Advice for lateral partners from those who have made the move

by NZ Lawyer16 Apr 2014
Earlier this month, NZ Lawyer revealed that ‘firm culture’ is the biggest reason for lateral partnership moves, according to an international survey conducted by global legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa.

While most of partners who had switched firms were either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” (52.8% and 33.7% respectively), US publication The American Lawyer went one step further, asking open-ended questions of partners who had recently switched firms to find out what advice they had for legal professionals considering switching firms. Here’s what they had to say:

Build integration plans. Lateral after lateral said that nothing was more important than having a plan to help them become part of their new firm. They wanted specifics on matters ranging from cross-selling their practices to announcing their arrivals, from conflict checks to learning a new computer system. "The key is integration," wrote one. "It's not good enough to rely on the new firm to do it. New partners need to be very proactive. Force the issue."

Stay sceptical. Repeatedly, laterals advised diligence even at the risk of annoying a potential partner. Essentially they advised following the ‘Reagan Rule’: Trust but verify. Ask for what matters to you: client lists, marketing budgets, compensation grids, bonus pools, strategic plans. What would you have done differently? "Not trusted their president," wrote one. "Verify the statements made to me … about the firm's management structure, compensation decisions and succession plans,” wrote another.

Negotiate now, not later. Simple, said one: "This is your best chance."

Get it all in writing. Managing partners leave. Practice group leaders forget. Both can get carried away during the chase. "Unless you get it in writing," wrote one partner, "it's gone with the wind."

Keep talking. Typically firms introduce candidates to a circle of partners. Laterals advised breaking out of that group—find some lawyers who have either recently left or joined the firm for private conversations. Better still is having long-time acquaintances inside the firm who can engage in candid discussions. Said one: "The best moves are made when you already have reliable sources within the firm."

Promise with care. There was disagreement about whether a prospective lateral should "under-promise and outperform." Some laterals recommended that strategy because it allowed them to shine at their new firms. Others regretted low-balling their practices because they spent a couple years making less than others who "puffed" their worth.
Appreciate the ironies. Many firms want laterals for the business they can bring. Yet once at their new firm, as one put it, they'll be asked to "make those clients 'clients of the firm.' Given a partner's experience, why should the partner do this?"

Know yourself. For some, it's only business. "The lateral hiring should not be a courtship. A move is a business transaction, and the process should be designed to determine, insofar as is possible, whether that transaction will be successful." For others, it's very personal. What mattered the most was "the fit," "comfort" or "gut reaction." As always, there were lawyers who wanted every last dollar and others who said they were willing to trade "some money and status" for a "team"-oriented environment. In the end, said one, it's a micro, not a macro, decision: "At some point everyone needs to decide what they want professionally and personally." Is it culture or cash? Either is OK. Self-deluding is not.

Source: The American Lawyer