Jon Lindsey knows lawyers. As the New York founding partner of Major, Lindsey & Africa, the former federal prosecutor helped build the legal recruiting and consulting firm into the gold-star market leader that it is today.
For the past several decades, Lindsey has counseled partners and senior government officials on the trajectory of their careers, always with a mind toward their personal and professional satisfaction. He is a trusted and well-liked advisor who has the ear of law firm leadership around the globe.
Lindsey, naturally, is a member of the 2020 Lawdragon 100 Leading Legal Consultants and Strategists (and indeed, has been included in that august group on multiple occasions).
Lawdragon: Jon, you had a rich legal career before you went on to help found what is arguably the most successful and sought-after legal recruiting and consulting firm in the U.S., possibly the world. How did you get started in the field?
Jon Lindsey: After graduating from Columbia Law School I clerked for the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, then practiced at Debevoise & Plimpton (where as a junior associate I somehow ended up trying two small cases in federal court – something that usually only happens in “The Good Wife”). As an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, I tried a couple of dozen more cases and went on to serve as counsel to the New York City Planning Commission.
I’ve loved every job I ever had and have been fortunate to always be a part of elite organizations that had the highest standards and the brightest people. But I realized after 15 years of practice that I needed to find a way to have a life of greater purpose, to help people while also supporting my family. I’ve often said that being a legal recruiter is to be in “the happiness business” because I only succeed if I can materially improve the lives of the very successful partners and senior government officials I work with and help make my clients stronger.
It has been one of the joys of my life to have helped build the firm from a handful of big firm refugees who could comfortably fit around my dining room table to a truly global organization with more than 200 professionals and an extraordinary team supporting them.
LD: You’re in the business of career satisfaction, and, appropriately enough, you seem to have such joy for what you do. Can you tell me why you love what you do?
JL: I love helping intelligent people make intelligent choices about critical steps in their careers. The partners I work with are incredibly successful and accomplished but they don’t spend all day every day talking to the chairs, managing partners, and hiring partners of top firms, learning about each firm’s finances and culture, hiring processes, clients and conflicts, practice strengths and needs, management style, capital structure, retirement policies, and so much more. Because I have spent decades doing just that, and forming relationships with the folks running those law firms, I can give objective, honest counsel to help those partners find the best platform where their odds of long-term success are greatest.
I also enjoy the intellectual aspects of legal recruiting, partner compensation, and law firm mergers. Years ago, I co-authored a book entitled Managing People in Today’s Law Firm, with two professors of management – it was a fascinating exercise to think deeply about some of the issues impacting the world of elite law firms. I have also published four extensive reports on our groundbreaking 2020, 2014, 2006, and 1996 Lateral Partner Satisfaction Surveys. (One of my partners has outdone me by publishing five Partner Compensation Survey reports over the past decade.) While they are hugely time consuming, these studies are rewarding in that they allow us to analyze how to make more successful matches for greater long-term success. And I enjoy writing articles, sitting on panels, and conducting webinars and the like on a wide range of topics.
LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as a legal recruiter and consultant?
JL: I try to approach my profession with “the three I’s”: intelligence, integrity, and intensity. I’ve been told that I have a reputation as a straight shooter who cuts square corners, which I find quite gratifying. I try very hard to be candid, to not simply tell people what they want to hear, and to approach every situation with long-term thinking. There are a few people in every profession who will shade things to gain some sort of short-term edge; ultimately it never works to their advantage. I often trot out my favorite Mark Twain quote: “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
I try to give candidates and clients the benefits of decades of experience helping partners transition between law firms and senior government lawyers returning to private practice.
Some people have referred to me as “the Dean of lateral partner recruiting,” and while I like to think they had James Dean in mind, I would settle for being thought of as Dean Smith – a wise coach who helps champions succeed – rather than Dean Jones, the hapless dad of Disney films.
I have been doing this long enough that I work largely with partners who have been referred to me by others I have worked with, either as a candidate or as a client, and it is important to me that I not let them down.
LD: Your firm is a market leader, but in an increasingly competitive field. What would you say is unique about MLA?
JL: Major, Lindsey & Africa is by far the world’s largest legal recruiting firm – our New York office alone would be the second largest – but it is much more important to us that in every national and regional survey we are voted the best legal recruiter. Being in 29 cities around the world, and forming relationships and gathering intelligence on our clients’ offices in those cities, allows us to know our clients in a much deeper way than a Mom and Pop recruiting shop that knows only one limited aspect of a multi-office or multinational law firm. And because we have been in business for nearly four decades, we follow elite lawyers from the start of their careers, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses and what they need to be happy and prosper, their practice style and temperament – and can thus make the best match for them and our clients.
Major, Lindsey & Africa has benefitted from what sociologists call “accumulation of advantage,” AKA, “the rich get richer.” Because of the reputation for excellence that we have built over the decades, starting with Bob Major and the late Martha Fay (Marty) Africa, we have been able to attract stellar professionals to our ranks including the long-time chair of Morrison & Foerster; successful partners from Cooley, Hogan, Shearman, Winston and many other firms; and the General Counsel of Cardinal Health (then the 12th largest company in the U.S.) who had just been voted one of the top Black lawyers in the nation.
Our recruiters know that nothing less than excellence and consummate professionalism will do, and our candidates and clients are the beneficiaries.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
JL: My wife and daughter say that I am a kid at heart. Over the years, I have taught hundreds of people to juggle – it is a wonderful stress reliever and, particularly for young people, can be a great confidence booster. I also love to fly two-string stunt kites on the beach, though I no longer do so competitively. And while I am not sure it always qualifies as fun, I serve as the Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals for the Village of Saltaire on Fire Island, my childhood home.
LD: I know you’ve always been active in your community. Can you tell us about some of your philanthropic activities that you find particularly meaningful?
JL: For many years, I have served on the Board of the George Jackson Academy, a need-blind, independent middle school for boys, and have taught an economic literacy and current events class one afternoon a week. Almost every student at GJA is a student of color; most are from low income families and all are on scholarship. I find it incredibly rewarding to support an institution that helps launch these young scholars toward future success – 100 percent of its alumni graduate from competitive high schools and 95 percent graduate from selective colleges and universities. To put that in context, the comparable figure for students in the bottom quartile of family income is roughly 16 percent.
I also serve on the Board of RIP Medical Debt, which buys up medical debt of low-income patients at a very steep discount and then forgives it. In just six years, it has abolished more than $2.5B in debt, relieving thousands of families of a crushing burden that ruins their credit rating, impedes their ability to rent a home, to get a car loan so they can get to work, to obtain a mortgage, and otherwise participate in the American dream. RIP’s latest effort is the Helping COVID Heroes Fund to lift the financial weight of medical debt on healthcare workers and emergency responders including nurses, home health aides, social workers, hospital technicians, and others on the frontlines of the fight against coronavirus.