demise of US law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf

Following the catastrophic demise of US law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf – which was a bit like the movie ‘Titanic’; for the last month or so the whole market was just waiting for the thing to sink – I was left wondering who was the recruiter who placed the last man or woman into Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Further, I asked myself “what did they know, that recruiter, and what did they say to the candidate?”

Talking to recruiters, they mostly say they could see the writing on the wall from some distance; recruiters get the skinny way ahead of others, from departing partners among others. So the question is, when do they actually stop suggesting the firm to candidates or submitting cvs? How many partners have to leave before the firm becomes toxic for recruiters?

I would suggest that that line is a lot closer to the cliff-edge than many people would think.

Imagine being the candidate sent to, interviewing at, and accepting a job at Dewey & LeBoeuf, Halliwells or any of the other defunct firms just months (weeks,days…) before they sank. How would you feel?

Recruiters would say ‘caveat emptor’. They don’t force anyone to join a particular firm, and they have a job to do, to fill roles and place people with their clients. Their view of firms is only partial, they would say, coloured by bitter leavers and gossip. They owe it to their client – and their bank balance – to present a positive view. And anyway, it’s horses for courses, just as there are ‘C’-grade firms (and below), so there are ‘C’-grade candidates for those firms.

Leaving aside the rather obvious point that if your client goes bust you may not get paid the recruitment fee you are owed, I think this is too easy.

Candidates coming to recruiters put their trust in that individual to be better informed than they are, to be an adviser, to be able to tell them the things the press has to leave out of its stories for fear of legal action; many recruiters even claim to be impartial advisers, although the presence of a fee in the mix inveighs against that. One might expect a partner to be decently-informed, and anyway to have a measure of independence if they have a following, but in the case of a junior assistant, what can they know, ahead of time? Such candidates can easily be manipulated by a clever (or desperate) recruiter.

Ultimately, though, as tough as it is, the ‘caveat emptor’ argument has to be the right one. If a ferry-operator offers you a lift to the listing cruise-liner with the pall of smoke hanging over it, and you get on the boat, you’re an idiot.

It is true, however, that recruiters’ selective approach to their knowledge of firms, and what they tell candidates, does perpetuate bad practice and, arguably, keeps rotten firms afloat much longer than they should be.

I would go further; I think recruiters have an ethical duty of care to candidates to give them the full picture before placing them somewhere. I certainly saw it as a matter of integrity to be as honest as I could about firms, and I have no doubt whatever that it cost me fees, in fact I know it did. I also, however, had candidates coming back to me having joined firms I judiciously warned them against telling me that I had it right all along, bemoaning the career mistake they had made and cursing the recruiter they felt had misled them.

I think, further, that in other industries, this is much less of an issue. In IT for instance, or marketing, people move around every few years and the odd ‘mistake’ on the cv isn’t going to matter a lot. But in law, one false move can blight the rest of your career. Recruiters know this better than anyone, and to ignore it for the sake of the fee has a much more destructive effect than I think they realise.

Trust me, we are a long way from recruiters refusing to deal with a firm because of the odious way it treats its partners or staff, I doubt we are even on that path.

But perhaps the demise of Dewey will make candidates think twice before accepting the assurances of a recruiter that “everything’s ok, really”, and that can only be a good thing.

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