Recruiting Limelight: Justine Donahue

After more than 13 years as an antitrust lawyer in the nation’s capital, Justine Donahue decided it was time for a change. Taking her knowledge from private practice and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, she boldly forged a new path as a legal recruiter.

Donahue found immediate success in the recruiting world at her first firm, D.C.-focused Garrison & Sisson. But eight years in, she took a leap again: In 2021, Donahue joined elite partner recruiting firm Macrae, where she now serves as a managing director in the firm’s D.C. office. Drawn to Macrae’s commitment to exclusively partner-level recruiting, Donahue utilizes her deep experience in the D.C. market to play on a global level. A trusted advisor to lateral partners and senior government attorneys in the D.C. area, Donahue places high-profile attorneys with prominent firms to build mutually beneficial partnerships.

Her background as an antitrust lawyer is never out of reach in Donahue’s recruiting career: Her experience provides a unique insider’s perspective into the candidates’ position in the legal industry. While she works with lateral partners in a variety of practice areas, Donahue has a specialty in advising antitrust lawyers who have experience in both private and public practice, just as she does. In 2017, Donahue co-founded the Women’s Antitrust Forum, a nonprofit organization that seeks to amplify women’s voices in antitrust law at the senior level.

Lawdragon: Can you bring us up to speed on your career as a lawyer and your transition to legal recruiting?

Justine Donahue: I was an antitrust lawyer in Washington, D.C. for 13 years, both in private practice and at the Department of Justice. I transitioned to recruiting when I was about 40 years old. I was at a point in my life where I was reflective about my personal and professional goals. While I had been practicing law for 13 years in different settings – which honestly felt like a long time at that point – I appreciated that I still had 20 years or more ahead of me to continue working. With that perspective, I had the confidence to explore and ultimately pivot into a new career path. During that exploration period, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and thinking creatively about positions that would incorporate the aspects that I enjoyed about practicing with new challenges and growth opportunities.

Legal recruiting stood out as a front-runner given my experience in the legal industry and interest in professional development and mentoring colleagues. I explored a few different recruiting firms and ultimately joined Garrison & Sisson, a boutique that focuses exclusively on placing lawyers in the D.C. market. I quickly knew that I’d made the right career pivot for me and stayed with that firm for eight years.

LD: How did it feel to make the leap from lawyer to recruiter?

JD: It was nerve-wracking to go from receiving a steady paycheck to jumping off a financial cliff into a commission-based environment. But I knew early on that helping lawyers navigate their careers and being part of the legal industry from this different vantage was a good fit for me. If you’re in it for the long-term, legal recruiting is a dynamic profession with constant opportunities to learn, grow and improve.

LD: Why did you make the move to Macrae, a very different kind of recruiting firm than that where you learned the ropes and excelled?

JD: I wasn’t looking to leave Garrison & Sisson – I’d recently made partner there and never thought I’d leave. I knew of Macrae because the firm has some of the highest-profile recruiters in the market, works exclusively with partner-level talent and has a larger geographic footprint. The opportunity came about through a conversation with another mom on the sidelines of my son’s lacrosse game. She suggested I meet her friend Rachel Nonaka, who’d recently left the SEC to join Macrae.

Rachel and I had dinner, and while I was thinking I might lure her to Garrison & Sisson, she was thinking, “Justine has got to join Macrae.” It evolved from there. The more I learned about Macrae the more I saw opportunities that weren’t available to me at the time – the scope of the platform and the knowledge management infrastructure Macrae has in place are unique. It also allowed me to transition from a hybrid practice working with attorneys at all levels to a partner-only practice. I joined the firm at the end of 2021.

LD: What are some aspects of your work that you find professionally satisfying?

JD: Two aspects really stand out to me. One is the trusting relationships I’m able to build with both candidates and clients. I have the opportunity to advise people who are often at one of their most private and vulnerable life moments when considering a career change. The trust, candor and personal relationships that develop through the recruiting process are extremely rewarding and something I never take for granted.

The other satisfying aspect for me is being a student of the ever-evolving legal industry and the business of law. For example, understanding how a particular law firm evaluates legal talent, which practice areas are growing and contracting and the nuances of its compensation system all contribute to my ability to best present an opportunity to the market and attract the most desired candidates. I enjoy this analytical component to partner recruiting.

LD: How is your work different now that you focus only on partner-level talent, including senior government attorneys coming out of government?

JD: In my experience, associate and partner recruiting are more similar than different, but there is no question that partner recruiting takes longer, is more nuanced and has an overall feeling of there being more at stake – for both the candidate and the interested firms. I’ve learned that partners are often more open to speaking with a recruiter than associates because partners value market intel, understand the fluidity of the market and appreciate that another firm may offer a growth opportunity of which they weren’t otherwise aware. Given the maturity partners have acquired over their years of practice, they are typically very thoughtful about their career plans and desire to be in the best environment for their personal and professional growth. They know that developing relationships with recruiters they trust is well worth their time.

The trust, candor and personal relationships that develop through the recruiting process are extremely rewarding and something I never take for granted.

LD: How would a candidate describe you?

JD: I think they would describe me as honest, candid and trustworthy. I also have a deep understanding of the market and how candidates are positioned in it. To me, it is critical that candidates uncover and understand the “why” they are grappling with when considering a move. Then we can have an honest and candid discussion about whether or not a move may help solve that “why.” This is often an evolving conversation, and it’s not uncommon for them to decide it’s best to stay in their current position for some period of time. My goal with each candidate relationship, regardless of the outcome, is that they feel our time together is beneficial and well-spent.

LD: Do you find yourself focusing on certain practice areas these days?

JD: Having practiced as an antitrust attorney in D.C. for over a decade, I do a lot of work in this space as a recruiter. I understand the nuances antitrust practices present, I follow the government and law firm lateral moves closely and I have built exceptional and long-standing relationships across the antitrust bar over the years. There’s no question that antitrust is having a moment right now given the current posture of the enforcement agencies, and I think that will continue for years to come. I also enjoy working in all of the other traditional regulatory and investigation-oriented practices that comprise D.C.’s unique legal market, and working with government attorneys looking to transition to private practice.

LD: Speaking of your network, can you tell us about the Women’s Antitrust Forum?

JD: I co-founded this group five years ago. Antitrust is a practice area that has been historically dominated by men. Women often say that attending the ABA Spring Meeting can feel intimidating and demoralizing because of the lack of female colleagues in the room. There is also a high washout rate for female competition lawyers as they become more senior. Having experienced this myself, a former colleague and I brainstormed about creating a forum that would bring together experienced female antitrust practitioners for substantive events and networking with the ultimate goal of promoting the retention of women in antitrust. From there, the Women’s Antitrust Forum, which we refer to as “WAF,” was born.

We have five board members, are registered as a non-profit organization and recently held our thirteenth event. The support, friendships and business opportunities that have developed from this organization are significant and growing, and I have to say I’m proud to be a part of it all.

As a recruiter I feel most in sync with my best professional self – who I am, my values and my talents.

LD: What advice would you give to practicing lawyers thinking of making the change to recruiting? Is there anything you wish someone had told you?

JD: That I should have switched to recruiting sooner? Seriously, I think any attorney thinking of transitioning to recruiting needs to have a passion for helping other lawyers, an intellectual curiosity about the legal market, patience, and the courage to work in a commission-based environment. It can take some time to get your feet beneath you and you want to make sure that during that period of financial uncertainty you are truly enjoying the job. If you have a natural ability to connect with people, to gain their trust and truly listen to their wants and desires, you are partway there. You also need patience and discretion to counsel inherently risk-averse lawyers on their private and sensitive career issues, and an interest in learning and understanding the ever-changing legal market.

If you enjoy reading about lateral moves, law firm developments, and the business of law more than articles specific to your practice area, recruiting may be for you. However, I would caution lawyers who view recruiting as an easy or logical exit from the law firm grind. It is not. It can offer a better quality of life in terms of flexibility and balance, but to be successful it requires dedication, perseverance and a true love for working with lawyers.

LD: If you could wave a wand and find yourself in another career entirely, what would you be doing?

JD: This is a tricky question to answer! As I reflect, I think the magic wand was waved when my path turned from practicing to recruiting almost 10 years ago. In that transition, I realized early on that many parts of my personality were simply not utilized as an attorney. As a recruiter I feel most in sync with my best professional self – who I am, my values and my talents. Having the opportunity to continually meet bright and curious lawyers in the midst of their own career questions is something I value each day. I truly feel I am where I should be.