A seasoned legal recruiter with an in-house focus, Stacy Humphries draws upon her own personal experience as a general counsel to understand the needs of her clients and candidates.
Humphries began her career as a healthcare M&A lawyer at Vinson & Elkins right out of law school. After a few years, she envied the varied practice she saw her clients’ in-house lawyers taking on, and she began exploring that world – soon spying an opening as in-house counsel for the Houston Rockets organization. Delighted to earn an interview and then a job offer, she was hired for what she describes as “one of the greatest jobs for a lawyer in Houston.” In her four years there, Humphries handled multiple transactions and joint ventures and led the legal side of developing and opening the Rockets’ current arena, Toyota Center. She also guided the company through day-to-day legal questions and risks.
When it was time for a career change, the legal recruiting profession seemed a natural fit for someone as passionate about working with people as Humphries. What she thought would be a short break from legal practice has turned into twenty years of placing lawyers in-house with the nation’s top companies – following her own path from years before. Humphries is passionate about both the close relationships in-house recruiting requires, involving storytelling both on behalf of the candidate and the companies she spends years working with. In-house recruiting, Humphries explains, is “a holistic assessment of a potential candidate – the lawyer's skills, their personality, their motivation and their potential cultural fit within the company. It’s a highly consultative practice.”
Humphries joined her current recruiting firm, Pye Legal Group, in 2010 and has led the Texas-based group as President since 2019. She notes the uniquely collaborative nature of the firm: “Our entire team meets every Monday morning and talks about every search that we’re working on,” she says. “We give each other advice and new ideas … it really improves the quality of our work.”
Humphries has been named a member of The Lawdragon Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting for the last three years running.
Lawdragon: You transitioned in-house with the Houston Rockets after working at Vinson & Elkins. What advice would you give to other lawyers who might want to transition in-house?
Stacy Humphries: The biggest barrier to overcome for your first in-house job is that you don’t have in-house experience. So, I advise lawyers trying to go in-house to think about what they actually do each day and discuss their skills and experience at a more granular level, rather than simply say that they worked on a $5B deal. Companies don't do giant M&A deals every day. What they do every day is run their business and address legal questions or risks that come up in the course of that business. So, you need to figure out what transferable skills you have such as problem-solving and quickly getting up to speed on something you didn’t know a lot about previously.
LD: That’s great insight. At what point did you start realizing that recruiting might be interesting for you?
SH: Well, serving as Vice President of Legal for the Houston Rockets organization was fascinating and exciting, but it was also an extremely demanding job – a public-facing position with a lot of pressure and a schedule even more demanding than the schedule I had as a Big Law lawyer.
Around that time, I had my first child, and I found that the job and being a mother were somewhat incompatible. So, I decided that I needed to look for something that, at least temporarily, would be important, but less urgent in terms of its demands on me. I had been involved in recruiting at Vinson & Elkins, where I had the great opportunity to interview on campus at my alma mater (Harvard Law School).
LD: Okay, so that early experience came back.
SH: Exactly. I also served on and chaired an associates’ committee that supported the official hiring committee of the firm and really enjoyed that process. I also knew a few recruiters and knew a little bit about what they did and thought I might enjoy that as well. At that point I had a pretty large network of lawyers in Houston, so I thought I at least had the foundation to potentially be good at recruiting. At the time I thought, "Well, I'll just do this for a few years and then I'll go back to the practice of law." But now it's been almost 20 years.
LD: What inspired you to stay?
SH: Recruiting is a lot of fun, and I turned out to be really good at it. People usually stick with things that they're good at. But what I love most about recruiting is counseling clients and candidates. Working with a wide range of companies on a full spectrum of legal and compliance positions, we have a 10,000-foot market view that allows us to provide expertise on how to build a legal team, hiring trends, market compensation and challenges to hiring for particular roles. We also pay a valuable role in putting candidates forward for the right positions, helping them prepare for interviews, and addressing any questions or red flags that come up during the hiring process.
LD: When you were at Vinson & Elkins, what did you enjoy about being involved in the hiring and recruiting process?
SH: I've always been very curious about people and what makes them happy, what makes them tick, what makes them good at their jobs. I also enjoy feeling that I'm improving someone's career.
I think a very under-recognized aspect of recruiting is telling the story of your client – in my case, the companies that we are recruiting on behalf of – to get people excited about why they might want to work there. When we work with a Fortune 20 company, the name brand speaks for itself. We don't really have to do a lot of educating. But if we are working for a startup, a brand-new IPO company, a private family wealth office, or just a company that is not a brand name, part of our role is to tell potential candidates the story of what the business is doing, why it’s exciting and why someone should want to work there. So, an important component of recruiting is marketing the company.
At the same time, the hallmark of a credible recruiter is one who does not only tell you the good stuff. We are not just about placing someone in a job and moving on. We are about placing someone in the job who will then hopefully stay with the company for many years to come, eventually become a hiring manager and come back to us again as a client. So, if we only sell the good stuff, someone's going to get there and go, "Well, I didn't realize this or this about the company. This is really not a good match for me and if I'd known this, I wouldn't have come here." So, it's really important that a credible recruiter say, "Here are some of the things that may not be ideal for you. Are you okay with that?"
The hallmark of a credible recruiter is one who does not only tell you the good stuff.
LD: Are there any stories that you can tell about times you were especially thrilled to tell a story of a certain company to a potential hire?
SH: There are many. One that just popped into my head is a company that had no in-house counsel when we first started working with them. They were a brand-new renewable energy company with about 40 or 50 employees and planning to grow. The name was unknown to just about anyone we called. I got to know the CEO and several other employees at the company and was able to really sell the growth plan for the company, the culture that they were trying to build and the opportunity of being part of that culture by joining early. Now, I believe they have six lawyers and a couple hundred employees.
LD: That's amazing. How long ago was that?
SH: That's probably over the last five years.
LD: Wow, great. Speaking of which, tell me about the increase in hiring in the renewables space in the last few years.
SH: Renewables has been a huge growth area over the last few years. We as a firm were founded in Houston, and Houston is a city where many energy companies are based, so that sector has been a large component of our business. The energy sector is complex and highly regulated, so energy companies tend to have robust in-house legal departments.
There are several reasons renewables has been such a growth area in the last few years in particular. One is that many traditional energy companies have expanded to pursue new or clean energies to grow their portfolio beyond traditional fossil fuels. There are also many new players in renewables that were never in traditional energy. Whether that’s private equity money or an outgrowth of other kinds of infrastructure-focused companies that are experienced in project development – now they're moving into renewable project development. Then, of course, in the last year or two the federal government has put a large amount of money behind the renewable industry to try to accelerate the growth of our renewable energy in America. So, with growth usually comes the need for more lawyers.
LD: What other areas are you seeing have similar growth?
SH: There’s been a demand for in-house lawyers in data privacy. It is a newer area of the law, so it can be difficult to recruit for those positions because there are not a lot of lawyers with dedicated data privacy experience. So, we are often looking for people who have maybe a little bit of exposure to it and who would like to make data privacy more of their specialty. Some law firms do have it as a practice focus, but there are not enough of these lawyers at law firms either, so sometimes those law firm data privacy lawyers are highly valued and don't want to leave to go in-house. So, it is a difficult area to recruit for, but definitely one in high demand. By extension, I expect legal issues around artificial intelligence will be a big growth area going forward.
LD: When you have those lawyers who aren’t sure about leaving the law firm environment to go in-house, what do you tell them about why it might be a beneficial transition?
SH: I always try to explain to law firm lawyers who may not have considered going in-house how different your day-to-day experience can be as an in-house lawyer. In my mind, those are positive differences. Obviously, there are some lawyers who really are comfortable in a law firm and never want to leave, and I completely understand that. But the benefits of being an in-house lawyer include partnering more closely with your clients, being closer to the business, more diverse work and better control over your schedule. You also don't have to bill your hours and you don't have to generate your own clients. They're right there down the hall.
The other thing I usually tell people is that as a law firm lawyer, I felt that I only ever got to read the middle of the book. A client would come to you with a transaction they wanted to do, and very rarely did they fill you in on, "Here's how we got here. Here's how we decided to do this deal." Instead, it's, "Here's the deal. You handle the agreements and other documents." Then the deal would close, and I wouldn't hear from the client again until they had the next deal.
When I went in-house, all of a sudden, I got to read the whole book. I got to read the foreword and the first few chapters. Then, in the middle of the book, I got to that section that I used to get to see as the outside lawyer. Then, the deal closes or whatever you were working on goes to bed. But you see what happens after. You see, “Was this actually a good deal for the company? Did it get absorbed the way we thought it would get absorbed? Or did it have unforeseen side effects that we didn't anticipate? How could we do better next time to anticipate those?” You really get to see the whole picture.
As a law firm lawyer, I felt that I only ever got to read the middle of the book.
LD: That’s great. Are there any challenges in convincing law firm lawyers to come over?
SH: The salary wars at the big law firms over the last couple of years have made our job as recruiters a little more challenging because we have to educate law firm lawyers about the value of going in-house. The best time to move in-house is generally between four and eight years of practice. That's where we see the most jobs for people who've not already had in-house experience. After eight years of practice, a lot of companies will go, "Well, I'd rather have somebody who has already tried in-house and knows that they succeed there." For candidates with less than four years of experience, a lot of companies cannot adequately train a young lawyer. So, four to eight tends to be the best time to move in-house.
But with the big law firm salaries, four to eight years is a very large pay difference from what they're making in a law firm to what they would make in-house. So, I want to remind law firm lawyers not only of the work benefits that we've already talked about, but when looking at an in-house job, to consider the total compensation – not just the base salary. There's salary, there's a bonus potential, there might be stock, there might be a retirement benefits or pension plan. Companies typically have better health insurance and other benefits than law firms do. So, they need to think about the total package. It may be a short-term setback in pay, but it's still generally very nice compensation.
LD: Looking outside of your practice, what do you enjoy doing for fun away from work?
SH: I am a dedicated fan of my sons’ sports. I'm also a huge Astros fan, which may be controversial. Houston also has one of the best restaurant scenes in the United States. So, I try to get out and explore our new restaurants whenever I can. We also enjoy traveling; before the pandemic, we took a trip to Machu Picchu with the whole family, and I’m hoping to take another big trip next summer.