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Legal Consultant Limelight: Joe Macrae

A former solicitor in London, Joe Macrae made a timely move into legal recruiting. He co-founded a recruiting firm in 1991 and quickly became quite busy as major U.S. law firms fortified their European arms throughout that decade. In 2001, he founded Mlegal, which has since become a highly respected recruiting firm focused on strategic counsel for partners throughout their careers in both the U.S. and U.K. He is based in California.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you provide within the legal industry and to whom?

Joe Macrae: Mlegal has market-leading offices in London, New York, D.C. and the Bay Area. We work closely with an array of law firms including the Am Law 100 and 200 as well as the Magic Circle and other leading U.K. firms and top boutiques in all our markets. We specialize in office openings and the movement of partners and teams. We form relationships with the most successful partners in the markets in which we work and aim to be become their trusted career advisers whether or not they decide to move firms.

LD: How did you first become interested in legal recruiting?

JM: I was a newly qualified solicitor in London, loving learning about my law firm, Herbert Smith as it then was, including its culture and what made it successful. Sadly I was less excited by the billable hour and executing on other people’s deals. I answered an old-fashioned newspaper job advertisement about a role that needed a legal qualification and an entrepreneurial disposition. My wife supported me in taking a 50% pay cut and moving into sales in August 1988 and I have never looked back.

With hindsight I realize that the timing of my move was deeply fortuitous. The lateral partner market in the U.K. was non-existent at that time and so when the U.K. laws changed, and American law firms were able to hire English partners, we were perfectly positioned to service that nascent market.

LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying? What do you like about working with lawyers?

JM: First off, I enjoy studying the wide array of law firms with which we work and seeing which practice areas, geographies and types of culture deliver the greatest success for our clients.

I also appreciate having the privilege to meet and talk to some of the brightest and best legal minds in multiple markets as they evaluate what is best for their careers. I enjoy working for law firm leaders in firms large and small, in the U.S.and U.K., and observing what it is about them that enables them and their firms to achieve their goals.

I like working with lawyers because they are analytical, expect detailed and thoughtful answers, and tend to respond well to logical market analysis.

LD: Is there a particular recruiting effort that stands out as being particularly memorable for you?

JM: At a time when the top partners in the U.K. were earning around $300k I worked on a project for a U.S. client where our newspaper advertisement – quaint as it may sound these days! – said, “Call us to discuss a move to a U.S. firm that will pay you $1 million per year.” At the time the move by the U.S. firm was sufficiently audacious that it made not just the legal news but the national business news in the U.K. The project failed because, despite eliciting significant interest from successful partners at top U.K. firms, the cultural and strategic divide between the client and the partners they were trying to hire was so great that it could not be bridged at that time. I apply the lessons from that project 25 years later and the market has changed beyond recognition since that time.

LD: Will you talk a bit about your time as a lawyer, and what brought you to the law in the first place?

JM: I grew up in the West of England and studied law at Manchester University in the early 1980s. At that time the only degrees I was really aware of were law, accounting and medicine. I was the first member of my family to go to University and studied law because I did not want to be an accountant and fall over at the sight of blood. When I qualified I was offered “Articles” at Herbert Smith in London. This was a two year training contact which was both wonderful fun and great experience. The Articled Clerks did four six monthly rotations in different departments to gain exposure to an array of legal disciplines.

My favorite “seat” was in litigation. This was only because the partner for whom I worked had one of the first mobile phones in London. It was the size of a suitcase and my job for six months was to walk a respectful distance behind him and when he shouted “phone” to run up and deliver the suitcase. I was allowed to stand within earshot for the calls and learned more in that six months than any other seat.

LD: Did you imagine at the time that you might end up doing legal recruiting?

JM: When I was a kid and a student at law school I had never even heard of legal recruiting, in part because the industry hardly existed at that time. Like many of my peers I had virtually no clue as to where my career would go. I followed my instincts as to what sounded like a fun, stimulating role where I would be fairly rewarded for my work. And it turned out that way.

LD: What advice do you have now for current students or young professionals who wish to have a similar type of career?

JM: I don’t think many people go to or leave university dreaming of a career in legal recruiting. What I would say is that if you love people, enjoy sales and have a fascination with the legal profession there is no better job.

LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

JM: Yes, two. The first advised me at the age of 28 that I could either take the plunge then and set up my own business or hunker down, raise my family and think about it again when I was in my 50’s as my kids started to leave home. I am glad I went for the first option.

The second told me “do not expect what you cannot inspect” and helped me realize that you need process and structure and transparency in a successful company. Some of that may not be very exciting but it is critical.

LD: You mentioned how this was a nascent industry when you first started. Can you talk more about how your profession has changed since the early part of your career?

JM: Beyond recognition. In the late 80s in London few partners made lateral moves. 30 years later the market is more dynamic and exciting than ever before.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

JM: At 8am every Monday that I am in Palo Alto I have a guitar lesson. It is a wonderful distraction from work and sets me up for the week. I have been taking lessons for 15 years and am still absolutely average at playing but love it. Beyond my love of music I enjoy many aspects of life in California, from paddle boarding to biking. I also enjoy travel to far-flung places and I think some of our best family bonding experiences have been when those trips have taken unexpected turns.

LD: Are you involved in any community or public interest activities?

JM: I have always loved India and was fortunate enough to get introduced to the American India Foundation, a fantastic charity that raises money for an array of causes in India centered around child literacy, maternal health and helping people with any kind of disability. I help promote the charity and have had some life changing moments on trips to India with them to see the impact of their work.

LD: If you weren’t a legal recruiter, what would you be doing now?

JM: Touring anywhere that would have me playing a mixture of old country and western, and blues.