It’s all about relationships for Deborah Ben-Canaan. As a young associate, Ben-Canaan enjoyed the strategy of business litigation but found a real spark of joy when she volunteered to help with her firm’s on-campus recruiting efforts. Before long she made a career change, joining market-leading legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, where she was able to combine her interest in the law with her love of people, matching talent to departments in a way that leads to strategic growth and career satisfaction.
Almost two decades later, Ben-Canaan is now the Senior Practice Leader for the In-House Counsel Recruiting group at MLA, working with CEOs, Chief Human Resource Officers, board members and general counsel within companies and organizations across a wide variety of industries to help them build and enhance their legal departments.
Lawdragon: What do you enjoy about working with legal departments to recruit talent?
Deborah Ben-Canaan: There is so much about this job I love. Day to day, I get to work with smart, driven people; that includes my clients, my candidates and my MLA colleagues. I have terrific clients. They are interested in issues like diversity and inclusion, top talent retention, and growth of their legal teams. They see the value in being strategic about their hires and in finding the best candidates, not just the best of who is looking.
I also love knowing that I am impacting lives by impacting careers.
I love the long-term trusted relationships I have formed – both professional and personal – with people I have been in this job with for the last 19 years. Internally, I like knowing the harder I work and the more I stretch, the more successful I can become. And, I love helping the next generation of MLA recruiters grow and develop.
LD: How did you get into legal recruiting in the first place?
DBC: I feel like I was born to do this job (although no one ever says that they want to be an executive recruiter when they are growing up). I was a marketing major (the most social of the business majors!) and an industrial psych minor at Penn State University. I was always fascinated by the workplace and what it takes to have a successful, happy organization. My focus in law school was on employment law and I assumed that I would come out of college to defend employees who had been wronged. That did not happen.
Instead, my law school loans kicked in, and for five years, I worked with two amazing law firms doing a variety of business litigation with incredible mentors. That said, my heart wasn’t in it. I loved the clients but something was missing. I wanted to combine my love of working with people, with my legal knowledge and my desire to help organizations be successful.
I started doing on-campus recruiting to dip my toe into the industry and realized that I loved it. I was recruited to join Major, Lindsey & Africa when I turned 30, and I helped open and grow the San Diego office. I have been with the firm for 19 years now, moving from San Diego to Washington, D.C., eight years ago to help grow the D.C. In-House Counsel Recruiting Practice.
LD: That’s great you had early mentors as a young lawyer. Did you find helpful mentors after you made your career change?
DBC: Yes, Marty Africa was one of the best. A class act all the way. She touched my life as she did so many others. I still meet people who remember conversations with her from 20 years ago, where she clearly impacted their career path. She was one of my first mentors at MLA. I still miss her and think about her often.
LD: Working for legal departments would give you such a breadth of businesses to work with. Have any industries emerged as a favorite for you?
DBC: Each client is unique, with its own personality and challenges. And I love working with each and every one of them. I’ve done searches for big, sexy corporations and small hometown businesses. I’ve worked with really controversial and taboo companies to religious organizations and government agencies. With every one, I learn something and I just love the challenge and new adventure each one brings.
LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as an executive recruiter?
DBC: I am passionate about what I do and authentic when I do it. That is key. You can tell when someone is “phoning it in” or just trying to make a sale. My job is to make the hiring process easy for my clients and to take the stress off their plates. They deal with so many issues in a day surrounding their business, shareholders and colleagues, they should not have to worry about hiring. With every engagement, I try my best to understand what my clients need and truly gain a sense of the culture and style of the organization. This way I can represent them in the market honestly and as an extension of their team. I then believe in providing them with as much honesty and feedback as I can throughout the process. It’s the only way to get the perfect match.
LD: For others who may be considering or already pursuing a similar career, what would you say it takes to thrive in your field?
DBC: To be successful in legal search, you need tenacity and hustle. Every day you have to be motivated to be the best. It helps to have an insatiable curiosity about your clients and candidates. And then to be willing to dig deeper and ask hard questions. Of course, a sense of humor doesn’t hurt. And mad organization skills are a must.
LD: MLA is a clear leader in the legal recruiting space. What are the elements that sets it apart, from your perspective?
DBC: Major, Lindsey & Africa is the best in the business – hands down. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows lawyers like we do. With nearly 40 years in the business, we know the ins and outs of corporate legal departments and law firms, and with more than 27 offices around the world, we have a pulse on the market across the United States as well as the EMEA and APAC regions. MLA was built on our passion to help corporate legal departments and law firms build great teams and our desire to assist lawyers and legal professionals in following their career aspirations. And that’s what we do every day. Our goal is to guide lawyers and legal professionals through every stage of their career and to be trusted advisors to legal teams no matter what comes their way.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
DBC: I spend as much time as I can with my 15-year-old daughter. She is the absolute best thing I have ever done in my life. She makes me laugh and always surprises me with her intellect, wit and good heartedness. I am also a huge fan of big bold red wines and college football.