In 2019, Rachel Nonaka visited the D.C. offices of transatlantic partner recruiting firm Macrae as a potential candidate. She came out of that first meeting with a compelling job prospect – just not the one she expected.

Her conversation with Macrae partner Lauren Drake helped Nonaka, then Senior Counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commission, realize that the next best step in her career wasn’t private practice. “She really opened my eyes to the potential of a recruiting career,” Nonaka remembers. “And while she lost out on me as a candidate, she soon gained a new colleague.”

Macrae, which already had offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco, New York and London, had just established a presence in the D.C. market. Drake and Managing Partner Jane Sullivan Roberts sensed that Nonaka would learn the ropes quickly and prove an excellent fit for their team, and their intuition was right. In just a few short years, Nonaka has made a name for herself by placing a rapid-fire series of high-performing attorneys into the top global firms in D.C.

Nonaka spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor for both the SEC and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. While in public practice she investigated and prosecuted white-collar securities enforcement actions; her areas of expertise included bank and wire fraud, identity theft, foreign bribery and insider trading.

Now, that deep bench of experience enables her to deftly serve other government attorneys looking to move out of the public sphere. She helps them understand the quirks and nuances of the D.C. market, the current demand for their skillsets, and how to make the most of the next phase in their careers. She also advises law firm partners as they navigate lateral moves. She takes her work seriously – because she knows what it feels like to meet with a legal recruiter who can change your life.

Lawdragon: While many of your Macrae colleagues practiced law prior to becoming recruiters, you’re unique in that you joined the firm directly from the public sector. Can you give us a brief overview of your career?

Rachel Nonaka: I graduated from law school at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, when firms were slashing their associate classes. I looked in another direction and was hired into the SEC’s Honors Program, geared toward recruiting entry-level attorneys. Over the next 11 years I investigated, charged and litigated violations of the securities laws. It was a phenomenal experience that included a short detail from the SEC to serve as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. I also had the opportunity to teach a law seminar class for two years at Georgetown University Law Center alongside my SEC colleague Brent Mitchell.

In 2019, I decided I was ready for a change of scenery and was considering both in-house and law firm opportunities. My husband is a financial services partner at a top global firm so I was familiar with what working in that kind of environment entailed, but I wanted to get some outside perspective as to the best next step in my career. I walked into Macrae partner Lauren Drake’s office to discuss how my experience might fit into the current D.C. hiring landscape and, much to my surprise, walked out with an entirely new idea of what my future might look like. Macrae was growing its presence in D.C. and Lauren saw something in me that made her think I’d make a good legal recruiter.

I loved working with such talented and dynamic colleagues at the SEC, and knew that if I were going to change gears I had to do it surrounded by the right people.

LD: What was it about Macrae that you found so compelling?

RN: I loved working with such talented and dynamic colleagues at the SEC, and knew that if I were going to change gears I had to do it surrounded by the right people. I clicked with Lauren in that first meeting, and the rest of the D.C. team, led by Jane Sullivan Roberts, proved to be equally wonderful. I related well to their stories about why they transitioned to recruiting. I was intrigued by how much they enjoyed their profession – how meaningful they found their work helping lawyers advance their careers – and their goals for the future. Speaking with other Macrae recruiters and our management team, which has decades of collective leadership experience in the legal recruiting industry, further solidified that I was meant to be part of this organization.

LD: How did the career transition go for you?

RN: For better or worse, I joined Macrae in March 2020 just as the Covid-19 pandemic struck. It felt as though the legal industry froze in its tracks. Law firms put the brakes on hiring, and trying to build a pipeline of candidates was a monumental task.

On a positive note, this allowed me to invest time into developing my professional relationships and learning the intricacies of the D.C. law firm market. Fortunately, the boom year of 2021 followed and I’ve had a robust practice handling exclusive searches for law firms and representing candidates ever since. Importantly, my professional network includes many senior government officials at the SEC, DOJ, FTC, and other agencies. Their skills are in high demand from law firms. I’ve been fortunate that a number of my former colleagues have entrusted me with their transitions from government to private practice.

LD: It seems you got up to speed quickly, despite the Covid surprise.

RN: It was truly a team effort. My impression of legal recruiting prior to joining Macrae was that recruiters were fairly siloed – that recruiting firms tended to foster an “every recruiter for themselves” mentality. I knew from my conversations in the hiring process that Macrae prided itself on operating in stark contrast to this approach. It was only a matter of days before I was convinced that Macrae walks the talk. Recruiters and others share market intelligence within and across our offices on a daily basis in both a systematic and more casual way, and freely ask one another for help when we need it. It’s common for recruiters across offices to chime in within minutes when someone sends an email seeking insight. There’s zero competitiveness. When one of us makes a placement, everyone celebrates. We genuinely like and care about one another. I had the gut instinct that Macrae was a unique organization where I could thrive, and I’m happy to say I was right.

LD: What do you find most rewarding about your work as a recruiter?

RN: I never cease to be taken by surprise by the rush of pure joy I feel when a candidate accepts an offer. This marks the end of an often long and stressful job search, and the start of a new professional chapter in their life. It’s the moment when we all take a deep breath of relief and pop a bottle of champagne as we toast new beginnings. I also find great satisfaction in the smaller moments along the way, whether it’s helping a candidate decide if and when the time is right to go to market, hearing that an interview went well, or helping them negotiate a higher compensation package.

LD: How would you describe your approach to working with candidates?

RN: I am extremely hands-on with every one of my candidate’s job searches. Being a recruiter means serving as an educator, therapist, advisor and relentless advocate. I get to know my candidates on a fairly intimate level, learning not only about their practices, skillsets and career aspirations but also about their families, cultures, hobbies, political beliefs and other aspects of their lives. All of these details matter in determining which firms could be the right fit. I’ll admit I’m also a bit Type A. I pride myself on being extremely responsive to both my candidates and law firm clients, on delivering the top-shelf service they deserve. As a result of the close relationships I develop, I’m fortunate to call many of my former candidates friends with whom I’m regularly in touch.

My professional network includes many senior government officials at the SEC, DOJ, FTC, and other agencies. Their skills are in high demand from law firms.

LD: Do you particularly enjoy working in certain practice areas?

RN: Lawyers in the financial services space, both regulatory and enforcement, comprise a significant portion of my practice. As I mentioned, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several of my former SEC colleagues, which has been particularly rewarding. I enjoy “talking shop” with attorneys in this space, as I know the industry and the firms very well. That said, I’ve really enjoyed learning about other practices and prefer to have a broad mix on my plate, as the hiring market is ever-shifting and different skillsets are marketable at different times.

LD: What do you think government attorneys moving from private practice find most surprising, or challenging, about the process?

RN: Law firms consider government attorneys “investment hires.” They don't have clients to bring with them when they join a firm, and it can take months or even years before they’re able to build a profitable business. They are hired for their specialized knowledge of their agency and practice area, and the potential for this experience to be highly desired by clients and result in future business generation for the firm. Unfortunately, most firms’ ability to invest in government attorneys is tied to economic market conditions, which have fluctuated significantly over the past few years.

Back when I was a government attorney considering a move to private practice, I didn’t have a solid grasp on whether my specific skillset was currently in demand, and why – or why not – this was the case. I didn’t know which specific firms might be looking to fill a gap I’d fit into, or how they would approach issues like title and compensation. While my husband was a good resource, he’s been at the same firm his entire career so has never gone through the lateral move process himself. Some friends in private practice urged me to apply to their firms, but I wasn’t sure how to compare firms with an eye toward where I’d be most likely to thrive.

I can say after being a recruiter for several years that this lack of understanding among government lawyers is common, particularly for those who have never practiced in the private sector or have been away from it for years. I think it’s vital that senior government attorneys looking to go into private practice strategize with a recruiter about when to initiate their law firm search, and which firms to then target and why, to achieve an optimal outcome.

LD: Are you involved in any legal industry or community organizations?

RN: I’m a member of the Women’s Bar Association of D.C. which was founded over 100 years ago in response to the D.C. Bar’s refusal to admit women. It offers a robust array of programming throughout the year and devotes significant resources to advocating for the advancement of women within the legal community and beyond. I also enjoy serving on two Board of Directors in my suburban D.C. community. The first, Western Fairfax Christian Ministries, provides food and financial support to about 500 families monthly who are at risk of hunger and homelessness. The second is the McLean Little League, which my daughters and son are involved in. I serve as the Vice President of Softball, which means I get to have the fun of setting the team rosters and getting to know the families and players. I am proud to say that Macrae sponsors the softball team every spring season, and they have always had a winning record.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

RN: My passion for travel knows no bounds. I love setting off on an adventure with my husband, kids, extended family, colleagues, neighbors – really, anyone who will get on a plane with me. One of the perks of being a recruiter is that I can work anywhere where I have cell phone reception and Wi-Fi. Over the last three years, I’ve advised my candidates from more than 10 different countries. I am also a huge Philadelphia sports fan and enjoy cheering on the Phillies, Eagles and Sixers. Philly had great sports seasons last year – here’s to hoping for another World Series and Super Bowl run!

LD: If you weren’t a recruiter and had to step outside the legal industry, what could you envision yourself doing?

RN: Given my detail-oriented nature and love of exploring new countries and cultures, I think I’d make an excellent travel agent. Perhaps I could offer this service to my candidates and help negotiate start dates with their new firms that give them ample time off for travel? I’ll have to run this by management, of course, but I really think I may be on to something there.