Last month I received an approach from a recruitment consultant.

The consultant wanted to explore the possibility of placing its candidate, a senior and relatively well known lawyer, with our firm.

Although we had no relevant opening as such, I was willing to keep an open mind, meet the candidate for a chat.

But before I was allowed to meet the individual the recruitment consultant tried to fix us with standard term requiring a fee of 30 per cent of first year's profit share in the event that we offered him a post. That would equate to a fee of £60,000 for a profit share of £200,000, or £30,000 for remuneration of £100,000.

We did not accept those terms and explained we would wish to negotiate on the fee level. We saw the candidate, who we liked and then tried to negotiate the fee. We suggested including a fee cap. This was refused and consequently negotiations have not proceeded.

By his choice of agent, but not by any fault of his, the candidate is unable to talk to the firm which may have been the best one for him.

This is the first time this has happened to us, but it does illustrate a potential problem.

Like a lot of Birmingham, law firms, we have recruited many people over the last couple of years. We have had excellent recruits from both agents, and direct.

For those who come through agents the cost of recruiting is high. Sometimes the services provided to the candidate, at the firms' expense, are good. Sometimes they are not. Candidates coming through an agent will cost the firm they join typically between 18 and 30 per cent of the first year's remuneration. Those who join without using an intermediary start with the warm glow of having saved that amount.

There can be an advantage for the candidate in using a good agent. They can advise on their perception of the relative strengths and weaknesses of target firms, and may be objective. For a busy lawyer they can save time.

On the other hand, candidates should be careful about who they chose. Some agents alter CVs to the candidate's detriment, and can be indiscriminate in their distribution of the CV. Agents are not bound by the same rules which solicitors are.

If a candidate really wishes to use an agent they might use a firm's preferred suppliers.

Candidates in Birmingham should also consider Birmingham Law Society's inhouse recruitment arm.

I guess concerns about confidentiality prevent many individuals from picking up the phone. It is important for candidates to understand that all approaches must be and are dealt with in confidence.

However, there are less direct but equally effective routes. Start with your target firm's web site.

Secondly, if you have a friend within a target firm, get them to introduce you. Most will pay a bounty fee to staff for such introductions.

Above all I would encourage senior colleagues to put their bashfulness to one side and take a leaf out of the books of graduates. Each year we get 700 applications for some 30 trainee posts. All of these come direct from prospective candidates.

* Guy Hinchley is managing partner at Mills & Reeve