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Legal Consultant Limelight: Sabina Lippman

sabina-lippman“Best in the business.”

“A game changer.”

“The real deal.”

My, oh my, has legal recruiting changed. Not so long ago, prestigious partners were loathe to acknowledge they even knew a recruiter.

Today? Some of the nation’s most acclaimed lawyers can’t gush enough about the guidance they’ve been given to find a better fit for their skills. Those quotes above? They’re about one recruiter, Sabina Lippman, of Lippman Jungers in Los Angeles.

She and her business partner and husband, Mark Jungers, have rocked the recruiting world since forming their firm in 2011, combining her experience with a couple of Southern California’s more prolific firms and his leading Major Lindsey & Africa’s Chicago office. Their deal sheet is to die for, and spans New York to Shanghai with individual partner moves and staffing of AmLaw250 offices.

We talked to Lippman about her success, which – no surprise – was far from overnight.

Lawdragon: Tell me a bit about your background and how you got into legal recruiting?

Sabina Lippman: I earned my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at MIT, and then an MBA there. I went to Ford in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, for five years and did powertrain planning and realized I was not a car person. You have to love cars to do that, and it was also very hierarchical. If there were 37 levels, I was a seven. If you think law firms are hierarchical, try Ford.

So I went to law school, at the University of Michigan. Richard Posner wrote that law school should be a two-year program and a one-year internship. Law schools would lose a lot of money, but that would have been a better program for me. I quickly realized once I started practicing that working by the transaction and not by the hour is a much better fit.

LD: I think a lot of law graduates feel the same way. But unlike a lot of lawyers who get lost, you found your way to recruiting after working at a couple of firms and in an entertainment business. What was your thinking?

SL: To be candid, I realized I had a lot of debt from all my degrees and had never focused on optimizing my income. I had thought I’d go to work in human rights or women’s rights, but realized I needed to make money. I had a friend at the time who mentioned recruiting as a possibility.

I went to work for an L.A. recruiter who wasn’t set up to do much volume; you can’t build on that foundation. So I went to work at Watanabe Nason because I was looking for a serious brand for partner placement. I was there for eight years, the last five as a partner. I left in March 2011.

LD: You must have learned a lot of lessons that you put to good use when you opened your own firm.

SL: We had our best year ever the first year of Lippman Jungers and we’ve been going up ever since. I learned a lot at each place, from the importance of forming personal connections to creating yourself as a peer of the lawyers you want to place. I also worked with recruiters with really impressive standards of productivity, from which I learned the number of candidates you have to represent at a given time to make the number of placements you need. We have refined and added to those ideas, and created a better system.

LD: That’s interesting. Can you elaborate a bit on how systematic you need to be in the exclusive ranks of recruiters?

SL: We can’t share all our secrets of course, but a key philosophy – which is true for every successful person heading a recruiting company – is I have a cold call target every day and every week. And during periods where we are significantly exceeding our projections, I can relax those numbers.

We target keeping in touch with people and sustaining long-term relationships, which are calendared at particular intervals. Our team backs us up creating lists that we customize and update every week. We do a lot of work in Asia, too.

In the U.S., we meet with folks and show them the landscape they could look at, and explain how things could be different for them. We have various tools that allow us to customize this for each partner, and also a lot of stuff stored upstairs after 16 years that gives you an instinct or feel for what would make sense. We have gotten to know the people and styles of our clients and what would work or not on a personal level. It is a combination of systems and experience.

LD: It sounds like you put your MIT background to very good use.

SL: It’s very helpful. I’m really comfortable creating programs and charts to show what different scenarios look like to candidates.

I’m highly systematic, where Mark is a lot more social in his way of working with candidates. We both share years of experience of doing big group deals and having a lot of institutional knowledge. Mark loves golf, tennis and wine, and this creates a great bond with a number of candidates who would not be interested in going to bootcamp with me. So while our methods overlap, we vary along those lines.

LD: Do you have a sweet spot with recruits?

SL: I don’t think anyone can afford to have a sweet spot. I really like to make money, so I can’t just make a couple placements in my sweet spot each year. You can hang out with people in certain practices and talk a lot, but they still aren’t going to move if the time isn’t right. So you really have to methodically work the whole spectrum.

That being said, we typically work in the AmLaw 100, AmLaw 200 spectrum as that’s more easily translatable from firm to firm. But you also have to look at individual people, with a multi-part strategy. It’s really fun to do deals and work with people at the highest level, but you still need to have bread and butter.

Our California practice is roughly one-third Northern California and two-thirds Southern California. We also do work in New York, Chicago, Miami and Asia.

LD: A trend in law firms seems to be cutting equity partners, either their positions or their compensation. Do you see a lot of that and is there much you can do to help?

SD: We do have lots of those situations. But it doesn’t mean the lawyers are bad. It means the firm is prioritizing others. They still may be very valuable to other firms.

There are lots of times where unfortunately the person isn’t marketable and there isn’t a value placed on them in this market. In many circumstances it’s our job to know what firms are prioritizing and sometimes make things happen in a hurry – many times we are working on a deadline.

Compensation is starting to be announced into the next couple of months. That prompts lawyers to call us, and we call them too. Most of the time lawyers tend to be more reactive than proactive. They want to keep their day job, and won’t be thinking about optimizing their situation. Instead, they tend to focus on the client and doing the work.

LD: What’s your favorite thing about being a recruiter?

SL: Of course, I really like doing a huge deal. But more long term, I really enjoy being able to show someone a landscape they wouldn’t have known existed and have them discover an opportunity they wouldn’t have known about.

And I love getting a call a few years later when someone calls to say, “I’m so happy.” That’s really great too. And I remember that long after the deal closes. For someone I did help to get a better job and to become more successful economically and practice-wise, and to feel his or her life is going in a different direction, that’s great.

I remember in particular a female partner, and when I met her, I said “You’re incredibly talented. Why are you at x firm and in leadership at 36? You’re spending huge amounts of time on management, which you can’t use to build your book, so your compensation is lower than it should be.” When I met her she was making $275,000, and I told her I could help her get to $1M by 40.

I ultimately placed her a couple of times. Sometimes it’s difficult to get from A to C in the first shot. She went to B, which could have worked, but they were conservative coming in the door and she wasn’t as aggressive in negotiating (or allowing me to do so) and having confidence in her numbers. After her second move, she is now a practice leader at the right time in her career, has a substantial practice, is working with very meaningful clients, leading business development events and enjoying life. Admittedly I was a year off on the $1M – she got there by 41.

Another guy, I met as a junior partner in a local firm, buried below big name trial lawyers.  I knew at our first meeting that he had the hustle and business savvy to become a rainmaker.   He was not happy at his firm and was considering opportunities outside law. A dozen years later, he has a number of marquis clients and a practice in the eight-figure range and feels like the master of his destiny. It was exciting to be part of that climb.

It’s also rewarding when a partner insists that a recruiter is not necessary for the right move, but ultimately comes around. This happens all the time. On one recent occasion, I stalked the partner for weeks. He finally met with me and cautiously agreed to allow me to represent him, even to firms where he felt he was already very close to management. He wound up getting three amazing offers, and told me that the firm he chose would not have been a top choice in the beginning, but ultimately was the best fit (and best offer). We spent about 10-15 hours a week talking about this decision in the last two weeks and it was great to get a very kind and heartfelt thank you. I’ve since heard from the managing partner that he has been a superstar.

Finally, doing a big deal along with team members is awesome. We have some super talented recruiters who have become close friends – a number of former lawyers. It’s fun going into the trenches as a team and celebrating if we are lucky enough to come out victorious.

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