When should you respond to that cold call or email?

When should you respond to that cold call or email?

The first time I received a cold call from a headhunter, I was an overworked junior associate in a large international law firm, and I was both flattered (“Who, me?”) and slightly alarmed (paranoid lest the firm was somehow listening to the call, and judging me based on my receptivity).

I quickly became accustomed to them, however, as do most attorneys who work at larger firms or companies; the average BigLaw associate or partner will receive several cold calls (and emails and InMails etc) every week, typically from random out-of-state recruiters pitching vague “unique opportunities” to make lateral moves.  It’s no wonder many lawyers regard these as an annoying occupational hazard.

Yet any intelligent professional knows that there are genuinely interesting opportunities out there that could truly fast-track their careers, or allow lifestyle changes, or provide sought-after challenge.  So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

1.  Look for a high degree of specificity: 

  • The very first thing a recruiter should tell you is the identity of their client company or firm, and the team which is hiring.  Unless you are the GC of a public company and are being headhunted by a competitor, if a recruiter is cagey about divulging a client’s identity, it is probably because they don’t have one – they’re on a fishing expedition to find likely candidates who might not be totally happy where they are.  This type of recruiter is unlikely to have high-level access to great opportunities because they don’t invest the time in getting to know the market.  At best, they will elicit from you what your preferences might be, then go off to compile a list of places where they might plausibly get a fee for introducing you.  Their goal will be to send your resume to as many potential employers as possible in the hope that something sticks.  This type of approach is hardly in your best interests.
  • A good recruiter will also be able to describe the opportunity itself in detail – what the role entails, the reporting structure etc – and explain why you have been targeted.  Are they approaching you because you have great experience that will be useful?  If the role is driven by qualifications or seniority, do you fit the bill on paper at least?  Have you been referred by a mutual acquaintance? If the recruiter can’t give details about the role or doesn’t have a good explanation as to why they’ve sought you out in particular, tread warily.

2.  Is it a retained or exclusive search? 

  • In a retained exclusive search, the client engages one recruiter to conduct the search.  You won’t be hearing about the opportunity from anyone else, and you can be reasonably confident that the search is genuine (clients generally don’t pay good money for a retained search until they are committed to hiring and have formulated the specifications for the role).  The retained search consultant is typically an experienced specialist with deep knowledge of the industry and the client.  They will be persistent because their client has specifically tasked them with reaching you.  This recruiter also has exclusive access to the client for this position; they are running the search.  Even if you’re not interested in a move, you should always take the call on a retained search, listen politely and respond graciously as a matter of professional courtesy.
  • If the recruiter doesn’t have an exclusive, look out for a high degree of specificity (see above) to assess whether it’s a bona fide opportunity or just a speculative approach.

3.  Is the recruiter local?

  • This shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding whether to respond or take a call, but generally speaking, it is better to deal with a recruiter who is local to you and/or local to the client.  Firstly, they know the local market and can advise you in context.  Secondly, any good recruiter will want to meet you in person if at all possible.  Yes, we are all busy and it is easy to just chat on the phone or use Facetime, but you learn a lot more about a person by meeting face-to-face.

4.  If you’re happy in your job and not looking to make a move…

  • Take ten minutes to hear about the opportunity anyway, if it meets the specificity criteria above.  Listen with an open mind and you might just learn about the opportunity of a lifetime.  Even if you decide it’s not for you right now, the time may come when you do want to explore the market – or even do some hiring of your own – and it is best to know who the good recruiters are when you do.
David couldn't wait to hear about the next exciting opportunity

David couldn’t wait to hear about the next exciting opportunity