It would be hard to conceive of a more perfect background for a top global legal recruiter than that of Melinda Wallman.
The London-based partner at Macrae loved law school, but never really wanted to become a practicing lawyer. So when her mother needed help starting a business, Wallman almost without hesitation left her position as a corporate attorney at top-flight Sydney firm Gilbert + Tobin and rolled up her sleeves.
Her mother’s business? Gem dealership. Finding and selling those wonderful sparkling jewels, formerly diamonds in the rough.
While trying to figure out a long-term career plan, Wallman visited a friend at Harvard and found herself at a university bookshop, mesmerized.
“They probably had the best selection of career guidance, self-help books that you could get anywhere in the world,” Wallman recalls. “I bought everything. I pulled them all out and I read them all, and I absolutely loved it.”
On the same trip, she visited and fell in love with New York City. She realized whatever profession she chose would have to bring her back.
“Law could have done that,” she says, “but not for me. I wasn’t good enough. I was very clear on what my goals were and what I was good at. I was good at marketing. I loved the legal profession, but I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted an international career that would get me to New York, and I wanted to make money. What else was I going to do? Legal recruitment.”
A realist, she admitted to herself that the odds were against an Australian going straight to New York as a legal recruiter. “In those days, there weren't any Australian lawyers even in New York,” she says. “I thought, ‘The way to get to New York is via London.’ There was a very clearly trodden path between Australia and London; all ambitious Aussies worked in London.”
Her brother, who was an attorney in the British capital, introduced her to legal recruiters there but the initial hiring managers looked at her credentials – she was still running the gem business – and thought, “What does this woman bring?” Wallman recalls. “’She’s selling necklaces. Why are we are going to hire this woman?’ Nobody really wanted to hire me, and that was fine, but I didn’t give up on it. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew somehow I’d make it happen.”
So she spent her time networking, keeping abreast of the relevant news and strategizing. One day, while perusing the Australian Financial Review, she found a tiny ad for a London legal recruitment firm, Garfield Robbins, that was opening a Sydney office and seeking an attorney with start-up experience.
“I saw it and thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my job,’” Wallman says. “I’m not going to let that job go. That’s my job.”
And so it proved, the first step on an odyssey that would take her to the storied recruitment firm Major Lindsey & Africa and then to Macrae, where her primary focus is placing partners in AmLaw 100 firms and top 20 UK law firms.
A diversity recruiting expert, Wallman operates a consultancy, XX Advantage, that specializes in advancing the careers of women lawyers and recently co-founded Reignite Academy, a program geared toward attorneys reigniting their careers after a hiatus.
Lawdragon: That’s a fascinating career arc. And you really never wanted to become a lawyer? Why did you go to law school?
Melinda Wallman: My father, who was a doctor, had died, and I had a really tough year in my final year of high school. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do and thought, “I’ll play it safe. I’ll do an arts degree and law degree and see where that takes me.” I ended up being a lawyer because that’s what you do when you go to law school, but I was never interested in the commercial law side. I hadn’t taken many commercial law subjects. I was always interested in social-impact issues, so I took courses focused on things like human rights, women, Aborigines and intellectual property.
So when it came to getting a job with a law firm, I really hadn't done anything relevant, but I always loved the idea of law, I loved the people and I loved marketing. Absolutely loved marketing. I’m not quite sure how I landed the job at Gilbert + Tobin, which is a very good firm, or how I kept it, because I really was a terrible lawyer. So much so that when I met some of my mates for drinks after leaving, a few of them were joking with me, “Hey, Melinda, we’ve taken over your files, and you made the right decision.”
LD: That’s funny. So when you started with Garfield Robbins in Sydney, your long-term goal was getting to New York?
MW: Yes. Really, I took that job because I knew it would give me the international experience I needed to do that. We started the first wave of Australians coming to London en masse and joining the Magic Circle firms and then other firms. We were the first people to have video-conferencing equipment. It was super exciting. It's a great business, and I absolutely loved it.
When I finally decided it was time for me to go to New York, H-1B visas were really hard to get, but I did my homework and spoke to a bunch of people. I knew what I needed to do. They didn't really have the Internet in those days, so you had to get a printed list of all the big recruiters, which I did, and I literally applied to every legal recruiter in New York. I took myself off there with my little Aussie suit and my little Aussie dollars in my purse, and I interviewed. I remember doing 15 interviews and getting, I think, about 11 or 12 offers. I thought, "My God, I am so blessed.” Then I realized it was all commission-only, you didn’t get paid anything else, so I wasn't really a superstar. And just thought, "What am I going to do?"
But I always knew I wanted to work for Major, Lindsey & Africa; I just liked the brand. And that was the worst interview I had. I remember interviewing with Jon Lindsey, who had to leave the interview halfway through because his mother had taken a turn for the worse. It was just a disaster, but I'd already decided I wanted to work at MLA, and so that's what I did. I took that job, and it was commission-only, but they got me the visa. Of course, it was much harder than I thought.
I got to New York and I brought my lunch every day for the first seven months and I didn't spend any money. I'd go home to my tiny 300-square-foot studio and read the Vault Reports and tried to study up on the market. Eventually, I realized that I was never going to be able to compete with the New York recruiters and I had to come up with something else. So I developed international business, and I started placing New Yorkers into the UK and Asia, and I started placing Brits and Aussies into New York.
MW: It was a whole new revenue stream for the firm. That's how I made partner. I developed a new way of doing business, that I'd learned at Garfield Robbins. It played to my strengths, and it was great.
KD: That was so insightful of you. Maybe your business background comes into this, but when you’re in a box and you need to find your way out, you figure it out, right?
MW: You know, you have to. So after New York came Hong Kong. Major, Lindsey & Africa was way ahead of its competitors in terms of its international strategy and they saw that Asia was rising before anyone else did. Instead of going to London first, which was the obvious place to go, they went to Hong Kong.
We were really lucky, because I ended up doing a huge deal where I placed 18 lawyers into Shearman & Sterling in my first two months in Hong Kong, which took some of the pressure off. But then, as soon as I got there, we had the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic. Like Covid, version one.
Everything closed down. Most of the other legal recruiters closed down. We were the last man standing. We weren't going to close down. We built up. We hired some good recruiters from other shops that had closed down, and that really got the business running. We did really well.
LD: Incredible. So as New York firms and others were exporting, you were the person that was supplying them lawyers?
MW: Yes. We were placing U.S. lawyers who spoke Mandarin into China. I was placing Aussies into Hong Kong and China and Asia and likewise placing Brits. And then, of course, we developed the local market, which was much, much harder. That's where you really get your stripes is developing a local database.
LD: Tell me some of the things that you have most enjoyed about recruiting.
MW: It’s always about the relationships, isn’t it? It's about the teams that you develop, and I just love building businesses as well. Having a vision, writing a business plan, and then, year on year, making it happen, and one day looking around to see, "Look what we built. We make a profit. We’ve got a fantastic group of people. We're high quality. We like each other. People like us.” I love that stuff.
Just doing the deals as well. Good recruiters love the deals. You've always got to do your homework, but you have to trust your gut. Thinking outside the box. I love the ones where it's the impossible search. Where a client sends you out to find candidates that don’t exist, or if they do, they won’t be willing to move, and you've got to think outside the box. I love those. They're really fun.
LD: How do you find that person? How do you find the unicorn?
MW: At this point, I know a lot of people, but really, it's everything. The first place to start is low-hanging fruit. What's in your head, who do you currently know, who are the first people coming to your mind? Next place is the database. Then proper market-mapping, which is both desk-based market mapping and target networking, research. And at this point, I just know a lot of people and I think people trust me. People know if they tell me something that it's not going anywhere. I will always share information with them that's not confidential. It's an information-based business and information is currency, but people now know that I'm very careful with information. I think that's the big differentiator between the good guys and the bad guys: being careful with information.
LD: Can we talk a bit about diversity? Because it seems to me sometimes that firms treat inclusiveness as a quest for unicorns, acting like it’s impossible to find qualified women and minority candidates.
MW: I think between 30% and 40% of my placements every year are female. Actually, if you look at what Reignite Academy has done, everyone we've placed has been female, and 35% of those have been either Black, Asian or ethnic minorities. I actually see it as part of my role to push the minority candidates.
Too often, organizations pay lip service to diversity, and it's so ironic, because so many organizations do a lot of work to try to increase the number of women coming into the firm, but then the hiring of lateral partners is dilutive, which means they’ll never meet their targets.
Also, there’s really a need for better processes around diversity hiring. Firms need to think very carefully about how to recruit better to be attractive to women. To this day, firms will bring in a female candidate and schedule their first 10 meetings with men. When you do that, you end up losing those female candidates to another firm that's just better organized or is asking the right questions and responding in the right way for women, who tend to do more due diligence than men.
Women ask much harder questions. They always review the partnership agreement. The other big thing with women is that they are much more likely to join a firm where they know someone already. It's really hard to get women to join a firm where they don't know anyone. It's a big divider between men and women, in my experience.
LD: Let's talk a little about Macrae. Can you tell me how you're enjoying it and what the experience has been like?
MW: I joined the firm three years ago and absolutely love it. Honestly, it is the most fun. The database we have built is the best one I have ever seen, and I have seen some databases. It is extraordinary. Our knowledge management has to be second to none. The collective intelligence, the sharing of information, it's just unbelievable. And the responsiveness around the firm when you need help, it's instantaneous. We are building something very, very special here. It’s great to be a part of that. What I love is that this group makes you want to be better, because you don't want to let your partners down. Everyone raises the benchmark for everybody else.
LD: How has Covid-19 affected the business?
MW: In the U.K. market, I think we were hit harder than the U.S. market early on. The market shut down the first three months and you hardly saw any moves. But everything came back to life in June and July of 2020, and 2021 has been a record-breaker in London and for the firm globally. Every time a team closes the biggest deal in the history of the firm, another team tops it. We do tend to work in teams as it is very difficult to run large group deals as a single consultant.
LD: You mentioned Reignite Academy and the work you’ve done there. Tell me a little about how that came about.
MW: I’d been asked by a U.K. law firm to participate in a program they had put together for some returners. They had really positive feedback and wanted me to do it again, but when I asked about impact, they told me that no one had secured a job out of it. I wanted to change that, and they asked me to come up with a proposal.
I rang Lisa Unwin, whom I've known through diversity and inclusion circles; she had just co-authored a book called “She's Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work.” She'd done lots of research. She's a former management consultant and really knows her stuff, so I asked her about collaborating on a project. She didn’t really have the time to take it on, but she suggested involving a third person, Stephanie Dillon, who runs an organization called Inclusivity and worked on returnship programs for big FTSE companies like Shell and Virgin Money.
Eventually, the three of us had coffee one day in my office, and it was just unbelievable the way it all worked. We had this complete balance of skillsets and experience between us. Without knowing it, that day, we developed a business plan and we started a business. We figured out what we needed to do. We figured two weeks isn't going to get you a job. It would need to be a six-month program, and it would need to be paid, so that women who were coming back to work could actually afford childcare. We knew that we couldn't do it with any one organization, it would have to be a collaboration, and we figured getting six firms would be a magic number.
LD: That’s fascinating. Having a program like that can make such a difference for people who have exceptional talent and experience to offer but have been out of the workforce and aren’t sure how to get back. In your own field, is there any specific advice, any tips, you’d offer to people who want to become legal recruiters?
MW: You need to like people; if you don’t, I think that would be very, very difficult. You need very high emotional intelligence. You also need to be someone who's organized and who can execute. The knowledge management piece is absolutely key. Playing the long game, absolutely key. Never be transactional. Always be relationship-driven. Do your homework, but always trust your gut.
And then serve, serve, and serve. Simon Robinson, who's the former CEO of Major, Lindsey & Africa, taught me about service. When I wake up in the morning I think, "I'm here to serve." It's a lovely way to be.