In 1983, John Lassiter left his position as Assistant Attorney General for the North Carolina Department of Justice to embark on a career in-house as legal counsel for Belk Department stores. After rising through the ranks and becoming senior vice president of human resources, Lassiter climbed out on a limb to begin a business recruiting legal staff for private law firms and corporate legal departments under the banner of Carolina Legal Staffing.
What is interesting about this transition from litigation and regulatory law to corporate law, is that it is such a rare occurrence these days. By today’s standards, the ability of a lawyer to make drastic shifts in career focus is untenable, precisely because of the advances in recruiting that businesses like Lassiter’s helped forge.
These days, wide-eyed students of law flood the gates of law schools enticed by the glamour of prime-time legal shows and the optimism of making a difference.
What many don’t realize is that the path taken through their education, credentialing, and job experience can set the stage for their entire career.
Explains Lassiter, “As a whole, the legal market is migrating from a profession, to a business. It is not unusual to see private practices managed by former controllers, military leaders, and logistics experts that are known for implementing sound business structures in terms of billing, management and marketing. Firms are making decisions based upon business experience and profitability.”
In the same vein, in-house corporate legal departments have become consistently more sophisticated, and subsequently more demanding in terms of what they expect from their legal recruits. Explains Lassiter, “There is a higher degree of specialization, experience and performance expected by the marketplace.”
In short, Lassiter’s Carolina Legal Staffing is a giant filter, parsing large volumes of candidate qualifications to meet the very specific demands of its clients. Its focus on finding cultural and character matches between the two parties makes it not unlike a dating service, for Lassiter’s goal is finding the best relationship for everyone involved.
Lassiter left the N.C. Department of Justice for two reasons. First, traditionally, in-house lawyers generally work more family-friendly hours and that accommodated his marriage and desire to start a family. Second, he wanted to leave the bureaucratic environment of government law.
(This is entertaining on both counts. Since Lassiter made the move, hours worked of in-house lawyers have risen to the same playing field of those involved in private practice. Also, Lassiter has since served over 10 years on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and is a member of Charlotte City Council – both of which regularly take him ‘back to the courthouse.’)
Lassiter made his career move in 1983 when the North Carolina in-house law community was relatively small and most lawyers were affiliated with private law firms. But through diligent networking he made the jump to the legal department of Belk Department Stores and found himself in a gratifying, secure atmosphere in which he could grow.
As Lassiter’s curriculum vitae grew, so did the sophistication of the legal community, and it became clear that there was an opportunity to pair his experience in human resources and his considerable contacts in the business and legal community for an entirely new undertaking.
Lassiter recalls, “I was approached by investors looking to start a company focused on providing contract attorneys and project paralegals for large-scale document reviews, projects and transactions. This made sense because it offered the benefit of project employees that didn’t have to be carried on a permanent payroll.”
At first Lassiter declined. He says, “I was happy where I was. But then I started to think about what a unique opportunity this was to take advantage of my law and recruiting knowledge, and serve the people I had come to know through my job and the relationships I had developed locally and statewide. It became clear that if I was ever going to make a change, the time was now.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Lassiter left his safety net for a desk with a phone and a Rolodex. But it worked. Within 35 days he had made placements for his first group of candidates, and the company had positive operational cash flow within six months.
Momentum strong, Lassiter and newly hired recruiters began receiving requests to retain the temporary talent they had placed. Then, clients began requesting information for permanent placements for attorneys, shortly followed by requests for legal support staff such as legal secretaries, runners and paralegals.
Enter the learning curve. Demand was coming at the company faster than expected, and Lassiter had to determine a fee schedule for the new requests, operate the business, and find additional staff to accommodate the firm’s quick growth. Fortunately, by 1999, Lassiter was in a position to redeem his partners’ interests and navigate Carolina Legal Staffing on a course of his own vision.
“I wanted to expand the depth and breadth of our offerings. In 2002, we added an office in Raleigh, in 2004 we added the Columbia office, and in March of this year we added our newest office in Greenville.” Lassiter adds, “There are arguably more markets we could move into, if and when the time and circumstances call for it.”
BURDEN OF PROOF
Lassiter says that the paradigm for finding legal counsel has shifted considerably. “The days of the ‘old boy network’ where common interests would connect a lawyer with someone looking for a jack-of-all-trades is a thing of the past. In-house legal departments have grown exponentially, and corporations across the region are now looking for particular skill sets that they want available to them all the time. Demand for specialties, like merger and acquisition experience, IT/software licensing, litigation management and labor/employment law, are now the status quo.”
Many companies benefit from this evolution. Rather than hiring a lawyer on a case-by-case basis, an in-house lawyer is retained with a strong salary, but is often less expensive than hiring a private firm. Plus, a full-time, in-house attorney can be handpicked for the needs of the department and groomed to know the nuances of the company itself.
“An in-house attorney will be educated and integrated into the company’s structure, mission, sales environment and management. The company avoids the need to get an individual lawyer ‘up-to-speed’ on its practices or culture. This leads to more refined advice,” explains Lassiter.
Private law firms also avail themselves of legal recruiting agencies. In fact, Lassiter says that 65 percent of his business is finding lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants for local and regional law firms. “Our reach and our expertise make it much more efficient for a firm to come to us to do the leg work. Our advertising, which aside from payroll is the largest expense we have, gives us the ability to get in front of candidates much more effectively than intermittent employment ads. Plus, as our clients grow regionally, we have the ability to help them find talent in markets in which they currently don’t have a presence.”
Carolina Legal Staffing has a decidedly impressive presence on the Internet, advertises in industry publications, and has large contracts with local newspapers in which the company rotates ad copy. From these leads, in addition to the considerable valuable referrals and the online application format, Lassiter has accrued an impressive database of candidates.
Carolina Legal Staffing’s database can be parsed into job type, education, credentials, experience, market, specialty and subspecialties. But Lassiter says his recruiters’ commitment extends far beyond developing leads. “Our experience in the market, our knowledge of the legal environment, and our relationships are our greatest strength. We invest a lot of time and consideration on behalf of our clients, we meet and qualify our candidates before submitting them, and are very high-touch.”
It is clear that Lassiter prides himself on not just matching paper-to-paper qualifications, but rather determining a best fit in terms of client culture. He also professes to have the inside scoop on candidates.
“I spent a lot of time as a labor employment lawyer who trained managers to never give away anything other than a neutral reference on an employee. Most people in large companies are trained this way now. Our company has an advantage because we have consistently demonstrated a level of confidence and integrity that allows us to get the subjective information that is very delicate and very valuable in recruiting.”
He adds, “We have to keep a lot of secrets. But as a result, we can acquire candidate information that traditional employment agencies are not privy to. The confidence level is simply not the same.”
With top-qualified candidates entering law firms at a starting salary of $115,000, you can bet that employers want to be sure they are getting the bang for their buck. Generally, the candidates who command these rates graduate in the top 10 percent of their class at one of the top 20 national law schools and have demonstrated a level of commitment and service that makes them highly desirable.
But of course, not everyone fits into these parameters. The good news is that many of the prospects who do not are still highly qualified, motivated, performance-driven candidates who can be secured at a lower price. Explains Lassiter, “Our mission is to find the best fit for the client in terms of qualifications, personality, character and culture, but compensation is nearly always an issue. Fortunately, there is a wide range of candidates eager to perform, and a host of clients with places for them.”
Concedes Lassiter, “There are some admittedly less-than-sexy jobs that lawyers have to perform. Sometimes you have to shed your suit for a T-shirt and rummage through warehouse files. Sometimes you must sift though e-mails and electronic communications for document review. It can be a mind-numbing process, but one that requires expertise all the same. While you might not find an upper echelon lawyer interested in doing this kind of work, we can find match that will get it done to the satisfaction of everyone involved.”
Satisfying relationships is clearly Lassiter’s mantra, whether he is sitting in the office, at a council meeting, meeting with a client or interviewing a candidate. He made his career choices based on living a satisfying, balanced life and desires the same for the people he represents and employs. “I believe that to enjoy work, you must lead a balanced life. We try to be the kind of company that our clients respect. Our staff has a very flexible working environment with a high-tech backbone that keeps them connected. We believe it is important to engage in the community. Whether that means teaching a Sunday school class, being on an arts committee, leading a boy scout meeting, or waiting in the car pool line, there is value and a common thread running through it all.”
Lassiter concludes, “As members of both the legal and business community, we feel we have an obligation to leave things just a little better than we found it. By embracing the philosophies of many of our clients and adding value through what we do, I believe that the relationships we create do exactly that.”