Law Departments Purge for Change

by Steven Andersen

Inside Counsel — May 2010

"Every opening we get, the client says they're running lean," says Aaron Williams, president of Aaron Consulting, Inc., a national search firm.

Law department recruiters have a direct, if anecdotal insight into the effects of a down economy.  Williams, who has been in the business for 30 years, has seen the pattern before.

"Every time there's a down cycle we go through the same thing," he says.  "Law departments try to come up with new strategies, the law firms try to partner up on those strategies, and ultimately both parties end up doing the same thing:  They purge for change.  They evaluate the talent they have and try to make adjustments to maximize the dollars they spend."

Painful as it may be, economic upheaval is healthy for law departments and lawyers alike, Williams says.

"These cycles are good for all companies," he says.  "It's a motivator for making change that you should be making anyway."

The recession looks to be heading into its next phase.  Law department recruiters report a significant uptick in job openings in recent months and say searches that were on hold are now moving forward.  That means opportunity for in-house counsel looking to make a move, but others may get the boot.

"GCs in a time of crisis are probably the last person you want to switch out," says Catherine Nathan, a member of the search firm Spencer Stuart.  "Now that some of the crises have past, CEOs are really looking at their senior teams again and in some instances are ready to make changes."