In this episode, Alay Yajnik and Jennifer Bennett, Partner at KBF Search, discuss how using recruiters can help small law firms win the war for talent and staff up with great people.
- “Small firms have this flexibility to build your practice in a way that maybe you’re not able to where you are.” – Jennifer Bennett
- “When you go the job board route, you’re limited to people who are unhappy where they are.” – Jennifer Bennett
- “Getting good at hiring is a skill that every firm needs to have.” – Alay Yajnik
- “If you haven’t made a bad hire yet, you will. Hire through that and get better and better at hiring.” – Alay Yajnik
Alay Yajnik: Welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage. This podcast is dedicated to helping attorneys earn more money, get better clients and spend more time with family. I’m your host, Alay Yajnik, founder of Law Firm Success Group. Smart business guidance for small law firms begins in 3…2…1….
Alay Yajnik: And it’s my pleasure to welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage Jennifer Bennett, partner at KBF Search. Jennifer, how are you doing today?
Jennifer Bennett: I’m doing great, how are you doing?
Alay Yajnik: I’m doing very well. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today. Tell us a little bit about your background, because it’s very compelling. And then why you decided to found KBF Search.
Jennifer Bennett: Sure. So I have spent the first 20 years of my professional career recruiting inside law firms, mostly AMLAW 100 firms, but one smaller firm as well. I’m not a lawyer myself. I moved out to California from the East Coast with the intention of working as a paralegal for a couple of years and going to law school and didn’t quite work out that way.
Jennifer Bennett: But what did happen is I ended up having 20 pretty fun years working in inside law firms, which I know sounds a little bit weird, but I thought it was a lot of fun. My most recent role, I was the Director of Partner Recruiting for a firm based on the East Coast, but the role was national. So I got to fly all over the country recruiting lawyers. We opened an office in Dallas during that time, which was really fun. And so I really just grew to love working with lawyers. They’re smart, driven people and people that I love to work with and help. And so I really enjoy that. Sometime in 2019 I kind of got to the tipping point where I found that more of my day was spent doing managerial, managing my team and being involved in firm initiatives and firm management projects, which was interesting. But the part that I really loved – recruiting – had really shrunk into a really small part of my day to day. And so I just felt like I needed to think about a change. And I really wanted the opportunity to work with different firms, smaller firms, be able to pick my clients and my projects, and maybe most importantly, to build a business the way that I’d seen the partners around me do for so many years.
Jennifer Bennett: So fortuitously, my now business partner, Kelly Fiore, was a recruiter whose client I had been for years and years, and we were meeting for drinks to talk about a deal. We were trying to get done and started talking about life and careers and, not for the first time, she said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun for us to work together?” She had just gone out on her own and it went from there. The rest is history. And so just celebrated one year.
Alay Yajnik: How has your first year been?
Jennifer Bennett: Well, I mean, how has 2020 been for all of us, right? I mean, it was very good. I’ve never been happier than when I talk to, you know, small business owners, small firm owners. I hear a lot of what I feel, which is I wish I had done it sooner. I love the freedom to work on the projects that I like to work on. I have loved working with a lot of small firms this year. That’s something that being inside a big firm, I didn’t really get to do that kind of work. And so it’s been great and, you know, 2020 for a lot of people was a year of examination. Right. What’s important and what do I want to be doing with the bulk of my day? And so career and transition plays into that. And so I had the opportunity to work on some really rewarding projects. And I’m looking forward to now having a year under my belt. I’ve learned a few things and seeing what we can do in 2021.
Alay Yajnik: Yeah, 2020 was crazy. Some people were thriving. A lot of people were really struggling just to get through the year and most of us were somewhere in the middle. So congratulations on starting your firm and on having a successful first year, pretty much by any measure and within those circumstances that’s really extraordinary. So congrats on that.
Alay Yajnik: You mentioned that you would start doing more work with small firms. So what is it that you enjoy about working with small firms maybe versus working with some of the larger firms?
Jennifer Bennett: I mean, I think the first thing that comes to mind is the impact you can have when you help a small firm really find a great hire. The very first placement that I did with my new business was for a six lawyer firm. And the partner who brought me into the project said “this hire has changed my life.” She had been looking for months to add somebody and just didn’t know how to go about doing it and wasn’t having luck. And that’s just not something you hear as often when you work with a larger organization. The impact that you can have with a single person is just, you know, by virtue of the numbers, it’s less so that that is the first thing that comes to mind. I also just love a build. I mean, my favorite part of any of my big firm jobs was building an office or building a practice group from the ground up. And there’s more of that to be done, I think, with small firms and really partnering with the owners and the other folks who are involved with the management in really digging in and helping them grow. So I find it very rewarding and quite frankly, pretty fun.
Alay Yajnik: It’s very similar to what I like to work with small firms, too, because we can really move the needle. And when we do, it has a big, big impact, doesn’t it?
Jennifer Bennett: Sure does. Yeah.
Alay Yajnik: So that’s a lot of fun and one of the one of the things I want to get out of the way up front right away, I have heard from attorneys that recruiters are too expensive for small firms. I hear that all the time. But you’ve worked with a lot of small firms. How do you respond to that?
Jennifer Bennett: That’s a great question, and I hear it, too, and I heard it when I was in big firms too. So I mean, it’s out there. It’s a common complaint. So, yeah, I’m happy to address that. When I talk to small firms and we’re talking about the possibility of working together, there’s kind of three things that that I used to respond to that that line of query or that that comment. I think ultimately it comes down to time allocation. I know myself as a small business owner. There’s so many things to do and only so many hours in the day. And so I’m always asking myself, what’s the highest and best use of my time? And frequently that helps me figure out that there’s pieces of my business, that I’m better off allocating financial resources to somebody who’s really an expert in that area, who can do it more efficiently and effectively. And so that’s that’s the same question or comment that I bring back to small firm owners is, you know, are you feeling like the time you’re spending trying to recruit yourself is pulling you away from other parts of your practice that that are more important. And so that’s where I start. I think the other thing, quite honestly, some small firms do a great job of recruiting for themselves. They know who their candidate pool is. They’ve got a great network. And I’m really honest with the small firms I talk to who are in that situation that I’m not sure I can add much value. So maybe it doesn’t make sense for us to work together. And I think that’s that’s great. But far more often than what I uncover when I talk to them is what they’re doing is sort of passively recruiting: throwing up job postings or using websites where you’re really only getting active job seekers.
Jennifer Bennett: You’re not getting those candidates or those lawyers that are just knocking it out of the park where they are, but kind of haven’t realized that there might be a better option for them. So that’s where I can really come in and move my clients from defense to offense. And this was the same thing I said when I was inside big firms. You know, it’s very much the way even in big firms with sophisticated recruiting functions, that a lot of the partners, the way that they recruit is they they wait for the resumes to come in and there’s no sort of forward proactive effort. So that’s the other piece I talk about with small firms. And finally (and I don’t lead with this) it’s mostly true in most cases, most of my engagements as I work on contingency. So there’s really no risk to a firm to start working with me and see what I can what I can bring to the table for them, because they don’t it doesn’t cost them anything until they hire someone. And so and I bring a lot of value along the way because in the process of uncovering what they’re looking for, we talk about everything from does this hire fit with your strategic plan? How are we going to pitch your firm to the market? And sometimes I can help them improve their hiring process, too. So sometimes it’s actually the opposite. Firms are getting all my time and some of the expertize that I’ve built over the years and sometimes there’s no placement at the end of that. So they’re they’re getting a lot of value for for virtually no cost.
Alay Yajnik: So, Jennifer, one of the things you mentioned that really struck with me is when you work with small law firms, you help them build a case for why an attorney that is already employed and is knocking it out of the park at another firm, should come work for this law firm. And I run into this a lot when I talk to my clients about the war for talent and how they can position their small firms. What are you seeing that small firms can do, how they can position themselves, to win that war for talent against some of the larger firms that are out there?
Jennifer Bennett: Well, I think there’s a lot of things small firms can do, but the biggest thing is it’s an education process. I think lawyers who grow up in big firms and frankly, I mean, I can say this for myself as somebody who is a creature mostly of the big firm environment, is you really don’t understand when you’re in a big firm that there is so much great, rewarding, profitable work to do outside of the big firm environment. You sort of drink the Kool-Aid, as they say, right? You think, “oh, I can’t there’s no better place to be kind of unhappy and maybe a little miserable.” And I’m talking from a lawyer’s perspective here because I think we all know that there’s a lot of, you know, at least semi-miserable lawyers at some large firms. So I think it’s a matter of education. And this is where I can really come in and help, because one of the things I enjoy doing the most is working with a lawyer who maybe is thinking about leaving the practice of law because they’re so unhappy where they are or they’ve just gotten to this position where they’re, you know, just their situation, the demands on their time. You know, it’s untenable for them, but they don’t think they have another option. So they start looking at all these crazy places or assume, “Oh, the only thing I can do is go in-house.” But no, actually, there’s so many great options and small firms, there’s all this flexibility to build your practice in a way that maybe you’re not able to where you are. And so I think that’s the biggest advantage small firms have. I think the second is just the flexibility. And I think we’ve seen in 2020, and this makes me so excited for the future, that law firms have been forced by COVID to be more flexible and to work differently together. And I think the firms that really hold on to that and embrace it are going to be in a much stronger position in the war for talent. And so I’m hopeful. I know that there will be some who will kind of go back to doing business the old way, big firms and small. But I’m hopeful that with all of these options in front of us, that it’s going to really open the door, especially for smaller firms to compete for talent where maybe they didn’t feel like they could before.
Alay Yajnik: Jennifer, tell us about the process you go through when you’re executing a search.
Jennifer Bennett: Sure. So I am very proactive and very targeted. So I start when I work with a firm with just sitting down and really digging in, getting a good sense from them what the specific need they have is and how it fits into the larger strategic plan. And then I really pressed them for selling points on their firm. I really want to be able to talk about a firm when I talk to a candidate as if I work there, which in a sense I do when I’m engaged on a search, and really get candidates excited about the opportunity. You only sometimes get one opportunity to have the conversation. So I want to make sure it’s as impactful as it can be. And once I have a sense of what I’m looking for, I try to craft a target list of candidates utilizing the knowledge that I’ve gained over my years and affirm the nuances of practice areas and my understanding of the firm, my clients culture and then the culture of the firms that I’m reaching out to. And then and then I just I start I start reaching out and having conversations. Sometimes I get lucky. And I’m already talking to somebody who sounds like they could be a fit or I can I can get there a little more quickly through my network.
Jennifer Bennett: But more often, it’s really a process of putting myself in the shoes of the firm and really understanding what they’re looking for and finding some. It’s a very short list of those people. But if they’re the right people, that’s OK. You only need one. So that’s how we go. So again, being very proactive and really being on offense and encouraging my clients to not be afraid, don’t be afraid to go after people because you think you can’t get them. You never know until you have the conversation. So that’s that’s what I what I try to bring to the table.
Alay Yajnik: So when you’re going on offense, would love to get your thoughts on the differences in candidates that a law firm might find if they work with someone like yourself and go on offense versus they use that defensive approach, or reactive approach that you alluded to earlier, which is where they’re posting on job boards and just looking for people that are already looking for a job.
Jennifer Bennett: I think the danger, at least in my experience on the lawyer side, is when you go the job board route, you’re really limited to people who are already there, so unhappy where they are that they have they have commenced a search or they have been told by their current employer that they need to find another situation or for some other reason, they’re feeling not secure about their current job. And there can be legitimate reasons for that. I certainly don’t want to say that people who are actively job searching are not great candidates. That’s not necessarily the case. But I think you run a greater risk of there being more to the story or some baggage there that maybe a small firm doesn’t want to bring in to their to their situation. So I have always throughout my time, either inside of firms or on the side, had more luck if you if you can really attract somebody to talk to you based on the power of the opportunity you’re presenting to them. And if you can really get them to understand and believe that their situation can be improved by making this move, it’s a much stronger position to be in as an employer.
Alay Yajnik: And as you’re listening to this podcast, just put yourselves in that situation for a minute. If you’re unhappy in your current firm, what are you likely to do first? Probably nothing, right? Just kind of stew in that and be unhappy than what you might do after that is you might reach out to your colleagues, the people that you trust, and start asking them, “Hey, do you know any firms that might be looking to hire? Because I might be interested in making a move.” If that doesn’t work out, you might start to think about, “OK, well, maybe it’s time to start my own firm.” Probably at the end of all of that is when you start to actually go on LinkedIn and Indeed and try and apply for jobs. And especially for sophisticated attorneys, that’s just not not going to be a successful route to take. So I love that approach, Jennifer. I think it can drive huge value in terms of the quality of candidates, which can make a huge difference for the firm.
Alay Yajnik: As we’re talking about recruiting, the reason I’m delighted to have you on the program today is recruiting and law firm growth go hand in hand. I’m pretty good at driving law firm growth. It’s what we do at Law Firm Success Group. But no matter what we do on the marketing and business development side, a law firm can only grow as much as its people can allow. And very quickly, a law firm is going to get full with business and full with clients, and they’re going to need to go hire. So the ability to develop a really strong hiring capability within your firm is critical and you’re going to need to use a mix. For most people, it’s going to be a mix of some things that you source internally and some things that you sourced through a recruiter like Jennifer for. And developing the capability within a firm is going to directly impact the growth of the firm much more so, quite frankly, than marketing and business development. Jennifer, what advice would you give to partners who are interested in growing their law firms?
Jennifer Bennett: Sure. Well, I mean, you you answered a bit of that question for me, which is do the work before you launch a search. Don’t go out into the market and go looking for somebody until you know what you’re looking for. And if a firm has has worked with a growth expert or has done some soul searching and strategic planning on their own, it’s so much easier to help them find the person who is going to be the right fit for them. It’s knowing the why behind why you’re going to make a hire and try to build is so important, not just as a firm to know that yourself, but it’s important to be able to articulate to a candidate. I’ve had this conversation so many times over! Ask a hiring partner. So why do you need this? What’s the why behind this hire? Give me some history. And the thing that comes out of their mouth is, well, we need somebody. And I say, “What’s the selling point?” “Well tell them that we really need them.” And that’s just not enough. I mean, especially in a market it would be enough, particularly in this one. That is not a selling point. That is a defensive, almost desperate sounding maneuver that is not going to help you really attract great people.
Alay Yajnik: “Come work for us. We have work for you to do!”
Jennifer Bennett: Even if even if that is the answer, I mean, I’m sure you work with firms all the time where there’s a little bit of a succession planning issue going on. And even in a situation where you have a senior partner who wants to find somebody to help inherit their practice and take over their clients, I mean, the answer would still be, “I need somebody to come and help me transition my practice.” But it’s all about the way you craft it and the way you message it. So the more work on that side that can be done with a firm before before I go out into the market and do my piece of the job just ups the chances for success and just finding a really great person.
Jennifer Bennett: The other piece of advice I would give, and I have this conversation a lot with small firms is a lot of fear of hiring. It’s expensive. It just it can feel very scary. And so my my message would be, don’t be afraid to hire if you’re already overwhelmed and at a pain point, it’s almost too late. And what you don’t want to do is run the risk, especially if you have other people around you, other lawyers who are feeling burned out and overwhelmed. It’s so much harder to add somebody to the mix when you’re already past the point where everybody is feeling overworked and miserable and where you’re feeling like you can’t. You get into that trap where you want to develop more business, but you feel like you can’t because you’re afraid if you get it, how are you going to get it done? I do find it even in big firms. This is a thing. I mean, law firms tend to be reactive and it’s so much harder, again, especially in the Bay Area in California, where the demand for legal services is so high, doesn’t matter who you are or how much you’re paying, if you’re in certain practice areas, you’re just going to have a really tough time hiring. And it just makes your job harder if you’re coming from a position of everybody. Everybody here is already working so hard to join us and help us. That’s just not a not an effective message at all.
Alay Yajnik: “Overworked and underpaid. Come join us.”
Jennifer Bennett: That’s great, right? “Really nice people.”
Alay Yajnik: But I also want to take some of the pressure off of the people that are listening to this. And some of the things I hear from from attorneys who are looking to hire is they’re burned. They’ve had a bad hiring experience. What I usually tell them (and I’m curious, your thoughts on this, Jennifer) is, “Look, having a bad hire is just a fact of life. If you haven’t made a bad hire yet, you will. It’s going to happen so that you just have to accept that and continue to hire through that and get better and better and better at hiring. Does that mean you can still make a mistake? Of course. Does that mean you will? Probably, but you have to keep hiring. You may have a crack team now. They’re awesome. You’re hitting on all cylinders, but team members leave and they oftentimes leave even if they’re very happy. They relocate. They have changes in their life that caused them to to leave their job or move to a different part of the country, a different part of the world. They retire. These things happen and they’re outside of your control. So even if you have an amazing team right now, you’re going to need to hire to replace some of them at some point in the future. And so developing that strategy and getting good at hiring is just a skill that every firm that’s going to be around for a while is going to need to have.” And someone like you, Jennifer, I think can be kind of their secret weapon to help them get really good at hiring and help them find some attorneys who can really come in and really take the firm to the next level.
Jennifer Bennett: Yeah, I, I completely agree, I think too sometimes when people leave, it feels very personal to the partner who who works closely with that person and that’s true of small firms or big firms. And I can help relieve some of that that burden. I’ve seen this happen with partners I’ve worked with. It feels like such a loss. And it’s hard sometimes when you’re when you’re grieving that a little bit or you’re again thinking maybe you’re not in overwhelm yet, but you’re thinking about the the case that’s going to come in and two weeks after this person was left and how am I going to handle this? I can really help and come in and take some of that burden away and not on top of all that overwhelm to then have to pour so much time into sourcing candidates and slogging through resumes and doing sort of initial screening. So that’s the other piece, too.
Jennifer Bennett: But but I agree. A great team today. Things can change very quickly. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s people are reevaluating and moving and doing things that they might not have done five years ago. And so I think having another resource to help manage through that process is is really key.
Alay Yajnik: We can talk about this topic for hours and maybe we should, but probably not on the podcast, but it’s the reason why I wrote that book Staffing Up: the Attorney’s Guide to Hiring Top Talent is because I haven’t found a good resource for that anywhere. So I’m so glad that we had a chance to connect today. Thank you for some fantastic advice that you’ve given to everybody. What excites you about KBF Search and the future?
Jennifer Bennett: That is a great question. Well, we’re in the process of renaming and rebranding and relaunching, so that’s been very exciting. I don’t know. I’m sure there are people listening who have been through that process and it’s exciting. And so that’s learning about how to incorporate an LLC and build a business. So so that’s that’s point one. But more broadly and more importantly, for purposes of this conversation, I’m really hopeful for the future. As we talked about a little earlier, I think law firms have I mean, for unfortunate reasons, but there is a silver lining here. Law firms have really been forced to think differently about how they can work together and deliver legal services and become more flexible both for their clients and on the way they work together. And so I have already been involved in moving some folks from firm to firm in this landscape. And it’s really fun and rewarding. And so I’m really looking forward to seeing what 2021 and beyond brings how it’s going to change the legal industry and how law firms work and how how they can hold on to some of this flexibility. And I’m really energized to move into this year with with all of that going on.
Alay Yajnik: Terrific, Jennifer. And if people wanted to connect with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Jennifer Bennett: Sure. Probably the best way is by email, and that address for now is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alay Yajnik: Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for being on Lawyer Business Advantage today. It’s always a pleasure to connect with you. And I wish you and your partner all the best with your rebrand.
Alay Yajnik: And that’s a wrap for this episode of the Lawyer Business Advantage podcast. One thing that would really help both us and other new potential listeners is for you to rate this show and leave a comment in iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you tune in to listen. And I want to hear from you. So connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know what you think of this episode. And if you are a solo or an owner of a small law firm and you’re looking to earn more money, attract better clients or reduce your stress, we would love to talk with you to see how we can help request your free law firm assessment by visiting lawfirmsuccessgroup.com. Again, that URL is lawfirmsuccessgroup.com. We look forward to talking with you soon. Thank you for listening. My name is Alay Yajnik. Until next time, remember, you can see freedom. You can embrace happiness. You CAN build your perfect practice.