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Top Legal Innovations 2021: Michael Ellenhorn

Michael Ellenhorn

Michael Ellenhorn


Barnes & Thornburg, a business law firm in Indianapolis, has experienced significant growth in recent years.

Since 2014, the firm has increased gross revenue by 38%; added eight new offices; and increased its headcount from 580 to 700, according to Bloomberg Law.

For many of those hires, the firm used Decipher, a St. Louis-based competitive intelligence company.

“They allow us to evaluate candidates, and it’s all done in a very confidential manner and in a very professional way,” said Robert Grand, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg.

Grand’s firm is not alone in engaging in a recent hiring spree. In May, Leopard Solutions had more than 8,000 openings for attorneys in its database, representing a 150% increase from the start of the pandemic.

That means there is also more demand for a company like Decipher, which has seen a 15-fold revenue increase since it was founded in 2015, according to the company.

The legal industry “might be the most tradition bound profession in the country, and as a result it tends to rely on the old way of doing things” said Michael Ellenhorn, founder and CEO of Decipher. But “one of the ways in which I think the legal profession is innovative is it really is opening up its eyes to the use of intelligence and to use of data” in hiring.

Before Decipher, Ellenhorn practiced law for about five years in St. Louis and then moved to London, where he worked as a recruiter, primarily for U.S. law firms with offices in the city.

“Legal recruiting doesn’t really adhere to the classic executive search model; it’s really much closer to the … athlete-agent model,” said Ellenhorn. “As a result of that, the incentive for legal recruiters to make a placement really without regard for the soundness or fitness of the hire or appointment is drastically high.”

Around 2015, back in St. Louis, Ellenhorn started reflecting on his time as a recruiter and concluded that there really wasn’t anyone who was on the law firm’s side in the hiring process.

“That was the genesis of the idea behind Decipher,” he said.

The company focuses on lateral hires, meaning potential additions from other organizations. For clients, the company conducts background screenings and produces in-depth reports that include comments from interviews with clients; former colleagues; market peers; and opposing counsel, according to Decipher. The reports also examine the prospective hire’s book of business, legal skills and ability to work well with others.

In its reviews, the company tends to put red flags on about a third of the candidates, Ellenhorn said.

“Hiring people from outside can be a tremendous opportunity, and it can also represent significant risk,” Ellenhorn said. While a candidate may claim to have certain clients, “are they really going to bring that? Because these are huge investments.”

Decipher claims that 96% of its vetted hires succeed at firms.

Grand, the Indianapolis attorney, said Decipher has reviewed about 100 new hires over the past two years.

“If you think about hiring people and what’s in the public domain, sometimes you don’t see everything,” Grand said. “I can honestly say there have been a couple occasions where they gave us information we didn’t have and it was very helpful.”

And for those vetting Decipher, Grand’s assessment is that “it’s a very good company, and we are proud to be associated with them.”

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