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  • Writer's pictureFrederick L Shelton

How to Stop a Bad Legal Recruiter from Damaging Your Career

Legal recruiters can be incredibly helpful to attorneys – when they prioritize the best interest of the attorney, over their commission. Unfortunately, many of them don’t. I’ve heard horror stories about how recruiters have severely damaged attorney careers, for a commission. Here are three things to be wary of and watch out for, when you get that call from a headhunter who promises the panacea to all your legal woes:


The “Shotgun” Model"

With some legal recruiting firms (especially those who work on high volume), the objectives are clear:

  1. Get as many resumes possible.

  2. Send those resumes to as many places possible.

  3. Any interested client will be touted as a great place to work.

  4. Encourage the candidate to interview with as many firms, possible.

  5. Encourage the candidate to go where the highest offer was made - in order to collect the largest fee possible.

  6. Repeat.

There are legal recruiters who literally go through the list of every AmLaw (or other firm) in town and do this with attorneys:

“Should I send your resume to Skadden? Okay how about Baker? What about Jones? Pillsbury?”

Every time an attorney responds with a “Yes” the send button is hit, and that firm receives the attorney’s resume. Worse, I’ve heard of recruiters sending resumes to every firm in town, without even getting the attorney’s permission. Does this still happen?

Robert Shapiro, a litigation partner at Duane Morris confirms it does.

“I once worked with a recruiter and I made the parameters very clear. She would check with me prior to sending my resume anywhere,” he paused and sighed. “She submitted my resume to every firm in town, without my consent. No matter where I went, she wanted to get the credit for presenting me.”

As he continued, the frustration was clear.

“This included places where I had close personal relationships and would never have gone through a recruiter, as well as places that had reputations which would preclude an introduction. There was zero consideration of what would be beneficial to me at all.”

What Attorneys Can Do About It

The easiest way to identify and eliminate the amateur recruiters is to let them identify every firm they think you should be submitted to, and when they’re done, ask them the following questions (which you keep handy for any recruiter calls):

  • Why would that firm be better for me than mine?

  • Will their hourly rates be compatible with mine?

  • What kind of billable hours will they expect from me?

  • How robust is my practice area at their firm? How many people in my practice area, are in my city?

  • When it comes to growth vs. attrition, have they been growing or losing numbers over the last year or few years?

If they’re pitching a firm or firms, and can’t answer these basic questions, they’re not someone you want to trust with your career. Politely decline to work with them.

The best recruiters may have a firm in mind for you, based on your pedigree and experience, but they should still spend several minutes finding out what’s most important to you, as well as what you want to avoid. Then they can make an informed Analysis & Recommendations. Regardless of what they do, we recommend sending out an email that reads as follows, to any recruiters you engage with:

Dear Recruiter,

I appreciate your inquiry and may consider FIRM. However, before we begin working together, I want to make clear that I have my own network of potential employers. Thus, if you send my resume anywhere, without my prior consent, that could cause me economic damages and will be the subject of litigation. Please confirm you understand this, before we do anything more.

At Shelton & Steele, we make clear on our website that a resume, LinkedIn profile etc. will never be shared with a client, without their prior consent. If you see that represented on the recruiter’s website, then they are unlikely to engage in such practices.


The Split Commission Model

Many legal recruiting firms operate under a split-commission business model. That means that if one recruiter has a client, and another recruiter has the candidate, they split the commission 50 / 50. So, if recruiter A has a “fair” opportunity for a candidate, and Recruiter B has the best possible firm for that candidate, Recruiter A loses 50% of their commission by sending the candidate to the best possible firm. Instead of making $100,000, they would make only $50,000. Human nature dictates that Recruiter A is probably going to recommend their own clients first, so they can collect the full commission. The higher-end firms do not split fees.

What Attorneys Can Do About It

Casually ask them how many of the firms they recommended are their own clients and how close they are with these firms. If every client is their own, that math is pretty easy.

Suggesting Attorneys Exaggerate Their Portable Business

Recruiters are often trained to tell partners they must be “Optimistic” and “Aggressive” when stating how much business they will bring. The script often sounds like this:

“Ms. Candidate, the whole reason you’re moving is that the new platform will help you build your book. Remember, your income is going to be set in stone for two years, based on what we tell them. So what’s the most optimistic number you feel representing as a potential book?”

That is the rationalization used to get partners to exaggerate their books. The hidden agenda is obvious. The bigger the book, the bigger the salary. The bigger the salary, the bigger the commission for the recruiting firm. The downside? When the exaggerated book doesn’t show up, the partner garners ill will from their new firm and in some cases, may even be fired.

Let’s be clear: NEVER exaggerate your portable business!

At Shelton & Steele, we do the opposite. We have created a Client Portability Assessment (CPA) for attorneys. The CPA consists of 25 questions regarding every single client they have. We then have the answers, which are weighted based on performance, analyzed by our AI. Finally we provide the candidate with the assessment of how much and how likely their book is to port with them.   

I recently did a Client Portability Analysis with an attorney who genuinely believed they had a seven figure book. By the time we were finished, we determined the number would be less than half that. Yes it costs our firm a potential fee but we advised him to stay where he was – and he was grateful to us for that counsel.

What Attorneys Can Do About It

It’s simple. If a recruiter even hints about “being aggressive” about estimating your book of business, decline to work with them.


Recruiters can be highly valuable professionals, who can provide vast amounts of important data and valuable counsel. They can help you decide which firm is best for you or whether you should move at all. But just as in the legal, there are good and bad examples of every profession. Use this guide to help navigate away from those who would crash your career into the rocks, for a commission.

Frederick Shelton is the CEO of Shelton & Steele, a national legal consulting and recruiting firm. he can be reached at




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