After more than 20 years at a firm, most lawyers are settled in their careers – particularly if they’re a corporate partner for an AmLaw 100 firm. That wasn’t the case for Robert Brigham. After a substantial legal career, the former attorney changed paths completely to become a recruiter at powerhouse recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. That decision changed his life for the better, and now he’s helping other lawyers do the same.
Brigham is a partner in the firm’s San Francisco and Palo Alto offices and has now spent the last decade helping lawyers find success and happiness at new firms, along with also helping those firms find lawyers who are the perfect fit for their environment. His deep knowledge of the law, the legal industry and the Northern California market specifically makes Brigham an ideal consultant for the Bay Area’s most prominent legal figures and firms. This year, he was recognized as one of Lawdragon’s Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting.
Lawdragon: So, tell me about your role as a partner recruiter. What kinds of services do you provide?
Robert Brigham: I provide two types of services: First, I work with top firms on strategic lateral partner hiring initiatives. Second, I counsel top partners in the Bay Area market on career options, and if warranted, help them discreetly explore alternative opportunities in the market.
LD: How did you make the transition from partner at a top law firm to becoming a legal recruiter?
RB: I was recruited to join MLA about 11 years ago. I was attracted by the opportunity to help people find a happier place in their professional lives and was ready for an alternative to the pressures and time demands of partnership in a big law firm.
LD: What did you find most rewarding about that change, and how do you feel about working with lawyers in this capacity now when you used to be one yourself?
RB: I find it very satisfying to facilitate the match of a talented partner with a firm that has a strategic need for what that partner brings to the table. That's fun. It's satisfying. It's a win-win-win all the way around. As for the question of how I like working with lawyers, the law is the industry I’ve been part of for my whole career, so lawyers are fine; I am one myself. We're an eccentric crowd, but it’s a world I know and am comfortable in.
LD: So then, looking back a bit, tell me about your career path. What kind of law did you practice before moving to this field?
RB: I spent 23 years at an AmLaw 25 firm here in the Bay Area before I joined MLA. I was at one firm for my entire career and never moved as a lawyer. I was very successful there, and for the most part was very happy and enjoyed my practice.
But I got to the point in my career where I felt like I was not learning or growing as much as I wanted anymore. It was becoming increasingly stressful, and the time commitment was getting higher and higher. I was not as satisfied as I had been, so I realized that it was time to find something different. I didn't know what that was going to be.
I explored all kinds of different things, some not even related to law. During that time of exploration, I was contacted by a partner recruiter at MLA, who explored with me the idea of moving my practice to another firm. But, when I explained that my intention was to leave Big Law practice, this recruiter raised the idea of me joining MLA as a partner recruiter. At first I thought it was a crazy idea, but it grew on me. Eventually I realized that partner recruiting would allow me to continue doing the things I found most satisfying about law practice—working with people and helping them solve their problems—without the aspects of law practice that were no longer appealing to me. I also realized that my many years as a law firm partner and my skills as a deal lawyer would serve me well in helping to facilitate a different kind of deal involving partners and law firms. Joining MLA as a partner recruiter has been a great career decision, and I have never regretted making the move. This job has allowed me to learn new skills and grow in new ways both personally and professionally and allows me to impact people's lives in a direct and meaningful way, which is what I really enjoy doing.
LD: So, while you were working as a lawyer, you never thought about joining recruiting as a field? Did you have a “dream job” you thought you might someday pursue?
RB: No, I never expected that I'd be a recruiter. I didn't even know recruiting existed when I was younger, and never had the idea to pursue it as a career even when looking to leave law, until it was mentioned to me over lunch by a recruiter from MLA. As far as a “dream” job, my father was the general counsel of a large Silicon Valley tech company when I was growing up. One reason I went to law school was because I had in the back of my mind my dad as a role model-- I saw what a great and exciting career he had along with a great lifestyle, so I thought maybe someday I would try to work in-house.
LD: Do you feel your experience as a lawyer helps you as a recruiter?
RB: My law degree and lengthy legal career have been crucial to my success as a partner recruiter. Because I was a Big Law partner myself for 15 years, I know well the stresses that partners face and the issues they struggle with daily. They can talk to me in shorthand and in a couple of words mention to me what they're feeling, and I can fill in the blanks. It's hugely helpful and gives me a lot of credibility because partners know I've been there and understand what they're going through.
As a corporate/transactional lawyer, many of the skills are the same—you are trying to bring two sides together to get a deal done, even though the deals involve partners and firms instead of companies. Many of the business development/client relations/people skills I developed in my law career also serve me well as a recruiter.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career at MLA, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on or placement you’ve made?
RB: One of my most interesting and satisfying experiences was working with a group of partners who didn't seem happy at their current firm to find a happier, more rewarding home at a new firm.
The challenge with them (which is common in these situations) was that they had learned to live with their unhappiness. They didn't realize how much of a daily drain it was on them because it was all that they knew. They had been at their firm their entire careers and did not realize how much better it could be elsewhere. I kept in regular touch with the lead partner for many years, acting as a sounding board for him and gently nudging him to invest the time necessary to explore a few other firms where I believed they would be happier and more successful.
Eventually, after four or five years of patient counseling, this partner agreed to explore other options and I was able to help them move to a firm that was a real game changer for them, and for their new firm as well. It was very satisfying to have made that happen through a lot of patience, gentle persuasion and communication over a long period of time. So, that's one example, and that sort of thing happens quite a lot. This is a long-term relationship business, and it gives one an opportunity to be creative, look at the market and look at people and see where the opportunities are for partners to be happier in their careers and for firms who have strong management and a compelling strategic vision to add top talent and succeed in what they're trying to accomplish.
LD: Are you seeing any trends emerging in the legal recruiting field, or any shifts in the dynamic of where lawyers are moving?
RB: The San Francisco Bay Area (which includes Silicon Valley) has for many years been among the hottest legal markets globally and that's only accelerated during the pandemic with all the focus on technology. This has created lots of opportunity for partners in this market and also for partner recruiters, incidentally. Many top firms have a strategy that involves growing their practices here. It's been fun to help a number of them over the last couple of years to execute on that.
LD: How have you been involved in that shift?
RB: I have helped multiple firms over the last few years enter the Bay Area market for the first time, which has been both fun and professionally satisfying.
LD: Have there been any major challenges you’ve encountered when helping firms enter that market?
RB: I find that one key challenge in helping a law firm successfully enter the Bay Area market is educating firm leadership on the unique aspects of this market. The Bay Area is a very different market from anywhere else in the world, and it's important to help firms identify the things that will allow them to compete and differentiate themselves from the many other firms that are trying to grow here. I often tell management it's not enough to have a good story; you have to have a story that sets you apart from every other firm because everybody's looking for the same talent.
LD: Is it challenging to help firms enter a market as crowded as the Bay Area?
RB: There are many firms that have offices in the Bay Area now that didn't have them here a few years ago. And firms are continuing to enter this market (though at this point over 90 of the AmLaw 100 have offices here, so that will have to stop eventually).
It is becoming more and more crowded, and more and more competitive. The other aspect of this is that the market for Big Law practice here in the Bay Area is continuing to grow at a faster pace than possibly any other market. I think that's only going to continue. Firms not only are hiring people here locally, but they're also relocating partners and associates here at a very fast clip from other markets.
LD: What advice do you have for lawyers or law firms who are looking to work with a recruiter?
RB: To both law firm management and law firm partners who are working with recruiters or other outside advisors, I would say that the more information you can share about your situation, your background, your thought processes, and what's important to you, the more your advisor can help you to be successful. It’s important to be fully transparent with your advisor on what you're doing and what you're trying to accomplish to get the most value out of the interaction.
LD: How would you describe your working style?
RB: Personally, what energizes me is having a daily attitude of trying to help people and be of service however I can. I try not to worry so much about what's in it for me. It's really satisfying to help people find a happier place and just give people counsel or advice. I'll never decline an opportunity to give somebody advice on their career, even if it's somebody that I'll never work with as a candidate. Interestingly, upon reflection, I believe this also has been a major factor in my success as a recruiter. I have found that my efforts to be of service often come back to me in ways I don't expect in terms of referrals and relationships with people who appreciate the “no strings attached” service that I try to give them.
LD: What advice do you have now for current students or young professionals who wish to have a similar type of career?
RB: Do not be afraid to follow your heart and to do what you think you will most enjoy doing in your career, even if it takes you down a less traditional path.
LD: Finally, what do you do for fun outside the office? Are you involved in any public interest activities?
RB: In addition to my career as a recruiter, I enjoy spending time with family, community service, outdoor exercise and travel.
In my community service activities, I am motivated by the same thing that gets me jazzed at work: I love getting to know people and making a positive difference in their lives. I serve as a lay leader in our local church congregation. I also volunteer with various other community organizations, and I spent a lot of time interacting with my kids and grandkids and friends and neighbors.
LD: If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing now?
RB: If I weren’t working as a recruiter, I probably would be trying to find some humanitarian or community service work to do, spend more time with family and friends, and travel.