An Interview with Jeff Allen, Placement Law Attorney

Sep 8, 2010
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The following interview is an in-depth introduction to an individual who has been writing for The Fordyce Letter for nearly 30 years. A respected contributor to TFL, he has been providing our print subscribers with invaluable information on legal issues within the business of recruiting. He has recently generously offered to bring a piece of these offerings to our website readers as well. You will notice in the menu bar to the right a section titled “Jeff’s On Call” – this new feature is your opportunity to ask questions about collecting fees, discrimination issues, PSAs, and any other situations for which you may be seeking legal advice. Please take advantage of this generous offer by clicking on “Jeff’s On Call”!

An unbelievable 28 years ago, Jeff Allen wrote his first “Placements and The Law” article for a fledgling little monograph for contingency-fee recruiters called The Fordyce Letter.

It was introduced in the March 1982 TFL like this:


Much of our mail confirms the fact that the field of battle upon which we toil is fraught with legal landmines. And who of us hasn’t experienced the frustrations of having to teach our attorneys the basics of our business before they take up the sword in our behalf? Unfortunately, bad advice is the rule rather than the exception when dealing with attorneys who are unfamiliar with the unique character of our business.

With the April issue, we will begin a regular feature entitled “Placements and The Law” authored by Jeffrey G. Allen, B.A., J.D., C.P.C. Jeff, a nationally renowned attorney specializing in placement law, is the senior associate of the offices that bear his name in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach, California. Jeff brings a unique combination of experience to our business, having established, operated, and been a consultant with a number of executive search organizations and general employment agencies. In addition, he has held progressively responsible positions in the personnel and industrial relations field with many major employers.

His columns will bring us a practical and useful approach rather than simply reciting abstract principles of law. As the author of “Placements and The Law Reference Guide,” as a regularly sought-after speaker for all types of groups within our industry, and as one of the recognized authorities in his field, his columns will be as interesting as they are educational.

The body of work that has evolved month after month since then is truly staggering. Through over 300 PTL’s, Jeff’s legal news updates, and his special legal supplements to TFL, our subscribers have learned everything there is to know about placement law.

Today, Jeff is the preeminent attorney in our industry. He has also written more best-selling career books than anyone else in the history of publishing. From Oprah to CNBC, Jeff has appeared in every major media at one time or another.

His credentials, experience and track record transcend his winning legal representation.

Yet he remains our very own accessible, approachable Jeff Allen. A good friend, a trusted advisor, always there, and the ultimate authority on “placements and the law.”

In order to introduce those of you who don’t know Jeff to his work, I decided to do an interview with him and have him share a little about himself.

AH: Is there anything you’d like to say before we start the interview?

JGA: Yes – I’d like to welcome you to the Fordyce family! And I’d like to let our subscribers know how impressed I’ve been with your commitment and desire to keep TFL positioned at the leading edge of the search business. You’ve got the goods to do it. Why don’t you tell the TFL readers why?

AH: Okay. Well, I started off in this industry back in 2002 working in Jon Bartos’ office for about four years as an Internet researcher. When I was hired, one of the first things Jon did was to give me some old issues of The Fordyce Letter from which to learn. So being offered the opportunity to now be the Editor for Fordyce is like everything coming full circle. I am excited to continue on with its rich tradition in the print publication as well as add some new and exciting components, including some neat new stuff to the website. And it’s always a pleasure to meet people in person at the Fordyce Forums. We’re having the next one in Las Vegas next June!

JGA: In working with you, I can already see that you’ll do a terrific job. Again, welcome!

AH: You started writing for TFL shortly after Paul Hawkinson became the publisher. Why do you think the newsletter has been so successful?

JGA: I continued with cutting-edge legal writing, fueled by what we were accomplishing in the success of our subscribers. My friendship with Paul grew along with TFL. We talked by phone almost every day during those early years. He was in St. Louis and I was in LA, but through our business partnership, Search Research Institute, and in our personal dealings, there has never been anything but this great, unbreakable friendship. Anyone who knows Paul understands how flattered I am to call him my best friend.

Now – about TFL.

Paul took Thorne Fordyce III’s little letter and built the publication with three things: rock-solid integrity, unflinching courage, and his amazing desk-up knowledge of contingency-fee recruiting. Every year, he’d go back “in the trenches” and report on his placement travails. It kept him sharp and grounded on what was really happening on Planet Placement.

Commentary, surveys, creative ideas. There were many competitors through the years, but none could match TFL’s investigative reporting, practical training information, and futuristic legal analysis.

AH: So, what exactly is placement law?

JGA: It’s a hybrid between employment, contract and intellectual property law as it relates to the recruiting and hiring process.

As you can see, it’s a function of my background that has formed the discipline.

When a client calls about hiring and firing issues, it’s an employment law matter specific to a placement. If the call is about a collection case, we have a contract/fraud/conspiracy thing going on specific to a placement. If an ex-recruiter uses his or her candidate contact information wrongfully, it’s an intellectual property/trade secrets/unfair competition/fraud/conspiracy/etc. issue specific to a placement.

Analyzing and advising about these things successfully requires a complete understanding of what recruiters do and how they do it. That’s easier said than done, which leads to recruiters paying the law school tuition to the College of Placement Knowledge.

I did placement, I do law. Placement law is what I do because a placement lawyer is who I am.

AH: How did you become a placement attorney?

JGA: I really didn’t plan it that way – it’s what comes from putting one foot in front of another, then looking down and realizing you went from walking to climbing a ladder.

In 1966, we were in the middle of a major recession. I’d just graduated from college in June, and found myself walking the streets of the LA inferno known as the San Fernando Valley, trying to sell klunky, heavy, overpriced Kirby vacuums to whoever had a door. If the soles of my shoes didn’t stick to the welcome mat, I’d enter and start vacuuming the closest mattress.

Then I answered a deceptive ad for a “management consultant trainee”. I had no idea what that was, but it didn’t sound much like vacuum sales. The callback was from an industrial psychologist that did “management consulting.” (Back then, recruiting was considered one step above bank robbing, so “management consulting” was the tag.)

I became a high-biller, then set up and managed a ten-desk office for my boss. I was making technical engineering placements like crazy, but hadn’t a clue what I was jivin’ about. So I interviewed with a high-tech division of Emerson Electric, was hired as an HR rep, caught the eye of corporate, and was on my way. Over the next decade, I became an HR manager with RCA, Whirlpool, Cutler-Hammer, and other major corporations.

As my career progressed, I was fortunate to have great management above me. These international corporations even paid for my night law school education.

Then when I graduated in 1975 and passed the bar exam, the hundreds of recruiters I’d worked with all those years started following me around.

There was some magic back then too. Between HR jobs, I worked a desk for a brilliant fellow who built a large recruiting franchise organization. He had problems with recruiters leaving and unfairly competing.

So I worked closely with his lawyers – teaching them the business as they taught me the law. We won, and won, and won. Then he asked me to write a trade secrets law for our industry. As the president of a trade association, he lobbied for it, and it was passed by the California legislature. Through the years it became known as “The Allen Law”.

Shortly after I started practicing law, my ex-boss came to me with a massive trade secrets case, and we won big. Then Management Recruiters International heard about all of this commotion in Beverly Hills and retained our office to handle a major defection from one of its offices. And we won bigger.

So it went. One success building on the other. One client at a time. Always striving for excellence. A lot like building a recruiting practice – only easier. I call it the “go for what you know” theory of success.

That’s how I became – and how I am – a placement attorney.

AH: What do you mean by the “go for what you know” theory of success?

JGA: My absolute belief is that leveraging some strength is the key to unlimited success. Recruit for jobs that you know and that will become your niche. Find candidates jobs like they had and you’ll place them until they retire.

Look at my background. It’s vertical (except for the vacuum sales). Recruiting, HR managing, more recruiting, writing placement law articles, authoring career books. All traced back to that summer “management consultant” search gig in 1966.

Life’s too short for do-overs. Tomorrow is promised to no one.

AH: You’ve written 24 books for major publishers. How did you become a best-selling author?

JGA: It all started in 1983 when Simon & Schuster asked me to write How to Turn an Interview into a Job.

That was another major recession time, and I was having fun going to TV and radio stations explaining how to nail job interviews. It was helping a lot of people, and I just did it because it worked for them.

I was always fascinated with the sendout-to-offer ratio when I worked a desk. It was always my measure of success. How many sendouts do you need to shake loose one job offer for a candidate. Learn how to lower it, and – Poof! – you’re a search superstar.

So I just converted that into the “interview-to-offer ratio,” and showed the audience what to do in the interview: what to wear, what to eat before arriving, when to arrive, how to greet, what to say, where to sit, how to rap, when to close. I flooded the phone lines on the talk shows and caught the eye of the ABC network. That got me on a national feed across the country and many calls to come back into the studios for more interviewing tips. Listeners were getting offers and calling the station with their success stories.

Then one day, I received a call from the Vice President and Senior Editor of Simon & Schuster. He offered a huge advance (I didn’t even know what an “advance” was), and wanted me on a month-long book tour to kick off How to Turn an Interview into a Job. We wrote the book from my notes. It was an “A” title (meaning S&S put all of its muscle behind it), flew off the shelves, and shot up the charts. I hadn’t even returned from my book tour when my editor approached me with an offer from Parade magazine to write another book, Finding the Right Job at Midlife.

Then a Senior Editor from John Wiley & Sons called me to edit The Employee Termination Handbook. Its success led to many more popular books at the request of Wiley and AMACOM. The three-volume Jeff Allen’s Best series came later as my career books started to become classics.

So when someone asks, “How do you get a book published?,” I answer, “I don’t know.” When he or she asks, “Who’s your agent?,” I answer, “I don’t have one.”

Our industry also knows me by our Search Research Institute references, The Placement Strategy Handbook, Placement Management, The National Placement Law Center Fee Collection Guide (with Case Citations), and The Best of Jeff Allen. (The “BOJA” was a 12-pound present from Paul that arrived on our doorstep one day. I had no idea he’d taken all of my writing for decades and turned it into a two-volume, 1,587-page looseleaf encyclopedia of placement law for the world to have.)

AH: Going back to the beginning of our chat, what do you mean by “the Fordyce family’?

JGA: TFL is much more than a newsletter. It’s a friendship – even with new subscribers – that Paul developed and I share.

I’ll pick up the phone and answer an e-mail after hours. All calls and e-mails are returned the same day. Sometimes late.

I don’t apologize for calling late or early if they don’t apologize for sleeping.

AH: How do you have the time to do everything?

JGA: My personal and professional lives merged the day I took that first JO.

I have a wonderful family who puts up with me, clients who have been with my office since they started recruiting, and jobseekers the world over who benefit from my books.

Some day someone will call for me and my assistant will say, “I’m sorry, Jeff has died.” The reply will be, “That’s okay, but I need him to call me as soon as the funeral’s over!”

It’s just how things work in this crisis law practice.

AH: How do you win cases?

JGA: That’s easy. It’s because psychologically I’m still working a desk.

Of course, knowing the law and having the credentials and a reputation don’t hurt.

I know what it’s like to get stiffed by some employer on a placement fee. Or have some bandit rip off my candidate and client files. Or have some candidate try to ensnare me in a discrimination case.

I get calls from people who are often desperate. Helping them is a calling. Nobody else has the experience and the drive to help them. This isn’t my ego talking. That’s just the way it is. I get in there and get the job done.

I talk to employer lawyers with passion. That’s right – I’m passionate about the case. Very visceral about it. I tear into them if necessary because they have no appreciation for the difficulty and skill required to make placements. No frame of reference.

It’s the same with judges and arbitrators. I explain what the fight’s about, and leave opposing counsel with nothing but hollow legal arguments. I “say and convey” an appreciation for what placers do.

Judges and arbitrators listen, then understand, then rule. It’s all about absolute belief transferred from one human being to another.

I was born and raised around the practice of law. My father was a tough New York street fighter, a hard-as-nails negotiator, and a take-no-prisoners litigator. Later in life, he became an ethics law professor. He taught me a lot of big words too.

Lawyers live in an adversary world, but somehow my love for our people has been returned. Go figure. It’s just so amazing.

“Making a placement” sounds so easy. I’ll tell you what’s easy. Criticizing it.

Don’t get me started – you don’t have enough ink.

AH: What are the big legal issues these days?

JGA: We’re handling more fee collection cases lately.

A contingency-fee recruiter is a “spent check” once the placement is made. Then many don’t know how to collect properly, wait too long, and polarize the dispute. So we jump in and get their money.

Trade secrets cases keep us busy too. I’m asked to serve as the attorney, a consultant or an expert witness.

But the big legal issue today is employer-generated placement fee agreements (PSA’s) . We’ll be covering this in the November TFL. I’ll dissect a model PSA, and show subscribers how to negotiate them effectively. It should be very helpful.

AH: What do you see as the future of placement?

Unlike many others, I don’t see any change from the past. Oh, there may be some new computer-matching software or some short-lived burst of hiring in some field. But there’s a reason it’s called “making a placement.”

Recruiters must make it happen every day – finessing one placement after another. In every discipline. At every age, stage, and wage.

It’s really not a business with trends regardless of the unemployment rate. People will always pay for someone to find them a person who’ll do what they can’t, won’t, or don’t want to do themselves.

The basics of making a placement don’t change either. Cold-calling, a positive approach, consistently doing the basics. A sixth-sense about what clients really want, not just what they say they want. If they even know. And they can’t get it without a recruiter.

That’s why the most effective trainers build from the rudiments: How to take a JO (job order), How to recruit MPC’s (most placeable candidates), How to close a deal.

Those aren’t trends either.

The internet is overrated – both as making recruiting easier and as making it more difficult. It’s just a humungous, inefficient, impersonal matchmaker. A recruiter can never harness it, but can only use it. Possibly effectively, but never as a replacement for the incredible intuition and timing needed to close deals.

So the future of placement is bright. Making placements is the future.

AH: Thanks for sharing so much about yourself today, Jeff. We sure covered a lot of ground. Best wishes for 28 more years with TFL!

JGA: Thanks and thanks too for your graciousness. I know you’ll carry on Paul’s tradition of delivering what recruiters need to know!

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!