(Dow Jones) Family-office recruiters are seeing a pick-up in activity after a bad year and a half.

At the same time, some boutique headhunters are feeling more pressure from national search firms with a new-found interest in this potentially lucrative niche of wealth-management.

Family offices, which number a few thousand and cater to families with hundreds of millions of dollars, are non-commercial investment- and wealth-management outfits that typically serve the descendents and charities of a single individual. Multifamily offices are commercial entities, usually either investment advisers or trust companies, that advise multiple high-net-worth families.

"Last year wasn't a good year at all," says Jeffrey Rankin, founder of Lake Geneva, Wisc.-based Rankin Group, a firm that specializes in executive searches for family offices. "Families had a deer-in-the-headlights look for a good year and a half" after the financial crisis of late 2008.

Industry research bears out this impression. In its 2008 survey of single-family offices, Wheaton, Ill.-based Family Wealth Alliance, a consultancy to ultra-high-net-worth families, found that recruiting senior staff with the requisite skills and experience was an overarching priority. In its latest survey, recruiting had fallen off the chart. Instead, family offices focused on cost cutting and fretted about their viability as standalone entities.

Things seem to have improved in recent months, however. Family offices, including some owned by the richest families in the world, have tapped Rankin Group to fill vacancies or add new capabilities.

"Families are realizing that they can't stand pat and wait for a recovery that may still be years off," says Rankin. "They understand that they have to make changes.

Business activity is still nowhere near pre-downturn levels. In 2007, Rankin says his firm was scrambling to meet demand for family-office professionals.

Linda Mack of Mack International, a Chicago-based search firm that specializes in placing wealth managers, agrees. Business has picked up this year, but it's not as frenetic as it was in 2007 and well into 2008, she says.

"In '09, everybody was avoiding spending money. If they didn't absolutely have to replace someone, they didn't," says Mack, referring pointedly to the single family-office realm. Among commercial multi-client family offices recruiting was a bit brisker: "Anyone with a good book of business who wanted to move, could"--though in the darkest days of the downturn many experienced advisers held off for fear of landing in the next Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers, she adds.