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Legal Consultant Limelight: Dan Binstock

Doing the right thing – such as advising lawyers to decline an offer or accept another – can cost a recruiter serious money. But that’s also how a recruiter develops a reputation for trustworthiness and for making noteworthy placements that stick. Such is the case with Dan Binstock of Garrison & Sisson in Washington, D.C., who has handled some of the most significant placements in the D.C. legal market. In our research for the leading consultants guide, Binstock earned high praise for his professionalism, collegiality and keen understanding of what makes a great match between lawyers and firms. He chairs the Ethics Committee of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants.

Lawdragon: What type of placements do you tend to handle?

Dan Binstock: I focus on placing partners and practice groups in the Washington, D.C., market. I also stay involved in associate level recruiting and have handled occasional in-house searches over the years. Given the nuanced and sizeable Washington, D.C., legal market, I find that it takes most of my time to stay on top of it. That said, when clients request our assistance with searches in other cities, we are happy to assist them.

LD:  Why did you get your law degree? What did you think you would be doing as a lawyer when you were a law student?

DB: During college, I worked as a pianist, including as accompanist for the musical and political satire troupe, The Capitol Steps, and upon graduation worked as an entertainment agent. I attended law school with the goal of becoming a copyright attorney and protecting the intellectual property of musicians. I was also drawn to the attorney skillsets of persuasive advocacy and negotiation. After beginning law school, however, I quickly realized that if I didn’t reside in Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville, my options for being a copyright lawyer would be severely limited. I remained interested in intellectual property and, at the time, the internet and trademark law were rapidly expanding areas. One evening during law school, while playing piano at an event, I began speaking to the managing partner of a trademark practice at an IP boutique. I expressed my desire to focus my future practice on intellectual property law, and that opened the door to an opportunity to work as a trademark law clerk in that firm. During my last year of law school, I worked as a student associate for a national IP boutique, Finnegan Henderson, and thereafter joined as an associate.

LD: Tell us about your career path. What led you to start a career in recruiting after having an IP practice, and what led you to Garrison & Sisson?

DB: Finnegan Henderson was a terrific place to practice law. During my tenure there, I recognized that the part of my practice I most enjoyed was interacting with clients and colleagues, which wasn’t always possible given the nature of a largely administrative practice. I received many recruiter calls and, over time, noticed that instead of focusing on the opportunities they were presenting, I zeroed in on how the recruiters were approaching their cold calls. I would hang up the phone and think to myself, “If he or she had only taken more time to explain XYZ, it would have had a larger or more positive impact on me.” I was aware that recruiters played an important role in the lateral market; however, I found most recruiters too slick and lacking a fundamental understanding of the practice area beyond the obvious buzzwords.

At the same time, I was considering returning to school to become a psychotherapist, which would build on my undergraduate psychology and counseling studies. I ultimately decided to combine my interests in law and psychology by becoming a legal recruiter.

In May 2004, I took the leap. I started my recruiting career in the Washington, D.C., office of a national search firm.  It was a great place to begin recruiting, but I had routinely heard about Garrison & Sisson’s reputation and track-record. In 2010, after my practice began focusing on partners, I determined that Garrison & Sisson would provide a deeper platform. Plus, Martha Ann Sisson and Nancy Palermo, two of my partners, did a good job of recruiting me over the years in a patient yet persistent manner; it was the right choice.

LD: Can you share a few aspects about this work that you find satisfying or rewarding? Also, what do you find most consistently challenging year after year?

DB: Attorney recruiting – when done at the highest level – is multifaceted and nuanced. It requires an appreciation of ethical obligations, discipline, discretion, a strong memory, the ability to connect what may appear to be unrelated dots, scrutiny to detail, the resilience to deal with rejection, emotional intelligence, creativity, patience, practice area knowledge, financial and business acumen, and strong oral and writing skills.  For me, the ability to think three-to-five steps ahead during a transaction is essential. The complexity of balancing all these factors is highly satisfying and rewarding.

In contrast, what I find challenging at times is the fact that I can do everything “right,” but for a particular reason unrelated to anything I did or failed to do, an offer and/or placement does not occur. This is a high-risk, high-reward business.

LD: Is there a placement or other experience early on that convinced you that this was the right move for you?

DB: Actually, it was just a gut feeling that I would embrace and take to this profession. There are definitely areas in my life in which I struggle and could benefit from more confidence, but I never doubted that I would succeed in recruiting. When there’s an inherent fit with your personality and natural strengths, it’s like riding a bicycle on a downward slope.

LD: People and groups representing large practices put their trust in you. What does it take to earn that trust and succeed in this type of work?

DB: Given how sophisticated my clients are, they are looking for someone with deep knowledge about the market and the lateral process. Partners, in particular, are reassured when a recruiter is well-versed in law firm economics, including analyzing fiscal health beyond the obvious, and the inner-workings of credit and compensation models.  Other qualities I believe clients value include sound judgment, practical insight, and candor. Early in my recruiting career, I read the book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey.  The book had an exercise called The Eulogy, in which I was to imagine my own funeral and envision what I would hope my professional colleagues would say about me as I laid in a casket.  (Nice visual, huh?)  I boiled it down to: “He was sharp, never cut corners, and always did the right thing.” I use that as my guide whenever I am faced with a decision. Over the years I have advised countless people to stay put or accept a different offer, even if it meant my losing thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of dollars. Doing the right thing, regardless of whether I immediately benefit, dictates my actions and allows me to sleep well at night.

LD: Does your undergraduate degree in psychology assist you with some of the advising you have to do?

DB: Absolutely. For my candidates, moving jobs is an extremely personal and emotional process. Aside from family, their careers are the most important and cherished things in their lives. The lateral process typically has highs and lows, even if the “lows” are the guilt and dread one feels when giving notice to a longtime employer that almost feels like family. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is to guide people not only through the logistical aspects of the lateral process, but also to help them maintain the right perspective – and not make stupid mistakes – at times when emotions run high and their best judgment can be compromised. It is not uncommon for me to speak with the same candidates or clients several times a day or night. I get a lot of gratification by anticipating both logistical and emotional speedbumps and nipping them in the bud.

LD: Can you share a few tidbits from your book, “The Attorney’s Guide to Using (or Not Using) Legal Recruiters” – such as common mistakes attorneys might make when working with recruiters?

DB: The book includes numerous checklists and charts addressing what attorneys should consider when working (or not working) with a recruiter, and how the factors change depending on the type of search or specific context. In terms of a specific topic, most attorneys do not realize that the legal recruiting profession is unregulated. There is no bar to entry. This fact, combined with the allure of significant money for a successful placement, attracts both skilled and unskilled recruiters who may have an appealing phone manner but lack knowledge about the lateral search process or the legal profession. I think it’s unfortunate when extremely bright attorneys neglect to perform basic due diligence when selecting a potential recruiter. All too often, someone finds out that they have aligned with a recruiter who does not bring value to them or to their process. Having an ineffective and inexperienced recruiter is embarrassing at best and destructive at worst. It may seem obvious, but performing the proper due diligence on a recruiter is critical before embarking on a search.

LD: Looking back, are there ways in which the lateral market changed since you started in 2004?

DB: Both the candidates and employers are more sophisticated. Firms have been burned by lateral partners who didn’t deliver as promised, and candidates have been burned by firms who fail to follow-through on their promises. There’s also a heightened recognition that effective integration is not only a best practice but also an essential practice for partners and associates. Furthermore, partner due diligence is now more bi-directional as opposed to unilateral. I can’t count the number of times a partner has said, “I know it’s unlikely, but I want to make sure this isn’t another [insert dissolved firm name].” Sophisticated partners are asking firms to open their books beyond what’s reported in the American Lawyer. And most firms expect – and respect – this type of appropriate diligence.

LD: Does your career encompass aspects in addition to recruiting?

DB: We also are hired by law firm clients to consult on topics such as lateral-partner interviewing best practices and lateral-partner due diligence methodology. Because we have a perspective that is rarely seen by the law firm itself, we offer strategies and best practices that can be incorporated immediately. Consulting is a small part of our practice, but we enjoy it.

LD: How are you involved in the legal community outside of recruiting?

DB: I currently Chair the Ethics Committee of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC), which is responsible for enforcing the NALSC Code of Ethics. I also enjoy presenting on legal recruiting trends at industry conferences such as the NALP Annual Education Conference. Along with my colleagues from Garrison & Sisson, I serve as a Washington, D.C., market advisor to a number of top law schools, including Harvard Law School and Georgetown Law.

LD: What do you do for fun outside the office? Are you still interested in or involved with musical or other performance endeavors?

DB: When not working, I spend time with my wife, two daughters, and our five-month-old Cavapoo puppy.  I remain involved with music, and serve as a music director-pianist for local musicals.  Other interests include comedy, podcasts, graphic design, photography, and any television series that comes remotely close to “Fargo” or “Breaking Bad.”