When Jon Lindsey left government service as an Assistant United States Attorney (and then with the New York City Planning Commission), he undertook a career in a less certain field. He became the New York founding partner of legal search and consulting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, and he was counting on his gut to lead him to the right next step in his career.
His gut was right. Nearly 30 years later, he has helped the firm become the most sought-after legal search firm in the U.S. and shined a light on the importance of legal recruiting as an industry. In paving the careers of highly successful lawyers and government officials, he makes thoughtful placements using creativity, innovation and a deep understanding of his clients’ and candidates’ best interests. His groundbreaking leadership and decades-long exemplary service in the recruiting field made Lindsey a clear choice for Lawdragon’s inaugural group of nine Hall of Fame consultants and advisors.
But that success wasn’t handed to him. When Lindsey founded the firm’s New York office, the entirety of the firm (New York, San Francisco and Texas) could fit comfortably around his dining room table – which, he points out, “was not that large a table.” Now, the New York office has grown to over 70 team members, and his firm has grown to more than 300 in 29 offices – including 200+ recruiters at the top of their field. Regarding that growth and the recognition the firm has achieved, Lindsey says, “I could not be prouder.”
Lawdragon: Before you were a legal consultant and recruiter, you were a federal prosecutor. Does that experience still come into play in the work you do now?
Jon Lindsey: Absolutely. In six years as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, I took more than two dozen civil cases to trial, representing federal agencies ranging from the EPA and the Department of Agriculture to the Secret Service and IRS. Convincing a trier of fact – judge or jury – that your point of view should prevail requires (among other things) marshalling the relevant facts, looking ahead to possible problems, mastering the technicalities of the applicable rules, and reading your audience.
All of those, in slightly different ways, come into play in helping successful partners (and senior lawyers returning from government service) join new law firms.
LD: Well, to say you’ve helped many lawyers make those transitions is an understatement. Your firm has been recognized repeatedly as the top legal search firm, highlighted by your recent induction into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame. To what do you credit your and your firm's overwhelming success?
JL: First of all, about the Hall of Fame. While I was truly honored by the selection, my first thought was to make sure that this wasn’t some sort of Irving Thalberg Award given to the actor they aren’t sure will make it to the next year’s Oscars. When I saw that many of the other eight inaugural members of the Hall of Fame were younger than me, I was reassured.
JL: More seriously, though: more than any partner or group placement or law firm merger, I consider my greatest success to be the fact that we have built a firm that is consistently voted the best legal search firm both nationally and in the various markets in which we work.
We are the world’s largest legal search firm by a huge margin; while that gives us certain advantages in gathering market knowledge and forming relationships with clients around the globe, quality is far more critical. McDonald’s is the largest restaurant (by number of meals served), and while I love their fries, Michelin has not awarded them any stars.
Major, Lindsey & Africa has been blessed to be not only the biggest – placing more general counsel, more in-house counsel, more partners and more associates than anyone else – but also, so say others and not just me, the best.
LD: How were you able to build to that point?
JL: Sociologists talk about “accumulation of advantage” – success breeds success, the rich get richer, or however you care to phrase it. Bob Major started our firm in 1982 at a time when lawyers who had been on the Law Review at a top school would never dream of being legal headhunters. Bob did, and his reputation for integrity, intelligence and insights then attracted others of a similar caliber to join him.
LD: Who makes up the team now?
JL: Today, our recruiters include numerous former AmLaw 50 partners, former GCs and other stars from every segment of the legal profession. But that had to be built up over time.
When the GC of the 12th largest company in the nation joined our firm, lawyers around the country took notice. When the respected long-time chair of a billion-dollar law firm joined us, others were inspired to consider not only our firm but our profession as one that they should consider for themselves. Good people doing great work attract other good people who do more and more great work.
LD: That’s true. Now, over the years, what advice have you most often found yourself giving lawyers who are looking to change firms?
JL: That’s a question we explore in our Lateral Partner Satisfaction Surveys. I’ve done four of those in the past two decades, where we ask tens of thousands of partners what was most important to them in changing firms and what brought them the greatest satisfaction in their new homes. The consistent finding – in 1996, 2006, 2014, and 2020 – is that culture trumps cash.
LD: Oh, interesting. I feel like most people would expect a higher salary to be the biggest draw.
JL: That’s not what we’ve observed over the course of more than 20 years. Money is not unimportant but the marginal difference between what you can earn at one firm versus another is usually not enough to be determinative. While firm culture can be a nebulous concept, if there is a dissonance between how you and the rest of the firm practice law, how you interact with colleagues, how well you play in teams, how you think about the future and a hundred other KPIs – it is not likely to be a happy journey no matter how much you earn.
Of course, it is not always easy to tell a firm’s culture from a handful of meetings with pre-selected partners – I mean, try to find a firm that does not say “we are very collegial.” That is yet another reason why it can be helpful to work with an experienced recruiter who has gotten the inside scoop from partners both leaving and joining the firms you are considering.
LD: Earlier you talked about lawyers realizing they might want to transition to your field – what advice would you give someone looking to become a legal search consultant, and what traits do you think make someone an ideal recruiter?
JL: I have thought about it a lot over the years. In the spirit of David Letterman, I have a top ten list of traits for being a successful legal recruiter.
Number 10: persistence. Pick your favorite cliché (“Can’t win it if you’re not in it,” “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” etc.), but you have to keep moving forward.
9. The ability to take setbacks with equanimity. This is not a profession for the faint of heart. Sometimes you do everything right and still get nothing for all your efforts over months or even years.
8. Sound organizational skills. It is crucial not to drop the ball in what can often be an excruciatingly complex process (financially and emotionally, of course, but also aspects as varied as sequencing offers from different firms, managing conflicts, refining business plans, reviewing LPQs, making sure folks show up when and where they are meant to, and so on). Like the producer of a movie or a Broadway play, you need to see all the moving parts and be able to peer around corners to see if a Mack truck is coming head-on.
7. Solid communication skills. For all the obvious reasons, the ability to write clearly and speak cogently is vital.
6. The ability to digest huge amounts of information about firms and then make connections about why a given firm’s practice or clients would make an ideal fit for a given candidate. One of my partners, fellow Lawdragon 100 honoree Jackie Knight, is particularly adept at that.
LD: Yes, she’s also being profiled in this issue. What’s next?
JL: Creativity is number five. Some of the most satisfying placements I have made have been the ones where a year or two later the partner says, “I never would have thought of [Firm X] if you hadn’t harangued me into going to that first meeting.” Not every successful move is to the most obvious firm.
4. Confidence that is backed up by performance. You must believe in your heart that you are making everyone better off (candidate and client) and then you need to make sure you are actually accomplishing that.
3. Be a great listener. As “Hamilton” tells us, “Talk less, smile more.” This is about your candidates’ needs and desires, and your clients – not yours. If you are not hearing them clearly, you can’t properly do your job.
2. Integrity. You are asking partners to entrust crucial steps in their careers to your care and asking firms to commit millions of dollars of their partners’ money as an investment in those candidates. If you are viewed as someone whose word cannot be relied upon, or who will say whatever they need to in order to make a quick buck, you will not have (or deserve) long-term success.
Finally, and in a near-tie with integrity for #1 on the Top Ten List, it is vital to have EQ as well as IQ. This business is fundamentally about people – their lives and livelihoods. While it is important to be intelligent so that you can offer intelligent and informed counsel, it can be an extremely emotional process and you must also be attuned to the human nuances that ultimately will (and should) carry the day.