Ed. note: This is the latest in a series of posts on partner issues from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. This two-part post about lateral partner hiring was written by Larry Latourette, Executive Director of the Partner Practice at Lateral Link.

The call came in on a dreary Saturday afternoon in November. A senior partner from the Detroit-based firm of Dickinson Wright was going to be in town on Monday and wanted to meet about lateral hiring for their D.C. office. Having been a lawyer at three D.C. branch offices (including a stint as managing partner for Preston Gates) and having attended dozens of similar meetings as a recruiter with out-of-town law firms, I didn’t have high expectations; almost all out-of-town firms think they can successfully compete in the brutal Washington market already rife with marginal offices on life support and shuttered offices of those that didn’t make it. Nevertheless, I agreed to meet since I always learn something from these encounters, and one thing life has taught me is that you never know how things will actually turn out.

The meeting and my subsequent experience reconfirmed that lesson as together we almost doubled the size of their D.C. office by adding 10 lawyers in the subsequent 15 months. While many firms do a decent job at partner recruiting, most have some weaknesses either in strategy or execution. Dickinson, however, put in place the best hiring structure and followed through as effectively as any I have encountered.

To bring more rationality to an often convoluted and inefficient process, the following distills the elements of that approach. While its solutions aren’t unique, the Dickinson model offers a useful benchmark from which other firms might improve their own hiring efforts….

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LATERAL PARTNER HIRING

Until the mid 1980s, major firms relied on promoting partners from their own pool of associates. They recruited the best law students and clerks to entry-level positions, trained them in their own special ways, watched as they grew (or didn’t), and elevated only those who had demonstrated over almost a decade of battle-hardened service that they were worthy — the few, the proud, the partners.

Firms believed that such a path bred an internal camaraderie that made partners trust one another through thick and thin, and that promoted the best environment in which to practice law. As a result, partners rarely left their firms before retirement, and if they did, almost never went to other firms; it was perceived as almost traitorous for a partner to move laterally, and unseemly for a firm to accept such a rogue.

As competition and efficiency drove the profession of law to behave more like other businesses, however, a strict reliance on homegrown talent became difficult to maintain. While some firms were able to create a new legal specialty by bootstrapping the marginal experience of a partner or two, most realized it was necessary to bring in outside lawyers experienced in those fields. Firms also recognized that it was frequently more efficient to supplement existing strengths and clients with complementary practices, which again necessitated bringing in lateral partners.

As the last two decades have vividly demonstrated, most firms have accepted that competing for lateral partners is highly beneficial, if not necessary, for the long-term survival of their organizations. Largely because it was not part of legal culture until recently, many firms have not implemented lateral strategies that are particularly effective and routinely make rookie mistakes that can cost them in the lateral market.

MAKE HIRING THE SOLE ADMINISTRATIVE FOCUS OF A HEAVY HITTER

A firm has to be committed to lateral growth, especially at the highest levels, for it to be successful. This commitment can best be communicated and implemented by delegating the responsibility for hiring to a single partner who has sufficient gravitas to get things done. At many firms, hiring is doled out across a number of already desperately overworked department chairs or is the responsibility of the even more desperately overworked managing partner. While most firms have remarkably able non-lawyers assisting in the process, they rarely have the necessary heft within the firm to compel partners to put hiring above other demands. As a result, the process can come to a grinding halt as a key decision sits in the in-box of a distracted partner.

At Dickinson, the job of lateral partner hiring is delegated to a single senior partner. Unlike some other shops where the hiring committee is a backwater assignment, Dickinson gives the responsibility to a member of its management committee with no other mandate. It is a plum assignment and a stepping stone for future leadership positions. While not the only arrangement to do so, this structure ensures that hiring decisions do not hit unintended roadblocks, since even busy department chairs quickly return calls from the hiring partner.

ENSURE EVERYONE IS IN SALES MODE

Another remnant of the homegrown system still prevalent in some firms is an attitude similar to Lily Tomlin’s operator character from “Laugh In,” summarized in her memorable line, “We are the telephone company — we don’t have to care.” Some firms and many partners don’t emotionally understand that the game has changed and exude an attitude that any lateral should feel lucky that their firm is even considering them for entry into their exclusive club. While such a mind-set might make those partners feel better about themselves, it is almost always counterproductive to attracting quality candidates. At Dickinson, the lawyers I met were excellent attorneys and really decent human beings who knew that to attract similar types, they needed to be in sales mode. This was true of the firm’s managing partner, who flew in several times from Detroit to meet with serious candidates, as well as of the rank-and-file partners, one of whom at my suggestion made a key contact with a law school classmate who helped facilitate a major hire.

Check back next week for Part II of the “Lateral Hiring Done Wright” series, where Larry Latourette continues to describe what is necessary for firms to efficiently evaluate and recognize lateral hiring opportunities.