It’s always interesting to learn what executive recruiters – those seers of careers who see possibility more clearly than even the most accomplished lawyers – foresaw as their own career path.

For Natasha Innocenti, it was a career in academia as a philosophy professor. Her parents were what she calls academic hippies in Northern California, where she grew up.

By the time she arrived at the University of London in 1994 to work on her master of philosophy degree – a rank conferred in Britain that’s above a traditional master’s degree but below a doctorate – she had already graduated from Mills College with honors in English Literature and philosophy.

While in the U.K., however, she took a job at an executive search firm to support herself. It was a position that would ultimately upend all her plans.

“I fell in love with recruiting,” Innocenti recalls. “I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’ And I never looked back.”

The next step was scaling back her academic ambitions, transferring into a traditional master’s degree program. When she completed it, Innocenti returned to San Francisco, interviewed with all of the major executive search firms and took a position at Heidrick & Struggles, where she was quickly promoted to work for the chair of the legal practice.

“I joined Heidrick in 1996, which was the beginning of the Internet boom, so I grew up cutting my teeth on that,” she says.

Seven years later, she moved to Major, Lindsey & Africa, where she stayed for 13 years, specializing in the San Francisco Bay legal market and working with recruiting legend Marty Africa. She left to found Innocenti Partners in 2016, then joined forces with Joe Macrae, Suzanne Kane and Carter Brown at Mlegal in May 2017. Mlegal has crafted a reputation as one of the hottest legal recruiting firms with offices throughout the U.S. and in London, and Innocenti is one of its key players. This year, Mlegal’s partner placements in Northern California have been 65 percent diverse.

Lawdragon: Can you remember one or two of your first placements, what you went through to get them and how it felt?

Natasha Innocenti: Definitely. One of my first placements was the general counsel of Public Storage. Public Storage is an interesting company - and what you don't understand just looking at them at face value - is it's actually a real estate company. The business model is to buy property just outside of a growing metropolis, rent it out as storage space, and then flip it once the value has increased by a certain margin.

My first law firm search was an M&A partner for Shearman & Sterling in New York City, which was a tough project for a new law firm recruiter. In 2000, I started exclusively focusing on law firm partners, and the first major partner that I placed was Vern Norviel at Wilson Sonsini. He's a life sciences patent strategy lawyer and has had an enormously successful practice.  Shortly after that we opened Wilson Sonsini’s San Diego office.

LD: While the Bay Area legal market is one of the hottest in the U.S. now, it’s had its ups and downs. The mid-2000s is when a lot of the big San Francisco firms started to fall apart, as I recall. What was the business like then?

NI: The funny thing is that when you read about a firm failing now, or even having problems, the recruiters swoop in. Back then, that was considered impolite. These were people who were in a terrible situation, and they didn’t appreciate being contacted by recruiters. They didn’t see the value in talking to a recruiter in that moment. And so firm dissolutions did not lead to a lot of business. But now, of course, they do.  Partners realize that they benefit from professional representation for many reasons, not least some of those departing defunct firms joined others that later failed. In the early days of partner recruiting email was frowned upon. This was an era when people would say, "Anybody who sends me an email, I have no interest in talking to that person. I can't believe they wouldn't pick up the phone." Now, it's an imposition to call somebody. It's almost overly familiar.

LD: That’s so funny, and so true. And so you navigated the changeover in the Bay Area legal culture and the rise of Silicon Valley, which was a big change for lawyers.

NI: I did. By the time I got to Major, Lindsey & Africa in 2003, I had really been doing partners for long enough that I had a practice, but it was increasingly helping out-of-town firms get into the Bay Area market. And so, we opened Jones Day's office in 2003 and continued to build it out for several years. We handled a fair number of office openings, including several for Goodwin and later Silicon Valley for Sidley. We also built offices out. In this market, good clients are firms that have a reason to be here, have a credible technology play, and are committed to building at firm leadership level. If you help them open an office, or subsequently help them build the office out, you'll do a lot of work with that same client over a period of years. We also have a government practice.

LD: Yes, a very prominent one. Tell me how you built that.

NI: I was very lucky, honestly. Earlier in my career, Chuck Fanning was my mentor. I think of him as the father of law firm partner recruiting because back then, law firm partners rarely moved. He saw that change coming and hired me into the brand-new partner practice because almost everything I handled at that point was partner work, as hard as it was to come by. Chuck had a sub-specialty in white-collar work, and his wife, Melinda Haag, was and is a very prominent a white-collar lawyer who was nominated to be U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California under President Obama. When Melinda was confirmed, Chuck retired and I inherited his government practice, beginning with placing David Anderson at Sidley. That was how I got my start.

Afterward, I made a huge effort to remain the destination government to private practice recruiter in Northern California.  Over the years I’ve placed about 20 partners out of government, including several US Attorneys.  This year we placed Jina Choi, formerly Regional Section Chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission in San Francisco, at Morrison & Foerster; and Anna Pletcher, formerly Assistant Chief of the United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, at O’Melveny & Myers.

LD: I know you have to approach people in those kinds of positions differently, especially while they’re in office, right? Can you talk a little about that? It’s something that not everyone can do.

NI: The process is competitive by definition.  If an attorney is senior enough to have to recuse off of multiple matters, they will often step down before pursuing a move. That means a number of firms may be interested in hiring them, and you have to be very thoughtful when setting up interviews within a particular defense bar. A lot of this work gets referred within private practice in antitrust, white collar and securities litigation, so many interviews with a firm are with people who are in a position to refer business to the candidate later, should they elect to go to a different firm. Orchestrating the timing so that all of the firms feel as though they got a chance to compete and had every opportunity to put their best foot forward is vital. A recruiter needs to coordinate the timing in a very deft way because you don't want to offend anybody in that process.

LD: Interesting. And not something you typically think of, looking from the outside in.

NI: Knowing the market, and knowing what the person should earn is critical.  I have a few people in my network who came out of government at a high level, and did not use a recruiter, and every single one of them says, "I wish I had."

LD: I'm sure. They give up a lot of money.

NI: They do.

LD: Because it's so easy for a firm to say, "You know, you were only making this." And so many government people are modest; they’re not about money.

NI: Exactly.  They're public servants, and part of why I have some credibility with them is that my husband is retired law enforcement. There’s a certain kind of person that serves, and that's how they view themselves: They see themselves as public servants with the white hat. And some of them would never go on the defense side, but some of them do -- they understand that everybody gets a lawyer.

LD: In terms of the market now, what are you seeing? Are people concerned about the economy? Is everything still going gangbusters, or are firms looking to clip their feathers a little?

NI: Many firm leaders are concerned about a downturn, but most will tell you that the Bay Area legal market is in some ways inoculated from that. It's because of the tech engine that's driving everything here. And so, we're getting more interest from elite New York firms looking at the Bay Area, and even California based firms are telling us Northern California is their top priority for growth. The Bay Area has practices that are of interest to those firms now. Our private equity practice has grown up a lot, for instance.

LD: For so long, people thought that money was fungible, right? If you knew energy money, it would translate to tech money. If you knew Wall Street money, it would translate. With what you’re describing, it sounds like people have a different view – which is an amazing opportunity for lawyers.

NI: It's a huge opportunity. I would rather be a legal recruiter here than anywhere. It's just a fascinating time. And my practice has just skyrocketed in the past two years. It’s everything from emerging company corporate to private equity, life sciences, technology, antitrust, securities litigation and intellectual property litigation. The market is good. But even more than that, it's really about the team. There is no world where I could manage this practice without my partner Suzanne Kane and our team. I’m blessed to have a phenomenal team, including my newest mentor, Joe Macrae.  I've always believed in being generous and sharing the work and the reward, and that's what we do. And it's working.

LD: You guys really have built something unique that draws out the best of all of you and allows you to target the business opportunities at the highest level – without a lot of distractions.

NI: That's right. That's exactly right.

LD: And I think that's what we all want. You can make as much money as you can without founding Uber, with people that you really care about, and help people in a way that has obviously appealed to you since you were a young student. Now, when you're able to do that with hardwired connections at the highest levels, there's nothing better.

NI: It's been great. Our clients trust us. We will walk away from a deal before we will push for something that isn’t right.

LD: I know one of your priorities is diversity, right?

NI: I've been focused on diversity for most of my career. Marty Africa took me under her wing and taught me a lot, gave me a lot of opportunities and pushed me. And when I would thank her for that, she would always roll her eyes and say, "I gave those opportunities to a lot of people. You're just the one that ran with them."

I've been speaking and writing about women in the law, and equity in pay - or lack of it - and advocating for women and how to negotiate for 15 years. Our placements this year tell the story of how robust that aspect of our practice has become.

LD: Congratulations.

NI: It's remarkable because women still only make up 18 percent of the equity partnership in the AmLaw 200.

LD: I love that you track that.

NI: Diversity is very important to us. It's important to our clients. And it’s important to the law firm’s clients. I don't see firms overall making a lot of headway in terms of just more women partners. But I do see firms that are good for women, winning. They're winning client work. They're winning female talent. They're competing very effectively on that particular issue, and the clients care about it.

LD: And eventually all these good efforts and more and more women just being present at high levels will lead to a tipping point.

NI: That’s so true. And for now, when a woman partner comes to me and says, "Are there firms that are better for women?" I can absolutely answer that. Yes, there are.