GCRC Interview: Mike Evers from Evers Legal Search

Our latest GCRC Interview is with Mike Evers, a legal recruitment specialist at Evers Legal Search. Mike is passionate about the in-house law department segment of the legal market. He speaks frequently on the merits of an in-house career path and writes the monthly Career Advice column for Inside Counsel. That’s why candidates listen when Mike calls to make that critical first impression on behalf of your company. Mike has placed well over 200 attorneys into positions with corporate legal departments over a twenty year career in executive search. He started this firm in 1997.

Mike received his JD from Duke University School of Law in 1990 and practiced as an employment law associate with AmLaw 100 firm Blank Rome. He received his undergraduate degree from Indiana University. In 2002, he graduated from The Second City Training Center improvisation program — that means he is a good listener. Mike’s charitable board service has included the “Free the Children” scholarship organization and the youth Hostel based in Chicago. Mike actively volunteers as a counselor and career workshop leader with United Latinos for Education Empowerment & Development (www.uleed.org). He also provides assistance to SOS Children’s Village.

Your website says you’re passionate about in-house lawyers in particular. Why in-house?

There are plenty of recruiters serving law firms. It’s more lucrative and more attorneys work in law firms than in law departments. But I can’t get excited about moving someone from law firm A to law firm B. The names of the firms all sound alike to me and the business models are mainly the same.

What I’m really passionate about is business. The Bank of America is different from McDonalds, which is different from Caterpillar and so on. I enjoy learning about the unique products and service cultures of individual businesses and that lends itself to more interesting conversations with general counsel and attorneys in law departments, because the successful ones really integrate themselves in the business and understand the business; they can read the financials and they in turn get excited about the products or services of their company.

I enjoy that enthusiasm and I enjoy playing a tiny part in the success of that business.

How much is the in-house role a draw for ambitious, business-minded lawyers?

Many general counsel don’t view themselves as lawyers anymore; they view themselves as business people who are running a law department. They are thinking in terms of how they can contribute to the business and in some cases how they can add extra value and in some cases how they can bring extra revenue into the business. That’s a strange thought when thinking about legal departments because we’re used to thinking about them as cost centres and certainly they are, but the good GCs are thinking of ways to help get regulatory approval for new products, to help promote a product in a proper way that yields revenue for the company. They think about how a company can play offense and not just defence.

On offense you’re thinking like a business-person. When you think about attorneys in law firms, there are all sorts of reasons to use outside counsel – expertise, litigation and so on. These lawyers are usually fixing problems after they’ve occurred. Outside counsel are in the business of reacting. Attorneys in a law department are in position to proactively play offence, helping deals get done, solving problems before they occur.

From your experience, are most prospective GCs prepared for that more business-minded approach?

Not many. The majority of attorneys, once they make that in-house move, require some learning curve to think differently and to unlearn some of the law firm mindset – to unlearn the approach whereby every t has to be crossed and every i has to be dotted. Individuals have to learn how to play as part of a team, as opposed to being isolated as an expert.

Many lawyers when they first move in-house are actually ill-prepared, when it comes to issues like financials and how their corporations actually work.

How important is it for in-house lawyers to relate well with the CEOs and boards they work with?

For a GC it’s critical. He has to have a good relationship with the CEO and the executives and directors. Once you get below the GC level, it’s a company-by-company thing, depending on how much access certain attorneys get to the executive level. Often it’s only the GC who gets access to the board – the exception might be a securities law expert. The other attorneys in the department, they’re serving other senior executives and it’s important to have good relationships there.

You can think of it as a client relationship, and you can make a comparison to law firms here. It’s an important relationship – when you see turnover of people at the CEO level, you often see corresponding turnover a year or two later in other senior positions in a company, including the GC. This is because CEOs like to build their team. I often tip my hat to GCs who successfully have a longer tenure that overlaps with multiple chief executives, two or more, because that tells me that that GC has excellent people skills and can adapt to different leadership styles and win over the confidence of a good CEO.

What can a GC do to advance his seniority and indispensability to the company?

There are a small number of GCs who’ve been tagged to become the CEO of a company. In terms of the a corporate ladder, that is the only rung left to climb. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen sometimes that a GC is a successor to the CEO. An anecdotal example here in the States is a utilities company called Exelon where that happened; it also happened, at a big pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

The more common discussion is how do mid-level lawyers career path themselves and position themselves towards becoming a GC, because for the most part that is going to be the top of the ladder for a lawyer in a company.

How much do companies use recruitment companies like your own to look for the right in-house lawyer?

Not nearly as often as they used to. For those of us in the business we’ve had to learn how to adapt, but in truth, there has been a major transition over the last 10 years from people using my firm and firms like it to fill the majority of in-house lawyer positions, to HR departments sourcing directly for their internal law department clients and doing that via postings, LinkedIn, and really taking on that sourcing role. The use of outside search consultants has been narrowed to more situational opportunities and those falling within three buckets:

1. Very senior level, strategic positions, including GC, and at certain companies, the key reporting, lieutenant levels to the GC. In those situations the thought might be that for key positions the judgment of the outside consultant matters and access to the best possible candidates matters, so we don’t want to limit ourselves to just a posting response. That is one situation in which outside consultants are indeed used routinely.

2. Another is in terms of legal specialty, especially if there is a supply and demand imbalance in reference to a particular area of expertise. A particular example would be, here in the States, securities attorneys. With so many changes in securities law – Dodd-Frank, the pressure for companies to get its reporting correct and to be at the top of its game in respect to securities exchange issues – that is a position that is of critical importance, and depending on the company they may not find on their own a sufficient number of highly qualified candidates, so they need that traditional sourcing help when it comes to various areas of expertise.

3. Third is challenging locations. In the States, we have several companies which are based in rural small-town locations, for example, Caterpillar, which is based in far-southern Illinois. We also have Wal-Mart which is based in Arkansas. If you think of companies that are based in small town or rural locations, local candidates may fall short in terms of required expertise. Placing a posting may not be sufficient, so they need to call an expert who understands how to work nationally, looking for those individuals who are willing to pack up and move to got to that location. A good search consultant will also make sure the company receives a diverse slate of candidates.

Is it a particularly difficult job?

When you think about it, fees for search consultants are significant and they always have been. There are lot of folks who were ok at it but not particularly great 10-20 years ago – there was a lot of low hanging fruit and companies were doing a lot of sourcing on their own when an in-house position in a big city was not that difficult to fill. The work that goes to outside search firms now is the work that’s worth paying for, where there’s a real need and companies have difficulty doing it on their own.

So it’s become more of a niche service?

The field has narrowed towards the challenging searches, yes. There is a smaller pool of work to go around.

‘A smaller pool of work to go round’ sounds like an apt description of legal in general. Do you agree?

With respect to law firms, the larger firms are fighting for the high-end work which is not considered commodity work. There is a comparison in that once a company does decide to use a search consultant, whether that’s my firm or any of the other excellent firms, at that point, they have accepted the typical search cost which is a 25-30% base salary fee and they rarely try to haggle it down. There are situations when they could. But it becomes a price is no object decision once they decide to use a search consultant. Saving a couple of thousand pounds here and there is not at the front of their mind, they just want to use the consultant in whom they have the most confidence.

With clients in general, in terms of legal billing for outside counsel, how important is it for in-house lawyers to have a flexibility towards AFAs, bill tracking systems and so on?

In-house attorneys have driven what change there has been in terms of AFAs or any kind of creative restructuring with outside counsel. It’s the rare outside firm that is proactively bringing those options to the table. It’s usually a thought leader like a Jeffrey Carr in the United States who basically set a structure for how outside counsel is going to work. In the healthy relationships, the firm is truly receptive and works with the company.

What I see a lot of is traditional outside firms gritting their teeth, biting the bullet and playing ball with whatever the law firm wants to do, but behind the scenes they are whining that they miss the days of hourly billing. There’s still plenty of hourly billing that happens. The percentage of non-hourly billing is exaggerated; there’s still a high comfort level with hourly billing. I’m not suggesting that will go on for ever and ever, but this whole notion that fixed fees and alternative fees would take over was greatly exaggerated.

You made the move out of an AmLaw firm into a different type of legal role. What made you make that move?

Because I went to law school for what turned out to be the wrong reasons. When I talk to younger folks who are considering going into law school, I use my own experiences to counsel on the right and wrong reasons to go to law school. I went to law school because it was an opportunity to keep going to school, which I enjoyed very much. The actual activity of practising law is very different, of course. I did not like the adversarial nature of it, I didn’t like the one side fighting against the other nature of it, I just didn’t personally enjoy it. But I always enjoyed talking with lawyers and I obviously have former classmates who are lawyers, so when I had to do an early career introspection into what I might enjoy, going into legal recruiting was an opportunity to leverage my understanding of the people and cultures I would be dealing with.

You’ll find, with very few exceptions, that people who do what I do for a living are all former lawyers. The only distinction might be how long they were practising before they got off the track. I got off it fairly early because I’ve always been the kind of person who resists doing things that are unpleasant. I like to make a living doing things I enjoy, and I really enjoy working with in-house departments and working with businesses, which goes back to the first question about passion, and I really feel that way about that. I’m fortunate to have found this role in the legal world.

We often see lawyers who do not like the law firm world and it’s always good to see people who find a different career path with the legal qualification. How much scope is there for lawyers to do something more creative with their qualifications?

Not overly broad in that there are only so many law related business that benefit from the expertise. Some obvious examples would be attorneys at legal consultancies, or lawyers who work in discovery or technology support companies. There are ways to support the legal beast and there are those who provide services to the legal world in a supporting way like I do. But to be honest, a large pool of attorneys — once they leave the practise they leave the law altogether. And many feel that the work ethic transfers well to other jobs, but a lot have to start from scratch.

About William Barns-Graham

William is the content manager and head of communications at GC Research Club. He is a professional journalist, researcher and strategist. He has worked at GC Research Club since February 2013 and has rapidly become a distinguished voice in the in-house legal blogging community, writing on Lexis Nexis and interviewing leading legal thinkers and writers, in house lawyers and CEOs within the legal tech world. He has also coordinated the GCRC Sports Panel series.
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