Porter recruits legal eagles

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 1:00am

Conversation With a Leader

What are the pros and cons of recruiting for the entire firm as opposed to recruiting for just one office?

It is certainly an easier task to recruit for just one office. When you have a firm in only one city, the recruiter has a better opportunity to get to know the attorneys in that office personally and can tailor a recruiting program to emphasize the strengths in that particular office. Although it is a daunting task, I do enjoy recruiting for our entire firm [Baker Donelson has offices in 12 U.S. cities and in Beijing]. Certainly, the challenge is to learn the personality for each city so that I can assist in locating candidates who will be a good fit for that particular office. I believe that many law students look for a firm that has multiple offices, because they recognize the practice potential in a more geographically diverse firm. Experienced attorneys also recognize that national clients tend to gravitate toward larger law firms that cover a greater geographic region.
Sue Porter
Director of attorney recruitment
Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC

Hometown: Portland, Tenn.
Age: 52

Education: Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech Universities
First conventional job: Legal secretary/paralegal, Huntsville, Ala.
Hypothetical dream job: Anchor for a local television news station

Porter oversees company-wide attorney recruitment for BDBC&B, named by National Law Journal in 2004 as the nation's 100th largest law firm (in terms of number of employees) and the 10th fastest growing. With the firm since 1999 and working out of its downtown Nashville office, Porter spends significant time traveling to Baker Donelson's various offices, most of which are located in the Southeast. Last April, Porter was elected to the board of directors of the National Association for Law Placement.

You have been involved in recruiting for 12 years. How have law firms' needs changed over the years?

One significant change I have seen is that more firms are recognizing the need for diversity and are now making a greater effort to recruit women and attorneys of color. [In 2005, Multicultural Law Magazine ranked the firm 86th among its Top 100 Law Firms for Diversity.] In our increasingly mobile society, all firms have seen their attrition numbers rise and, as a result, find the need to hire lateral attorneys with more experience.

What trend do you see regarding the types of candidates firms seek?

I see more specialization on the horizon. Within the last two decades, lawyers have become experts in specific practice areas. We are now seeing them "drill down" and become experts in specific industries.

How cutthroat can recruiting be?

It can be very competitive among firms, both in Nashville as well as in other cities. Most firms here take the high road. But on occasion, there will be instances involving one firm speaking negatively of another firm.

Can you describe your most significant rejection on the recruiting trail?

I am very competitive by nature and I don't like to lose - ever. But there have been instances where attorneys have made the decision to go to other firms. I always take that rejection personally, but I console myself by saying that we may well see them again. We do see people who come to us, for example, a few years later and say, "I made a mistake. You offered me a job three years ago and I didn't accept and should have."

What are Baker Donelson's recruiting strengths and challenges?

While our size places us among some of the largest law firms in the nation, none of our offices have more than 80 attorneys. As a result, we have the resources of a large, regional firm while maintaining a small firm atmosphere in each of our offices. Our firm is really a meritocracy. So for attorneys who want to be compensated in proportion to their efforts, Baker Donelson is a great place for them. We offer challenging, sophisticated work for our attorneys, and they are able to work with nationally known clients. It is also a huge advantage to have a Washington, D.C., office, which is recognized routinely as one of the top lobbying law firms in the nation. The candidates we recruit understand that this strong presence in Washington brings us clients to which we otherwise would not have access. Our representative office in China opens doors for our multinational clients.

Certainly one challenge is that we run a very lean recruiting staff and that hampers us at times. We have 400 attorneys and 10 recruiting staff members. However, only three of those staff members are full time for recruiting purposes. Each of our offices has its own recruiting challenges. For example, I employ different recruiting strategies in our Memphis or Chattanooga offices than in our Nashville office.

How did you end up in attorney recruitment?

Back in the 1970s, I worked as a legal secretary and paralegal, although at the time we did not call them paralegals. After spending 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, I re-entered the work force and accepted a management position in health care. Upon moving to Nashville, I became the legal administrator for a 10-attorney firm. After leaving that firm, I had the opportunity to narrow my focus and pursue attorney recruitment with a large Nashville firm. I was able to use the human resources and management skills I had used in other businesses to assist me in legal recruiting. After several years, Baker Donelson approached me about joining its firm and becoming the director for all attorney recruitment. It has been a great decision and I can't imagine doing anything else.

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