Twenty-five years ago, Jeffrey Lowe’s future shifted. At the time, he was an M&A partner at Hogan Lovells (then called Hogan & Hartson) and was asked to lead the firm’s global summer associate program. Much to his surprise, he loved it. So much so that he volunteered to do it again the next year as well. “No one ever volunteers to run the summer program,” he says with a laugh, “but I realized I wanted to spend more of my time focusing on people rather than on documents.” Two years later, he left Hogan to open leading legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Washington, D.C. office in 2003.
Now, Lowe’s titles include Global Practice Leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Law Firm Practice Group, Managing Partner of the Washington, D.C., office and the head of the D.C. Partner Practice Group. He is known as one of the top legal recruiters in the country and has been consistently named to Lawdragon’s “Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting.” Committing to his instincts in changing the path of his career has allowed Lowe to help scores of elite lawyers do the same as they navigate the professional climate of America’s foremost city for politics and law.
Lawdragon: How would you describe your role as a legal recruiter?
Jeffrey Lowe: I work with high-profile partners who are looking for a stronger platform for their practice and with high-level government officials who are looking to move to the private sector.
LD: What led you to the legal field originally?
JL: I knew when I was very young that I was going to go to law school and become a lawyer. I spent about 15 years practicing law – the last five as a partner with Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells). My experience as a lawyer actually helped tremendously when I made the move to Major, Lindsey & Africa because I was able to bring an unusually high degree of understanding to what my clients are thinking and feeling as they move through the process.
LD: Tell me about your time in school – did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards this type of career?
JL: Yes! Cornell University has a unique school that serves as Cornell’s unofficial pre-law program: The School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The school’s curriculum focuses very heavily on organizational behavior and human resources and related issues such as why people do what they do and how they can find happiness (or at least satisfaction) in their job or profession. I've been able to bring that knowledge to both aspects of my career, first as a practicing lawyer and even more so now in my current profession.
LD: How do you feel going to law school and working as a lawyer for so many years has helped you as a recruiter?
JL: Having a law degree certainly has an advantage as a legal recruiter. While it's not essential – we have a number of very successful recruiters at our firm who aren't lawyers – for me, it helps me relate specifically to the kind of work that some of my clients are handling and some of the pressures that they're feeling because I lived through them as well when I was a partner.
LD: When you were younger, did you ever anticipate that your career might take this direction?
JL: I'm not sure anybody who's a headhunter envisioned themselves doing this when they were younger. It's not really a career path that your high school guidance counselor or college career counselor mentions – it's something you learn about as you go through life. I often joke that had I known about it, I certainly wouldn't have spent the first 15 years of my career practicing law. In reality, those first 15 years really made me be even better at what I do now.
LD: What have you found most satisfying about this work?
JL: The most satisfying aspect is being able to help people with such an important decision. Figuring out which firm is the right firm is obviously very important to them, and their experience evaluating other firms is usually limited. Being able to identify the right opportunities is very satisfying for me and helps them focus their energy and their time on the best prospects.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in this field, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on?
JL: My most interesting work has been targeted searches for elite firms looking to add elite lawyers to their team and acting as an agent to very high-profile lawyers as they look to make a move. I enjoy strategizing with firms and partners who are at the top of their game.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in the recruiting world lately?
JL: The biggest trend is that elite firms are now much more aggressively looking for new lateral partners and are willing to poach partners from other elite firms. That's something that we didn't see nearly as much 20 years ago.
LD: That’s interesting. Can you talk about a major project you’ve been involved in recently?
JL: One of my most interesting recent projects was moving an extremely large group with team members across seven different offices. For them, it was critically important to figure out which firm would have the right platform, not just in terms of services offered but in terms of cultural alignment. That project took over a year, but in the end, we were able to find them the perfect home and they're very happy there.
LD: That sounds like an undertaking. How did you finally accomplish that move?
JL: One of the key challenges was making sure both sides understood exactly what the opportunity was. It's one thing to have a preliminary call, but the hard part is when you start digging deeper – both into the group’s practice and the firm’s platform – and making sure everybody understands what success would look like for both sides.
LD: Were there any specific lessons you took away from that project?
JL: I think the biggest lesson – and one that's true in big deals and small deals – is it's never over until it's over. You can't take anything for granted. There are many things that can go wrong in a lateral move, and I have to make sure that the candidates I work with understand that they've got to bring their “A” game through every step of the process and not to start assuming that things are going to work out because sometimes it doesn’t. Similarly, firms need to remember that the top candidates have many choices and that their competitors may be equally interested in the same people they are. The firms have to bring their “A” games, too.
LD: What advice do you have now for current students or young professionals who might be interested in your line of work?
JL: The most important thing is to understand that recruiting for any industry is not for the faint hearted. You have to have a certain amount of risk tolerance because many recruiting positions, particularly at the highest level, are commission based rather than salary based. You have to learn how to be emotionally detached from any particular move and understand that some things will work out and some things won't—you don't have control over each and every one of them. But, if you become especially good at it, you learn to see far enough ahead and to read between the lines and take action accordingly.
LD: Did you have a mentor when you made the move to become a recruiter?
JL: When I first joined Major, Lindsey & Africa, I immediately reached out to Jon Lindsey, one of our founding partners, and sought out his advice. He had already been recruiting for 20 years very successfully. I think it's very important when you start a new career or new role to keep your mouth closed and ears open and find those at your company who are the best of the best and take the time to learn from them.
LD: How have you seen the profession change since then?
JL: It's clearly gotten to a point where almost anyone will consider a lateral move. When I started practicing law over 30 years ago, it was unusual and considered somewhat bad form for somebody to change law firms. It just wasn't done. There was an expectation that, once you made partner, you stayed at that firm forever. But over the course of my career, and certainly by the time I opened up Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Washington, D.C., office, I could see that it was going to become common for lawyers to move from one firm to another. That trend has only accelerated in the 20 years that I've been recruiting.
LD: What characteristics do you think make someone a skilled recruiter?
JL: I think the most important characteristic is listening, really listening, to what both the candidate is telling you and the law firm is telling you. You can't put a square peg in a round hole and I think it's fruitless to try to pursue that kind of strategy. The most successful placements are easily the ones where everybody knows exactly what they're getting and is excited about it. If you try to force it, you're making a mistake, and even if you were to make a placement from that, it's probably not one that will work out.
LD: What advice would you give potential clients in terms of how to work with an outside advisor or recruiter most productively?
JL: The most important thing they can do is to be honest with the person who's trying to advise them. In order for us to be successful for them, we have to know what they really are trying to accomplish, what they really want. Unfortunately, sometimes we find clients either hide information or aren't as up front about all the facts as they could be. The more honest that they are with us, the better we can help them find exactly what they really want.
LD: Are there any innovations your team has added to the industry that you’re particularly proud of?
JL: Our biennial Partner Compensation Survey, which I created and authored in 2010 and have repeated every two years, has transformed the industry by obtaining data that previously was not available. It has allowed both the candidates with whom we are working to see where they stand relative to their peers and the firms with which we work to get a better sense of what the market looks like – what partners are making, what kind of hours, billables, collections they have, etc.
LD: Moving away from your work, what do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
JL: I love to run, swim, play golf and tennis, and most of all I love reading. I'm highly addicted to books and I play Audible in my car when I'm driving back and forth to work.
I also took up astronomy as a hobby as a child. I wasn't able to pursue it much after college and law school, as I was busy getting settled and raising a family and working, but as my children have gotten older and moved out of the house, it's a hobby that I have more time to spend on.
LD: Are you involved in any community or public interest activities?
JL: I've been involved with the Alexandria, Va., Domestic Violence Program for several years. I've found that very rewarding.
LD: You mentioned books – do you have a favorite book or movie about the law?
JL: I’d have to say “A Few Good Men” for the movie – it’s hard to beat the scene where Jack Nicholson loses it. As for a book, probably “Primal Fear” by William Diehl. I read that cover-to-cover in one sitting.
LD: If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing now?
JL: I'd be vying to be the next host of Jeopardy.