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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

October 19, 2017

I’m experiencing extreme difficulty hiring a junior lawyer with 4-6 years of SOLID licensing experience. What should I do?

Julie Q. Brush

A lawyer with 4-6 years of solid licensing experience is one of the most highly sought after candidate profiles in the market today. And inventory is scarce. So other employers seeking this elusive lawyer share your frustration. Why are these lawyers so difficult to find? In order to understand the reasons driving the scarcity, it’s important to know a little history:

The dot-com “boom” was born in 1997 – and as it gained momentum, newbie and established tech companies generated massive amounts of commercial and technology transactions work. Without a robust in house legal department to leverage, company execs tapped law firms to manage the workload. As a result, the tech transactions practices flourished in law firms that serviced the technology market sector. New law grads had the option of joining these practices as first year associates. And by the time they transitioned in house, they already possessed several years of solid tech transactions experience.

Over the last 15 or so years, the legal industry has evolved. And corporate execs now place greater value on in house legal departments: For the value they add…and the money they save. Consequently, in house departments are growing and adding deeper benches of lawyers to service the “commodity work”…like tech transactions. This in house expansion has taken the bulk of tech transactions work away from the law firms – resulting in a decreased number of licensing lawyers or a jettisoned practice altogether. So now new grads must choose alternative practices like corporate, litigation and patent etc. despite their interest in licensing work. As these associates move in house (avg. seniority of associate departure is 3-5 years) and assume entry level tech transitions roles, they are required to “retool” their practices to develop the relevant expertise. So the reality is that in house candidates with 4-6 years of legal experience often only possess 1-2 years of tech transactions experience by the time they are ready for their second in house move.

So what should you do given this market reality? Below is the path:

Tweak Your Expectations. You’ve been searching for this particular candidate profile for many, many months and the market has told you that these folks not only scarce, but their interest level in your opportunity is low. So it’s time to start tweaking your expectations about the process and consider alternatives to achieving hiring success. Doing so will reduce frustration and increase candidate activity.

Revisit Compensation. Could it be that you aren’t landing the candidate you want because your compensation package is too low? Take inventory of whether your offering aligns with other employers on the market and/or what this current candidate profile is getting paid at her/his current company. And for the love of God, please do not rely on Compensia and Radford to set your ranges in stone. In metropolitan cities, these compensation reports are reliably low for Legal. Instead, speak with an expert in house local legal recruiter and colleagues in other companies and benchmark compensation ranges in your local market. If it turns out that your numbers are too low, you have three options: (1) bump up the compensation and start attracting more candidates, (2) demonstrate greater flexibility with your candidate requirements and consider variations of your “perfect” candidate; or (3) keep everything as-is and expect to wait a long time before you can come close to filling your open role (if you can fill it at all).

Consider Other Market Hires. If you live in an expensive city where candidates command big paychecks and your company can’t compete, consider the option of hiring your lawyer in a different, less expensive market. This path has its own challenges, but if your company has offices in multiple cities, the relevant candidate pool exists and you can absorb a remote worker, this might be a viable play.

Hire a “Best Athlete”. If you are willing to start expanding your mind on the candidate pool, a smart, self sufficient, hard working, motivated, team oriented, un-entitled…reliable lawyer succeeds regardless of his/her substantive deficiencies. If you are willing to provide the patience and the training, this profile is almost always a winner.

Hire a 4-6 year lawyer with 1-2 years of tech transactions experience. These lawyers were corporate lawyers, litigators, IP lawyer etc. in law firms before migrating in house and retooling their practice. So their overall substantive practice is more diverse with 1 – 2 years of tech transactions experience. They will still require some training, but their tech transactions exposure will provide more relevant value immediately. And if they check your other required boxes, they’re a good bet.

Hire a more senior lawyer with the requisite licensing experience. A more senior lawyer with the requisite licensing experience will function more independently and won’t need as much of your time. S/he may also have greater impact in other legal areas. If these candidates are ok with comp and title – and won’t be out the door within a year (you can gut-check when you meet them), I strongly advise you to consider this profile. It’s a “more bang for your buck” path that many of today’s employers are appreciating.

The in house market is thriving and competition for talent is stiff. The candidate you seek is particularly rare, so finding…and hiring a top candidate with this profile is challenging. In order to increase your chance of success, you’ll need to be nimble and adjust to the market. That does not mean compromising on quality. But it does mean that your “perfect candidate” may look a tad differently than originally expected.

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