By Emily Jackoway | January 19, 2023
A law partner’s practice is all in the details. To best serve their clients, they need to stay abreast of ever-shifting laws and regulations and understand the nuances of each industry in which they operate. High-powered partners have the immense responsibility of knowing every intricacy of their corner of the legal market.
Legal recruiters, however, operate with quite a different perspective. The good ones zoom out to the big picture – observing how firms change, which partners are moving where, what practices are in demand and the types of firm cultures that are currently attracting top talent. When a partner seeks to move firms, or a law firm is searching for a perfect-fit lateral partner, a big-picture industry expert is an invaluable resource.
A truly excellent recruiter is able to utilize that big picture view with a detail-oriented focus at the same time, serving candidates and clients on the simultaneous level of a trusted personal counselor and an industry advisor.
That dual focus is the mission of Macrae: a transatlantic legal search firm devoted to serving the leading law firms and placing the top partners. The firm caters specifically to elite lateral partner recruiting in what are arguably the world’s top legal markets: New York, San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and London, working in tandem with Am Law 50 and Magic Circle firms.
By design, Macrae is simultaneously wide-reaching and highly focused: Each recruiter acts as a counselor to a client or candidate, concentrating on the individual at a personal level, with an unparalleled expertise in their geographical market – buoyed by the support network of Macrae’s recruiters nationwide and across the pond.
That network is the foundation of the firm’s success. Macrae recruiters are experienced, empathetic advocates who share a mindset that nothing truly excellent can be done alone. Macrae’s strategy focuses on collective intelligence – using the power of individual expertise combined with collaborative spirit to create an unparalleled experience for their clients. That culture of partnership is what Joe Macrae, founder of the firm, knew would build something truly special.
In 1988, Joe Macrae left behind a career as a solicitor in London to enter the world of legal recruiting. He co-founded a firm known as ZMB several years later. After successfully growing the firm to a team of 60, and working with many of the major U.S. law firms as they expanded in Europe, ZMB was acquired by Hays Legal. He then moved to Palo Alto and founded a new firm he called Mlegal.
Big changes came in 2015, when he developed a plan for targeted expansion, both in adding new talent and opening new offices. In 2017, Macrae brought multiple new players on board, including the firm’s current CEO, Carter Brown, who had functioned as CEO for multiple high-profile recruiting, law and private equity firms. From just a handful of recruiters and support staff five years ago, Macrae now numbers approximately 40 professionals across the key U.S. and U.K. markets, including 15 recruiters, an uncommonly robust knowledge management group and a full executive team.
In 2020, Mlegal rebranded as Macrae – continuing to evolve with its core mission of employing the brightest talent in targeted locations, sharing vital intelligence under the Macrae umbrella.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Melinda Wallman, a partner in Macrae’s London office, became a recruiter to get to New York. A former lawyer in her home country of Australia, she sought a career transition that would keep her involved in the law, incorporate her love of marketing and enable her to travel the world – started with a city she’d long dreamed of living in. When she learned about the burgeoning field of legal recruiting, she knew she’d found the right profession.
In New York, Wallman earned a reputation as a leading recruiter by capitalizing on her love for new places – she spearheaded her previous firm’s international recruiting practice, moving to Hong Kong and London to launch new offices there. The person who encouraged her pursuit of international business? Her boss at the time, Carter Brown.
After landing in London she stayed put, and in 2018 Brown came calling: this time, on behalf of Macrae. The firm had just opened its London office and wanted Wallman to join. If Brown was on board, she was in.
In addition to admiring Brown, Wallman feels Joe Macrae has a peerless grasp on transatlantic recruiting. “Joe is the only person I’ve ever met, and probably the only person in the world, who has a deep understanding of the U.S. and UK legal systems and how they interact,” she says. “He is a role model for me.”
Wallman has now been a partner at Macrae’s London office for the last four years, combining her knowledge of the London market and her experience in international recruiting to advise her clients in the UK and stay in the loop with market movements in the U.S.
Throughout its expansion, the firm has been careful to keep its growth strategic and team nimble. Macrae operates as a partnership, and each new recruiter invited to join must meet the approval of its board, which includes all partners and other firm representatives. Once its offices in London, New York, D.C., San Francisco and Palo Alto were established, the firm became laser-focused on attracting the best talent – the foremost experts in each legal market. Macrae added four new recruiters in 2022 alone.
“Joe [Macrae] is the only person I’ve ever met, and probably the only person in the world, who has a deep understanding of the U.S. and UK legal systems and how they interact,” Wallman says.
One of those recent hires is partner Jon Truster. Truster has been working as a high-level recruiter in the New York market for close to 25 years, placing partners, assisting law firms and providing insight about the state of the legal market in New York to the industry and the media. Truster’s years of experience are an advantage for both the candidates and the law firms he works with: He is connected to the major players in the market and has a keen understanding of the industry, which allows him to match firms and partners effectively.
Sarah Morris, a managing director in San Francisco, explains, “Everyone here is at the top of their game in terms of expertise. We know our markets. We know all of the partners, the firms, the offices. We know the people, which is the most important part.”
Knowing the people comes only from experience. The difference between a good recruiter and an excellent one, Wallman explains, is their network. “It’s all about access,” she says. “On the client side, we all have access to the decision-makers at the Am Law 50 and the Magic Circle. On the candidate side, we know our markets. We've all been working in them for such a long time, and at such a high level.”
AN UNPARALLELED TEAM
Not only are they experienced recruiters, but, like Joe Macrae, Wallman and Morris, most Macrae recruiters were once lawyers themselves. Managing Director Rachel Nonaka’s first contact with Macrae was as a candidate. Nonaka was a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for more than a decade, focusing on white collar securities enforcement. In 2020, she decided she wanted to make a change, and a friend told her to ring up Lauren Drake, a partner with Macrae in D.C.
Nonaka met up with Drake and partner Jane Sullivan Roberts. By the end of their meeting, she was so won over by the recruiters’ expertise, empathy and clear passion for their work that she decided perhaps it wasn’t a different job as a lawyer that she was looking for. She decided to change careers altogether, joining Macrae a few months later in D.C. Utilizing her network in government law as a launching pad, Nonaka quickly saw success, bringing in more revenue in her second year than she’d imagined at the outset was possible. She also credits this to the reputation of the Macrae brand.
While practicing law certainly isn’t a prerequisite to being an excellent recruiter, those who did feel that understanding the lawyer perspective is helpful. While Nonaka and Morris’ work with candidates across practice areas, like their colleagues, they have a focus in those they once worked in – government law and corporate finance, respectively. They have long-standing networks in those practice areas and understand the industry from an insider’s perspective.
Nonaka’s experience of hearing about Macrae from a friend isn’t unusual. In fact, it was through Nonaka that another D.C. recruiter, Justine Donahue, recently joined the firm. The word-of-mouth extends to clients and candidates as well – making “knowing the people” all the more vital. The partner recruiting world can be exclusive. Morris points out that not all firms want to make their searches public. The relationships recruiters have built with firms through previous legal searches, market temperature checks and routine conversations foster trust that allows them access to more searches than other recruiting firms might see.
The team has a deep bench in the current and historical state of each market, and can look forward to how the legal industry will progress, as well. The firm’s commitment to progress is demonstrated in its makeup: Macrae is majority women-owned, and three-quarters of recruiters and the firm overall are women.
Many of the recruiters are also involved in diversity initiatives. Wallman, for instance, has worked tirelessly to advance women’s careers in the law. She is the co-founder of Reignite Academy, whose mission is to bring women lawyers back to work after a career hiatus. Since the Academy’s founding, they have helped more than 70 women re-start their careers, several of whom have since made partner. Wallman also sits on the board of Black Women in Asset Management. Thanks in part to her work in these spaces, Wallman’s placements as a recruiter annually are as high as 40 percent female.
THE STRATEGY OF COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE
What makes Macrae tick isn’t the recruiters’ individual expertise alone. It’s the way they work together.
The recruiters at Macrae notice a difference between this mindset and the typical perspective across the recruiting industry. “Recruitment is often very individualistic. And we’re just not like that. I've never seen a recruitment firm like this,” says Wallman.
Nonaka agrees: “At its core, our business model of collective intelligence means that we freely share information,” she says. “We have an ability to share that information with joy instead of competitiveness.”
The recruiters build upon each other’s expertise. Despite his decades of success, Truster says that he constantly learns from his partners in the New York office and across the country. He describes the experience as “learning by osmosis.”
“The people here are phenomenal,” he says. “It's incredible how smart, hardworking and successful all of my colleagues are.”
The firm believes that collective intelligence is simply more efficient than an individualistic approach. The efficacy behind the collective intelligence mindset is what allows Macrae to be successful across markets; they have a unique insight into how markets interact. Wallman explains: “We will know the significance of moves that we see in New York and how that creates opportunities for our clients and candidates in the London market, say. That’s how collective intelligence works. It’s partly that we understand it from an opportunity perspective, but we also understand it from a due diligence perspective.”
“We have an ability to share that information with joy instead of competitiveness.”
This level of understanding means that Macrae provides for partners and firms beyond making placements. If a partner is wondering how their compensation compares to other partners in similar areas, or if a firm is looking for a market check, the recruiters are able to rapidly draw upon their collective industry knowledge to get the information they’re seeking.
On the candidate side, Morris explains that elite law firm partners should think of themselves as their own small businesses. A quote from Jane Sullivan Roberts has always stuck with her: “As a law partner, you’re a professional. You need professional representation.”
Much like celebrity actors and athletes need an agent, Morris says elite law partners do, as well. “The lawyers who are practicing at this level need an agent to be able to negotiate the best financial compensation and make sure that they’re moving to a firm where they’ll thrive both professionally and personally,” she explains. “We have all of those tools.”
A DEDICATED SUPPORT TEAM
While the recruiters embrace collective intelligence ideologically, the mindset is also backed up systemically through a support network of knowledge managers. The knowledge managers, or KMs, support the recruiters in research, identifying possible candidates, preparing documents, sending lateral partner questionnaires, and more. Rather than operating individually or strictly by office, the expansive KM team is managed centrally. The ratio of KMs to recruiters is high at Macrae and the firm makes it a point to compensate them at above-market salaries for their indispensable support.
“It’s different from anything I’ve ever seen,” Wallman says. “If my KM is out sick, I can work with another KM in the company who will cover me seamlessly.”
The knowledge managers support collective intelligence by inputting valuable data into the firm’s comprehensive shared database, which is always at recruiters’ fingertips. “When everyone follows the same systems, it gives us a competitive advantage for our clients and candidates,” Wallman says.
In 2021, the 20th anniversary of the firm’s founding, Macrae had a record year. Revenue increased by 90 percent – coming close to doubling for the second year running. That means increased success for clients and candidates, too: The firm placed twice as many candidates as in 2020, with an emphasis on group placements and office openings, and the bulk of placements were in Am Law 50 firms. 2022 was also incredibly strong. Heading into a new year, the team shows no signs of slowing down.
That success is borne out of passion – Macrae’s recruiters have a palpable love for their work and the personal connections they make. Jon Truster is especially moved by situations where he can help a lawyer in a tough spot: “There might be a partner on the junior end, stuck in a certain situation at their firm and being blocked by more senior people,” he says. “I’ve been able to help liberate that person so they can put their foot forward and shine.”
When a successful placement is made, it benefits the law firm, the partner and the recruiter.
“There are moments of reciprocated excitement and happiness by all parties, where champagne is just flying around in a circle,” Nonaka explains. In addition to being intellectually stimulating, fast-paced and rigorous, she says recruiting is inherently joyful: “The goal of legal recruiting is that everyone wins.”
With a mindset focused on people and collaboration first, Macrae embraces that goal wholeheartedly.