunter fees, you can achieve both better results and long-lasting, firmwide reputational benefits. More on that in a minute.

Legal business is booming nationwide, and law firms are growing as fast as they can find the talent to bang out the work. I’ve spoken with many firms who lost hordes of lawyers immediately after they received their hefty year-end bonuses. How are they going to replace them?

I was talking to a senior partner at a national law firm that’s been turning down millions of dollars in interesting legal work, because they just don’t have the bodies available to do the work. They can’t keep piling more hours and more stress onto their existing associates. Firm leaders fear associates will simple quit, knowing they can promptly get hired by an equally desperate competitor down the street.

With stakes this high, why aren’t more firms supporting their recruiting with better marketing? What’s irked me for decades is that many firms see recruiting and marketing as fundamentally different activities. In my experience, the teams rarely understand the value of blending their skillsets and working together. That’s a squandered opportunity.

I’ve worked with some legal recruiting firms who are polishing up their own brands, desperate to attract more lawyers who might be persuaded to relocate to a new firm with the promise of more money, quality of life, better work, different work, work from home options ― the recruiters don’t care why; they just need to shuffle people around. They’re playing “law firm musical chairs,” filling their open contracts by shoving willing lawyers one chair/firm to the left and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruiting fees per seat.

Large firms willingly pay millions of dollars per year to headhunters to attract fresh laterals, half of whom won’t last five years, according to a survey by Decipher Investigative Intelligence. 

Typical recruiting efforts disproportionately reward the disloyal job-hoppers who are willing to pack up and leave every three to five years. You don’t want them.


The dissatisfaction rate among today’s lawyers is distressingly high; they’re looking for more, or better, or different. And if you showed them that you offer the thing they’ve been pining for and make yourself available to them, they’ll call you. 

If firms invest that headhunting money into building their brand within that lateral audience, they could attract philosophically compatible lawyers directly, without hefty fees. If you have something unique or valuable to offer, and you’re a better option to a specific type of lawyer and have a better story to tell ― then you need to proclaim that story.

For example, some years ago, when Levenfeld Pearlstein offered a more dynamic culture than other firms their size, they sought a specific type of lawyer who’d excel under that platform. They sought lawyers who felt stifled at their current firms and longed for an environment where they could look forward to coming to work every day. 

“The dissatisfaction rate among today’s lawyers is distressingly high; they’re looking for more, or better, or different. And if you showed them that you offer the thing they’ve been pining for and make yourself available to them, they’ll call you.”

We advertised boldly to the local Chicago legal community and quickly achieved their dramatic hiring goals. And Levenfeld’s reputation as an innovative firm with a strong, positive culture, lingered for over a decade. That is what you should be striving to build. The entire initiative cost less than a single headhunter fee.

But so few firms understand why, or how, to play that game. One example of a firm that understands this is Sidley.

They are offering their associates an impressive-sounding leadership and executive-training program conducted through top universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, The University of Chicago, and Northwestern. Plus, it counts toward their billable-hour requirement. 

I don’t know if Sidley’s program is credible, but I thought it was simply brilliant from a marketing and recruiting perspective:

First, it helps brand Sidley among clients and prospects as a progressive firm whose lawyers have greater understanding of real-world business than their competitors. Next, it will proactively attract the type of lateral associates they want, i.e., those who would value having a practical business education. And finally, it locks in the top Sidley associates who are participating in the program, increasing retention. (Oh, and presumably it’ll teach them valuable professional skills too, but that’s almost beside the point.)


Sidley cranked up their talented public relations machine to persuade prominent publications to write about their new program. That’s the type of initiative I’m talking about! There are so many innovative new recruiting ideas to explore ― low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked off the tree. If only firms would execute.

I predict that within a year, other firms will start offering their own leadership programs, but Sidley will have earned first-mover advantage — an 8- to 12-month head start and all the publicity. 

Other firms are making moves like this, too. Kirkland & Ellis made its own bold move toward associate recruiting and retention, shortening the firm’s partnership track by a year. Orrick and Sheppard Mullin give billable time to unplug and recharge

It’s a simple idea really, but one that might help refresh some of the firms’ stressed-out, burned-out associates, many of whom could be seeking some light at the end of the tunnel before they stagger away to a competitor or out of the profession entirely. The firms are not paying additional cash out of pocket — they’re just giving the associates 40 hours of billable credit for the time they spend off duty. 

But a one-week paid sabbatical in these extraordinary times might just keep some of them from leaving. That’s cheaper than paying a 20% headhunter fee on every $300,000 associate — and much less disruptive.

Most importantly, building a persuasive brand that will linger for many years is an investment in the firm’s future. That requires an innovative strategy, followed by an effective use of marketing and branding tools to spread the word. And in my experience, if done right, you’re also attracting the right lawyers ― the ones who best fit your culture and are most likely to succeed within your system.

Headhunter fees are costly one-offs. Building your brand lasts for years.