Mary Copeland Makes Legal Recruiting Personal

It was almost a year before Mary Copeland and the other recruiters on her team found the perfect home for the first candidate she placed in the legal industry – and that’s not atypical. In the elite partner recruiting world Copeland inhabits, placements can take months to years. Time is invested in building a relationship with the candidate: meeting family, identifying goals and digging deep to find the perfect match. But making that placement doesn’t mean the work is over.

The longevity is Copeland’s favorite part of the job. In her previous recruiting career in the corporate finance industry, the conclusion of that yearlong search would have been the end of the candidate-recruiter relationship. But after this first placement in the legal sphere, Copeland was thrilled to discover that the team was able to continue working with the candidate at the new firm. In top-flight partner recruiting, former candidates become clients, looking to bring on new team members and get a feel for the market. Relationships form and branch out over years. “I had this ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “There’s so much more relationship-building with this field. It’s all cumulative, and I found that to be really rewarding.”

That first placement was more than five years ago now. Since then, Copeland has become a force in the world of legal partner recruiting – conducting searches and aiding in office openings for high-level firms nationwide. She has placed partners in diverse practice areas including M&A, capital markets, litigation, bankruptcy and employment, forming connections with the nation’s most influential firm leaders.

Copeland’s love for the bonds created in the legal recruiting field is evident in her style; approachable, humorous and empathetic, Copeland is a trusted ear for partners. Simultaneously, she combines that down-to-earth quality with premier connections and a razor-sharp knowledge of emerging market developments.

Initially, Copeland’s work was focused on the New York legal market. But with a recent career shift, she is now conducting searches nationwide. Last fall, Copeland joined mentor and partner Divya Bala at Bala’s new firm, Avance Partner Search. “I was ready to take the next step in my career – just as we advise people that we work with to do,” says Copeland. “It felt like a natural fit.” While Copeland is still based on the East Coast, she has now worked extensively with firm offices in Chicago, L.A., San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Copeland is a member of the Lawdragon Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting.

Lawdragon: Tell me about your recent move to Avance Partner Search with Divya Bala. You’ve mentioned she was a mentor to you when you first joined the legal recruiting industry. What did you learn from her early on?

Mary Copeland: We are similar to lawyers we work with – we end up working a lot. We're working when it's convenient for people to talk. So, that's throughout the day, but oftentimes that's also at night and on the weekends when they’re not working and it’s more convenient for them. Divya was really great about helping me find the balance that I think lawyers are also trying to find. I got married and started a family all in the past six years that I've been doing this career, and Divya was really helpful in terms of saying, "Hey, this is how you should approach your maternity leave. This is how I have balanced having young kids and doing this career and being successful." I think having that type of female mentorship specifically was really beneficial. She really was a guiding light in terms of how to do this job and have a young family.

LD: On that note, why is it important to have two women at the forefront of this new firm in what is often a male-dominated industry?

MC: Female partners definitely look at us and feel commonality. We’re relatable. There was a time very early on in my career where I rarely ever represented female partners. I would say about 40 percent of the partners I’m representing now are women.

LD: That’s incredible.

MC: It’s not something I could have said five years ago. Times have changed over the six years that I’ve been doing this.

LD: What did you learn from her about the ins and outs of legal recruiting itself?

MC: I learned a lot from her stylistically. She brings that personal element to every relationship that we have, and she helped me learn how to slow down and say, "Let's take the time to really get to know someone and build that connection.” She, too, is a very open and transparent person, and she has a lot of integrity. Those are just core values of my own, and she is able to weave that so beautifully into how she does this work. 

LD: Long-standing client relationships are a defining feature of Avance’s work. Tell me about that – how do you get to know them so well?

MC: You have to have so many touch points with somebody when they're considering whether they're looking at the market or they're making a move, right? There are countless meetings for them between firms, and then of course, when you dig into the LPQ. So, I try not to just jump in and be like, "Okay, let's just get right to business." I think it’s about the way that you build that type of rapport, because it can be very transactional if you want it to be.

LD: So, you’re very personal – how else would you describe your style as a recruiter?

MC: I am known for having a sense of humor. These processes can get so heavy, and I think it’s nice to occasionally be just a little bit more lighthearted. I also think it's about leading with integrity and transparency – being honest when something doesn’t work, cutting to the chase and not wasting people’s time.

LD: Looking back, what brought you to a career in legal recruiting from corporate finance recruiting?

MC: I had a connection to somebody adjacent to the legal recruiting industry, and they suggested that I should make a switch over to legal recruiting. I thought about going to law school right after I graduated from undergrad – it was a field that had always interested me. The rest is history.

LD: Were there any surprises when you first made the switch?

MC: I had this feeling like people would not be as approachable in the legal industry, but I was surprised by how friendly people are in general. I really have found that people are just people –no matter who they are and what they do.

LD: What do you enjoy most about working with lawyers?

MC: I'm a very detail-oriented person. I enjoy getting into the weeds and I know that most lawyers do, too, so I find there's an easy commonality there. Being detail-oriented is innate for them.

It's about leading with integrity and transparency – being honest when something doesn’t work, cutting to the chase and not wasting people’s time.

LD: Tell me a bit about the placements you make. Are there any practice areas or geographies you focus on?

MC: Well, I was focused in New York for five years – that was my market at my last firm. So, by default, I did a lot of corporate transactional placements. So, people in private equity, people in M&A, capital markets, finance – those were my core practices. With that being said, it’s great now to be able to do the whole country. Being in any major metro market is definitely a divergence in the best way possible from just being in New York. So, previously I was definitely more corporate transactional-heavy, but that's not the case anymore. I would say it's actually 50/50 at this point, but that's based on market trends; I'm just following the market.

LD: Are there any placements that stand out?

MC: The first placement that I did as a recruiter from inception to completion stands out, but maybe not for the most obvious reasons. It was a niche industry and based in New York. The bar of people that did that work in New York was small – we were looking for a very specific type of person. I was able to find that needle in the haystack for this firm, and it ended up being this really quick placement. It happened in three months, maybe even less. He’s still happy at that firm, as well. It’s notable to me because it felt like, “Wow, this is really easy.” But, actually, that’s the exception to the rule. More often than not, people do a market check; they talk to a couple of different firms. It’s a longer process. So, that one always stands out to me because it was the first one I really did on my own, and I found a unicorn.

LD: That’s exciting. What do you find most fulfilling about your work now?

MC: The thrill of placing somebody where they didn't think that they were going to go. Then, they go, and then their practice takes off on that platform. A lot of times, partners are busy working – they’re not looking at the macro trends that are happening in the market. That’s a differentiating factor for us at Avance. Our job is to know the market and to discuss the market with you, and sometimes that's bringing you opportunities that you might not have considered. That just comes from us having the knowledge to share.

LD: The firm has been around nearly a year now, which is exciting. What’s next on the horizon?

MC: We’re really just continuing to grow. We’re letting people know that we're here, we're revved up, we're ready, we're excited. We’re at a place where we can really pick and choose what we want to work on, which is a good place to be. I almost wish there were more hours in the day.

LD: And what do you do for fun outside of the office?

MC: I chase around my three-year-old and one-year-old boys. I’m an avid reader. I try to read more than one book a month. I also work out a lot – I used to be a spin instructor, and now I have a Peleton. I have endless amounts of energy, which is a good thing because I need it both for my job and chasing my kids around.