Macrae’s Jon Truster on Building Partners’ Careers in the World’s Top Legal Market

There’s a palpable energy that swirls when you’re in the zone. Legal recruiter Jon Truster knows it when he feels it – he’s locked in, immersed, engaged, deeply invested. Truster has found this flow state at transatlantic search firm Macrae.

Truster never planned to get into recruiting, but serendipity struck 25 years ago when a legal recruiter at a growing boutique chatted him up on a long train ride. The recent college grad disembarked with a new career – one he now can’t imagine being without. In 2022, Truster’s path led him to Macrae in New York, where, like the firm’s 19 other recruiters, he focuses on placing partners and partner groups into the world’s top law firms. These are momentous moves for lawyers at that level, involving high-stakes and life-defining choices.

“Recruiters often find themselves playing the role of both therapist and career coach,” Truster says, adding that his candidates take their searches as seriously as the most important legal matters they’ve ever handled. “We’re on the phone at all hours. It’s my job to make sure they see all angles of the situation and understand the dynamics of the process.”

Truster’s expansive expertise, innate intuition and unique personal acumen combined have catapulted him into a category all his own. For him, it’s all about forging authentic connections, knowing the New York legal landscape like the back of his hand and understanding how to best lock in the puzzle pieces.

“There’s been a significant generational shift in attitude,” says Truster. “Lawyers coming up now feel more empowered to take charge of their careers, to seek greater fulfillment compensation-wise and in other respects if they’re not happy at their current firm.”

In his spare time, you can find Truster climbing to the highest of peaks – literally. An avid hiker, he is constantly setting new goals and reaching new summits. Truster has held a spot on Lawdragon’s Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting since 2022.

Lawdragon: You’ve been a legal recruiter in the New York market for nearly 25 years. What led to your early interest in recruiting?

Jon Truster: My first job out of college was in sales, selling office products and medical equipment. One day I was on the Acela train headed from New York to my company’s headquarters in Maryland. I was alone at a table in the dining car and when I returned after refilling my coffee, there was a man sitting across from me. He tried several times to chat me up, but I rebuffed him in favor of the book I was reading. Then he realized he’d lost his wallet, and I took pity on him and bought him coffee.

We got talking and I learned that he’d just launched the New York office of a D.C.-based legal recruiting firm. I didn’t know much about recruiting when I boarded that train in Manhattan, but by the time I got off I had a new career. I’ve never looked back.

LD: What is it about being a recruiter that aligns so well with your personality and ambition?

JT: Something my dad said a long time ago has stuck with me. He was in real estate – did some development, was a builder, sold houses, all sorts of stuff. When I was 18 we were visiting a work site and he said, “You know, Jon, one of the great things about my job is that I can look out and see all of these houses where an empty field once was. I built them. I made this happen.”

The partners we work with are extremely savvy and smart, the best of the best.

I feel a similar sense of drive and accomplishment in my work. As a recruiter, I do get to build something. When I work with a firm over a long period of time and help them find lawyers with particular expertise – all the pieces of the puzzle they need to complete to get to where they want to be – it really means something to me. Likewise, I get to help lawyers build their careers. At the partner level where my Macrae colleagues and I focus, the decisions candidates make can significantly impact not only their own lives but their families’ as well.

As with most recruiters, I suspect, what it boils down to is that I really enjoy making connections with people. This job gives me the opportunity to build meaningful long-term relationships with clients and candidates – and even lawyers I don’t end up representing for whatever reason. I think it’s fairly unique in that way.

LD: What do you like about working with lawyers in particular?

JT: The candidates I advise have a great deal of integrity. Most of the placements we make at Macrae are within the Am Law 50, so the partners we work with are extremely savvy and smart, the best of the best. I’d even call many brilliant.

I find that lawyers generally are very thoughtful about how they present themselves and the information they share to ensure that they’re doing so in an ethical, clear and concise way. It’s exceptionally rare that I deal with someone who’s even remotely “fly by night.” When the rubber hits the road, 99 out of 100 times, the candidates I work with do everything with integrity and do it the right way. This matters to me because it’s what I continually strive for in my own career.

LD: What led you to join Macrae in 2022? As a “builder,” did the opportunity to help grow Macrae’s presence in New York play a role?

JT: While there are perhaps 100 legal search firms in New York, only a handful do partner recruiting seriously. I was working at one of them, and when I’d ask law firms what other search firms they were talking to I’d hear the same names over and over. In 2020 or so, Macrae began coming up more and more. I wasn’t looking to move, but when the firm reached out I was intrigued.

The three small firms I’d been a part of prior to Macrae were New York-centric and run by a partnership or sole proprietor. While I liked my work and colleagues and did well – as did the firms – their business models, operational infrastructure and growth plans were not at the same level as Macrae’s. As I spoke to the management team and recruiters across the firm, it became clear that it could be a good fit for me – that Macrae employed high-quality people, had strong and lengthy relationships with leadership at the most elite law firms, and that I’d have the ability to work across offices and collaborate with colleagues, which was something I looked forward to.

From what I could tell, the integrity I mentioned appreciating in lawyers was present in spades at Macrae – and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that many of the recruiters had practiced law themselves. I’m happy to say that my experience at Macrae has surpassed even my high expectations.

As for our expansion in New York, I can’t take credit for the four recruiters we’ve added here since I joined, but I do like to think that I’ve helped play a role. Like me, I don’t think any of them were actively looking to move when we approached them but once they learned more about Macrae and its unique infrastructure, approach and positioning within the industry, they were all in. The team we now have in place is fantastic.

I find that lawyers generally are very thoughtful about how they present themselves and the information they share to ensure that they’re doing so in an ethical, clear and concise way.

LD: What qualities do you think it takes to be a good recruiter?

JT: You have to be personable. You have to be smart. And, you have to be quite good at solving puzzles. A prospective candidate might start off a conversation by saying that they’re frustrated with their current firm. This could mean many different things. Are they unhappy with the leadership, or the strategic direction the firm is heading in? Are they not getting the support they need to grow their practice? Do they feel undervalued, underpaid? It’s critical that I ask the right questions to get at precisely what isn’t working for them. I also want to know what is working. What do they like about their current firm? Then I have to determine what firms are likely to be a better fit.

One advantage I think I have in advising candidates is that I’ve been hyper-focused on the New York market for so many years. I know not only what firms’ key and growing practices are, but where the current holes are that a given candidate might fit into. It’s fairly esoteric knowledge. For instance, if a corporate lawyer is handling work for an investment bank, it’s important that the firms she’s considering a move to are on the bank’s panels. If she goes to firms X, Y and Z, she’ll be able to retain that client. I typically have this information at my fingertips and if I don’t, I know who to call to get it.

Another advantage is that the sharing of market intelligence is built into Macrae’s culture.

The firm has invested heavily in developing research and knowledge management tools I’d wager are unparalleled in our industry. Recruiters can access and contribute market data and insight with a few clicks. We also share and seek market intelligence in a more casual way. If I have a specific question, I can dash off an all-recruiter email and get informed insight within minutes. As soon as a colleague receives intel into a new development among New York firms, no matter how granular, or there’s a development in another market that could impact firms here, I’m looped in. It’s remarkable.

LD: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the course of your career?

JT: So much has changed. The partner compensation model is completely different than it was when I was starting out. Very few lockstep firms remain. Rather than being compensated based on seniority, partners are getting paid based on the amount of revenue they bring into the firm. This has enabled firms to become more aggressive in seeking out lateral partners. We’ve seen a drastic increase in the number of partners making moves each year – I’d say tenfold compared to 20 years ago. Back then, any partner jumping ship used to merit a front-page story in the legal press. Now, we see front-page stories about only the biggest moves.

Beyond just comp, there’s been a significant generational shift in attitude. Lawyers coming up now feel more empowered to take charge of their careers, to seek greater fulfillment compensation-wise and in other respects if they’re not happy at their current firm. Or, even if they are, they might make a move that positively impacts their practice and pay. If a partner making $3.5M at a firm can earn $2M more by moving, it can be tough to look the other way.

I think the pandemic accelerated this shift. In 2021, we saw a near-record number of lateral partner moves in large part because months of working remotely had lawyers feeling less connected to their firms, less loyal. So rather than let recruiters’ calls go to voicemail, partners entertained those conversations. It also didn’t hurt that they could talk to recruiters and conduct law firm interviews via Zoom without having to sneak around. While the pandemic has subsided, the reverberations are still being felt.

Another gamechanger has been the success that out-of-state firms such as Kirkland, Latham, Paul Hastings, King & Spalding, Sidley, and Ropes & Gray have had in New York. When they began laying down big stakes 30-some years ago, the naysayers were vocal. They’ve since built offices of 500-plus lawyers. They’ve left behind the notion that they are regional firms. They’re now national firms that are real players in New York, and their intensive growth strategies have impacted the overall market.

The firm has invested heavily in developing research and knowledge management tools I’d wager are unparalleled in our industry.

LD: Do the candidates you work with have a solid understanding of what the search process entails?

JT: I do a lot of educating. Many of my candidates haven’t made a lateral move before, or if they did it was as an associate, which is a very different process. Changing firms is often much more involved than somebody would expect and, frankly, more stressful. It’s emotionally challenging for senior professionals in any industry to make a major move, whether you’re in tech or healthcare or academia. But when you have a career that requires going to school for three additional years and working relentlessly to become a partner, it becomes even more challenging because they have much more to risk.

Consequently, recruiters often find themselves playing the role of both therapist and career coach. We’re on the phone at all hours with people who are always looking for what could go wrong, who see potential problems where we don’t based on our years of experience. And I get it. They take their search as seriously as the most important matter they’ve handled in their legal careers. They have to. It’s my job to make sure they see all angles of the situation and understand the dynamics of the process.

LD: Do you set expectations about the process at the outset?

JT: I do. Every firm has a unique process, but I think it’s helpful to provide a picture very early on of how it typically unfolds. I let them know that generally, they’ll have a series of meetings with anywhere from six to 40 partners. At some point a firm will be comfortable moving forward to discuss compensation and see if they could potentially make it work. Then there will be a partnership vote. The timeline is typically four to six months.

Usually in life, the scariest things are those where you can’t clearly see the steps that will lead to a desirable outcome. Explaining the process right off the bat and answering the questions that inevitably follow helps mitigate that anxiety.

LD: What do you get up to when you’re not working?

JT: You’ll usually find me with my family. I have 12-year-old twin boys, one of whom is really into sports while the other would rather be creating video games. My wife, a neurobiology professor at John Jay, is French so we have an apartment in Paris and frequently spend time there. While I love traveling in general, my ideal vacation includes tackling a new mountain range. I’ve been trekking all over, from the Alps to the Andes to the Himalayas.

LD: I can’t imagine that cell phone reception is very good in those places! Is that part of the point, to be cut off from the rest of the world and focus on something entirely different than you do in your day-to-day life?

JT: It’s less about being “cut off” and more about immersing myself in some of the most beautiful places imaginable and challenging myself physically and mentally to get to the top, or wherever it is I’m headed. A lot of careful planning goes into my trips to make sure no balls get dropped workwise when I’m out of pocket. That said, I am rarely disconnected for long – after all, a satellite phone has coverage at Everest Base Camp!