It’s tough to “lateral up” at a big law firm. Since I just invented the phrase “lateraling up,” I suppose I should define it: It’s when a fairly senior lawyer asks an older lawyer to help on a project.
If you’re 40 years old and just landed a small- or medium-sized matter, it’s hard to add a 55-year-old partner to your team. It might make sense to add the senior partner for the sake of either the client (the older partner has special expertise) or the firm (the older partner is competent to do the job and has time available to help), but it’s nonetheless tricky to execute.
In the litigation environment, if the client is looking to the 40-year-old to supervise the case, the 55-year-old can’t find a role that makes sense. The older partner can’t take the lead, because that’s the younger lawyer’s task, and the older lawyer can’t not take the lead, because senior people somehow don’t do that at law firms.
The same is true of corporate matters. The older partner can’t do the deal, because the client asked the junior lawyer to do it. And the older partner can’t carry the bags (to use the milder form of what the corporate lawyers really say) for a junior partner on the deal.
Please note the limitations on what I just wrote….
First, the “no lateraling up” rule doesn’t apply to law firm management. It’s easy enough to have a 40-year-old partner lead an office or a practice group. Those jobs are administrative, and the age of the person giving necessary approvals isn’t affected by client perceptions. Second, the “no lateraling up” rule doesn’t apply to massive cases or deals. If a 40-year-old litigation partner has the good fortune to land a mass tort that will require fielding five trial teams simultaneously, then five older partners can lead one trial team each. And if a 40-year-old corporate partner lands a billion-dollar deal that requires special expertise in antitrust, employee compensation, and tax, then more senior lawyers in those specialties can pitch in. But for typical matters, for reasons that are hard to put your finger on (or, at least, hard for me to put my finger on), big law firms are generally unable to let junior partners lateral up, asking more senior folks to help.
An inability to lateral up hurts law firms in two ways. First, it may occasionally make sense to ask more senior lawyers to help on medium-sized cases or deals. In those instances, either the client or the firm can suffer from the law firm’s bureaucratic rigidity. (Although, as I said, I’m not sure that “bureaucratic rigidity” is the cause. Firms don’t affirmatively prohibit lateraling up; it just isn’t done, or isn’t done easily.)
Second, the inability to lateral up can hurt a law firm’s collegiality. I can’t say that I’ve surveyed a random sample of law firm partners on this issue, but I’ve heard from a fair number of relatively young (ages 35 to 45, let’s say) partners that they perceive their big law firms as being collegial. Those folks are invited to join litigation or deal teams; they plug themselves into groups; and they feel as though the firm is supporting them. And I’ve heard from a fair number of older partners (age 50 and up, let’s say) that their seemingly identical firms are not what they used to be, have sacrificed collegiality on the altar of profits, and no longer help partners build their careers and practices.
Perhaps that’s a generational divide: The junior partners weren’t at the firm in the good old days, so the juniors don’t appreciate how things used to be. Or perhaps the different perspective is due to the senior partners’ inability to generate enough business to feed themselves, and the alienation is more or less intentional.
But perhaps it’s something other than that: Perhaps law firms simply haven’t figured out how to permit lateraling up in ways that make sense for clients, firms, and partners. The senior lawyers feel isolated because firms can’t easily plug those lawyers into groups that the senior lawyers have not themselves created. Solving that problem might inure to the benefit of everyone involved.
In-house legal departments don’t seem to have this problem. It’s entirely possible to have senior lawyers report up to folks who are significantly younger. Each person has a role to play in the corporation, and each does what’s asked. There’s no problem with client relations (because there’s just one client, and the client knows what’s happening), and there’s no (or little) problem with the lawyers, because no one focuses on the question of “lateraling up”; it’s just not an issue. Large companies occasionally hire new general counsel (or others in senior positions in a law department) who are relatively young, and there aren’t widespread reports of others in the law department quitting in a huff or being unable to do their jobs.
Lateraling up thus isn’t theoretically impossible. It’s just, for some reason, tricky to do, and rarely seen, at large firms.
Two last notes: First, although I’ve phrased this post in terms of age, that’s for the sake of expressing a concept, rather than, for example, suggesting that I favor age discrimination. I suspect that people who are chronologically old, but legally young (because they worked for a couple of decades before going back to law school) probably have their own unique slant on the “lateraling up” issue. Second, I don’t doubt that some firms have figured out ways for their lawyers to lateral up effectively. But from what I’ve seen and heard across the years, I sense that’s relatively rare, and many firms haven’t solved the puzzle. I’ll be curious to hear what others think.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link).
You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.