Last year, I placed a real estate attorney at a large firm that she was, at first, determined not to join. She had left a large firm several years earlier, and was relatively content at her small firm. The problem was, she was getting the same type of boring work from one client, over and over, and longed for greater diversity in her practice. She called me to discuss a position posting on BCG’s website that seemed perfect for what she wanted, but when I told her the name of the firm, she immediately said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t work there. They have a bad reputation.”
My candidate had her own biases against large firms, having been in one. She figured all large firms are the same. Additionally, it turns out she had a friend who had worked there several years earlier, in the same group, and had had a terrible experience. The friend told her that the firm was a sweatshop and she would be working constantly, which she was determined not to do.
I did not discourage her from pressing her friend for further information. However, I did convince that her friend’s opinion was not the only opinion, and that her experience there might be totally different. I encouraged her to at least speak with the firm and draw her own conclusions, and she agreed to go in for the interview.
In the end, the firm turned out to be a perfect fit for her, and she accepted a position, and has been very happy there. How did this happen? Several things brought it about.
First, the attorney was willing to listen to what the firm had to offer. She went into the interview with a relatively open mind and asked pointed questions which subtly raised her concerns. She listened instead of reciting a list of demands. When the initial interview was over, she told me that she had a lot to think about.
A few days later, she called and said she had decided to decline to go to next steps with the firm because she just couldn’t get past their reputation as a sweatshop. At this point, I decided to drill down and really figure out what her concerns were, and see if I could allay her fears in some way. She told me that she was concerned about working crazy hours, and she was also worried that they wouldn’t pay what she wanted (she had also been told that the firm was cheap). I had a good relationship with the firm, and had an idea how much they could probably pay her. I also knew from my dealings with them that they wanted her.
She agreed to let me speak with the firm and see what I could arrange. The first thing I did is ask if she could speak with some of the associates in the firm, confidentially, about their experiences there. She had coffee with several attorneys, and began to relax about the firm being a sweatshop, because that had not been the experience of these associates. In the end, we negotiated a salary that she found acceptable, as well as a relationship that laid out with some specificity what the firm would expect from her in terms of hours. She accepted an offer that was a large raise from her small firm salary, but with similar hours.
The moral of the story is this: don’t believe everything you hear about a firm’s or group’s bad reputation. Talk to them, hear what they have to say, and make your own judgments. The experience of someone you know may not turn out to be your experience at all. Maybe an awful partner has departed since your friend was there. Maybe your friend had her own issues that made the firm unhappy with her and colored her experience. You do not know what other people need and want in a firm, and you may not know what really happened.
Also, remember that if a firm wants you, they might make some concessions in order to get you. You never know what they are willing or able to do. This attorney, being senior, had a somewhat specialized skill set that the firm was having a hard time finding, and they were willing to create a special arrangement for her. Armed with this knowledge, she had the confidence (through me) to ask for, and get, the reassurance she wanted. Because she listened and kept an open mind, she ended up with a great job and a big raise in salary.