Sharon Mahn is a lawyer by background who discovered the field of legal recruiting and never looked back. She has worked on some of the industry’s most lucrative and impactful deals involving global 100 law firms and top law firm boutiques. Ten years ago, she opened her own firm, Mahn Consulting, based in New York City. Working closely with Big Law rainmakers on career strategy gives her a clear view of where the industry is headed. She sees some trends that have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, such as the move to more remote work, as being part of an inevitable shift to a more nimble and cost-effective law firm model.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you provide within the legal industry and to whom?
Sharon Mahn: I am an executive search and consulting professional focused on lawyers. My primary area of expertise is law firm merger and acquisitions deals. I also work with individual lawyers who have developed a large client base and/or exceptional expertise in their industry sector.
LD: How did you first become interested in providing this type of service?
SM: Coming out of law school, I never even knew that the legal recruiting industry existed! It was only after a legal recruiter reached out to me when I was a law firm associate that I learned about the existence of the field as a career opportunity. Working with that legal recruiter made me realize that helping others achieve their law firm career aspirations, something I felt would capitalize on every strength I had, was also something I could find great joy in doing. I ended up getting recruited by that very same headhunter into her legal search firm, and that was how I landed my first job in this profession. I was hooked! To this day, I still keep in touch with my former law firm colleagues and managers. They remain current clients and, more importantly, longtime friends.
LD: What do you enjoy about this work?
SM: It’s dynamic, fun, and every day is different! I thrive in and relish the "people-oriented" aspect of this business. There is no one formula to the work because every candidate and client have unique, interesting challenges that you need to analyze and address — it is never mundane! It’s fast-paced, sometimes stressful, but always rewarding. You learn so much, not only about your clients on an individual level, but also about their legal and business concerns. Sometimes these lawyers are working on cutting-edge, new law, and front-page media matters, which is both fascinating very exciting!
LD: Are there any stand-out placements or consultancy projects that were particularly fun or memorable for you?
SM: One of my more rewarding projects involved working with a brilliant lawyer who had been a successful partner at a Magic Circle firm and had decided to start his own legal research company. This client was referred to me after having built his start-up in London. He wanted to replicate the business model in New York City and the United States. I worked with him alongside my then-colleague to place dozens of lawyers into his firm. It became wildly successful, and was eventually sold in an exceptionally lucrative deal. It’s extraordinarily rewarding to see how your placements of top lawyers can help to build an extremely successful company. Most recently, Mahn Consulting merged a white shoe law firm into a global 100 law firm, which will be announced shortly. The deal took years to facilitate, but I believe it to be an outstanding merger and well worth the time!
LD: Are you seeing any shifts in the industry since the Covid-19 pandemic? Anything that you think might end up being long-term or even permanent?
SM: I think that there are many trends that are starting to emerge and will continue to evolve in the aftermath of the global pandemic. Most law firms are inherently risk averse. That being said, the forced physical distancing is disruptive and is requiring law firms to abruptly pivot and quickly devise new methods, sometimes utilizing new technology, to accommodate and appropriately serve their clients. Law firms also need to get ahead of the different ways in which the practice of law will permanently change. By way of example, trial lawyers will be picking juries remotely, conducting depositions through videoconferencing routinely, and interacting with their colleagues and clients through Zoom and other technologies as opposed to conducting these matters in person. Even the Supreme Court of the United States is consulting on and deciding matters via teleconferencing! Lawyers are learning to work through their devices remotely, and law firms will likely find new ways to cut costs, which will possibly include office overhead as more of their lawyers and staff develop the capacity to fully function from their homes.
LD: The move to the digital realm has its advantages and drawbacks, but I agree the lockdown is helping us all see how much we can do remotely.
SM: What I find compelling is how the industry continues to evolve. Years ago, critics were somewhat quick to dismiss the virtual firm as a viable business model for law firms, but again, the law firm industry is always slow to change! Most recently, I worked with Conrad Everhard, a former partner at several prominent law firms and founding member of the Flatiron Law Group. For years, Conrad has been growing his law firm with innovative and creative cloud-based tools, as well as strategic top law talent acquisitions. I find the managing partners of this new breed of law firms to be thought leaders and certainly the law professionals to watch moving forward.
LD: That’s fascinating. And you can see this virtual law firm becoming more accepted and wide-spread?
SM: Absolutely. I think it will be a new, more accepted practice structure for both law firms and lawyers, who have all had to launch home offices due to the current virus outbreak. Law firm leaders may find that they can save substantially on rent, infrastructure, etc., if some of their lawyers and staff continue working off-site. Courts are adjusting and are accepting of this new reality as well. We will see many of these big changes debut after the outbreak subsides, and they will hopefully establish not just a "new normal" for the legal profession, but a "more efficient, legally-effective normal" as well.
LD: Do you foresee pushback?
SM: Of course. One of the key challenges as a legal recruiter is convincing former Big Law firm partners, even when this is a path that they think they want to take, that they can be just as successful, and even potentially make more money, working at a virtual firm, and that virtual firms can handle clients just as effectively as the more established and larger traditionally-structured law firms. The fact is that substantial changes in business practices have always emerged from every market crisis that has ever taken place. Whether it was the dot-com bubble, September 11th, the great recession or this current pandemic, the most nimble and diversified law firms will still have the ability to maintain lucrative practices in a down market, and they will be the ones positioned to take the lead in the new practice areas that will emerge from this crisis. Just look at the former Y2K practice, and cyber security work, as two examples. Newly created classes in pandemic law are being added to the current curriculum at many law schools.
LD: As a fellow New Yorker, what are your thoughts on the city right now and its ability to recover?
SM: I live and work in Manhattan, so I love all that is New York City, from the restaurants, theater, and museums to sometimes just wandering around with no particular destination in mind. I am convinced that New York will eventually bounce back just as it always has after every crisis, including this global pandemic.
LD: You practiced as a lawyer yourself before moving into the recruiting and consulting world. Do you find that background gives you a leg up on the work you currently do?
SM: I feel that every job you have in life is part of a cumulative experience that prepares you to be where you need to be later on. Your network is critical, and you never know which of the connections you make will be beneficial to your future professional ventures. Having a law degree has been invaluable. My law firm experience allows me to empathize with my clients, and I feel I have more credibility having practiced at a well-reputed firm. I can relate to those with whom I work, having shared their similar work experiences. Everyone loves to bond over shared war stories!
LD: Did you learn any valuable lessons in your undergraduate life that are instrumental to your career today in legal headhunting?
SM: I was a gymnast in high school, and I had the lofty aspiration of being a "Fly Girl" dancer like Jennifer Lopez on “In Living Color.” My dad had less glamorous plans for me, and I ended up working part-time in high school as a "fry girl" and at the drive-through cash register at my hometown Roy Rogers fast food restaurant. I remember dealing with the customers, who were mostly great, but sometimes “hangry" and difficult. We were trained in customer service to always be polite and professional, which taught me an invaluable coping strategy at a very young age as well as how to interface well with all types of personalities. Very helpful life skills in any industry!
I also forged lifelong bonds with some of my best childhood friends that worked there with me, and many went on to incredible professional careers. Most notably, one of my former co-workers is both a lifelong friend and law firm partner. If you had told me back then that some of my best leads and clients today would have been referred to me by someone with whom I served burgers several decades ago, I may not have believed it! The "take away" for me (no pun intended) is to give every opportunity your best effort, be kind and generous to everyone – people will remember – and that anyone can be a potential business referral or asset to your career. Build your Rolodex early and keep expanding it with positive referrals and experiences.
I worked part-time as a nanny through college, where I earned an undergraduate degree in Political Science with a minor in Business. I then worked part-time during law school at an elder law clinic providing pro bono legal work to senior citizens, and I clerked for a judge. I had to be very disciplined due to my work/study schedule, and I think that having job experiences both inside and outside of the legal profession makes one well-rounded. Again, you are building your connections, including those that may recommend or work with you in the future.
LD: What advice do you have for current students or young professionals who wish to have a similar type of career?
SM: I would highly recommend gaining some career work experience to leverage your contacts prior to entering a recruiting career. I would also warn that if you can't stomach the inevitable ups and downs of a commission-based business, don't even entertain this industry! It is also a 24/7 entrepreneurial job if you want to be a relevant player.
LD: What strongest characteristics does it take to excel in your area?
SM: Empathy, tenacity, and a sense of humor! You need to enjoy working with people, to be able to handle rejection, to be creative in problem solving, and to have a strong disposition so you can weather the market cycles. Generally, your candidates are nervous about changing jobs, since it is a life altering decision. You have to be not just their agent, but sometimes their career counselor, amateur therapist, and friend. Trust is key. They are entrusting you with highly-sensitive information about their careers, and they sometimes turn to you and confide in you even before their own spouse or partner!
LD: How has your profession changed since the early part of your career?
SM: The entire business has changed. Early in my career, legal recruiting was not the established profession it is today. When I first started out, there was a slightly stigmatized perception to making a lateral partner move. Now, it is often seen as a smart career choice to move to another platform, whether for financial gain, a better title, or even a better work/life balance and personal satisfaction. The law firm model has also been evolving from a lock-step model to more of a merit-based compensation structure for law firm partners. Law firm clients in the past were loyal to the firm. Now we see more of a relationship with the individual partners, and the clients seem more willing to move to new law firms and follow their key attorneys.
LD: What do you enjoy about running your own company?
SM: I like the independence of owning my company. There is autonomy and flexibility. You can be nimble and work without much of the conflicts that slows down many of the big recruiting firms.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
SM: I combine my passion for running with my dedication to charitable causes. I have run a couple of marathons and over 50 half-marathons on behalf of several charitable organizations, most notably those pertaining to cancer research. I finally gained entry into the Boston Marathon this year, but due to the coronavirus outbreak it was postponed, for the first time in history, and indefinitely. I will be running in the rescheduled Boston Marathon on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, in memory of my mother who passed away from the disease.
I also love travel, and I have been to over 60 countries and 47 states. I wanted to challenge myself to visit the last three states before a certain date so I could say that I had visited all 50, but my travel plans are, of course, indefinitely on hold at the moment.
LD: You are clearly very dedicated to public interest works. Can you walk us through some of the other organizations you support or are a part of?
SM: Thank you for asking, it’s something that means a lot to me. I currently serve on the East Coast Board of the T.J. Martell Foundation in New York City, which, in part, funds cancer research. I am also a member on the Board for the Federal Homeland Security Foundation in New York City, which helps first responders and their families in need after catastrophic events. I am a mentor with American Corporate Partners to help female veterans transition into the workforce. Twenty-four members of my family have served in the military, including my dad, so I have a special interest in helping veterans. During the pandemic, I have been working with Operation Jersey Cares to supply meals to veterans from my hometown who are sheltering in place and need assistance. One of my close friends from childhood spearheads that phenomenal organization, so I am happy to help where I can. I was fortunate to have incredible role models in parents who led by example and were very philanthropic. It is important to give back.
LD: That is so true. Do you have a favorite book or movie about the law?
SM: I enjoy legal-themed movies, where the lawyer is an underdog and fights against what appear to be insurmountable odds, particularly when the plot is based on a true story. Most recently while in quarantine, I saw “Dark Waters,” based on a New York Times article about an attorney's 20-year battle against a billion dollar company and its unregulated dumping of chemicals in the water of a small West Virginia town. I was always inspired in law school and in my legal career by "David and Goliath" scenarios.
LD: If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing now?
SM: I love what I do, so it doesn’t really feel like I work! Helping a lawyer with their success and career happiness is deeply satisfying. But I am also a guest lecturer at New York University Graduate School of Business, which I find very rewarding. If I did decide to do something else, I would probably teach more frequently. Perhaps I will also have a chance one day to visit those last three states!