Is the grass greener at another law firm?

I had the pleasure of spending much of last week in Seattle, for the 2014 Annual Education Conference of the Association for Legal Career Professionals (aka NALP). On Thursday afternoon, my colleague Brian Dalton and I, along with Guy Alvarez of Good2bSocial, gave a well-attended presentation on new media strategies that work.

I unfortunately had to leave the conference early to speak at another symposium (the Marquette Law conference on law clerks). But while at NALP, I did attend a number of informative panels, centered around two topics: (1) lateral hiring at law firms and (2) federal judicial clerkships.

Here are some themes that emerged from the three lateral hiring panels I attended:

1. Lateral hiring is way up from the depths of 2009, but it has been slowing down over the past two years.

This was the conclusion of Scott Hodes of Lateral Link, who crunched the numbers. Per Hodes, 2013 saw a 7.3% decline in lateral hiring compared to 2012, driven mainly by a dip in terms of associate lateral hiring.

2. Many lateral hires don’t work out that well.

According to David Cruickshank of Edge International, 96% of firms say lateral growth is part of their strategy, but just 28% of lateral hires are “highly effective.”

3. Firms are being — and should be — more strategic about lateral hiring.

Firms are proceeding with caution in lateral hiring. For example, as Diana Ross-Butler of Paul Hastings observed, when a lawyer leaves, the firm doesn’t immediately go out and replace that lawyer. As Diane Downs of Akin Gump said, firms need to ask themselves several questions when an attorney departs. Is there an actual need to hire a new lawyer, or can the work be redistributed? How is the need being defined? How would a new lateral hire affect firm dynamics, including the talent pipeline?

4. Outside search firms can be a valuable resource in the lateral hiring process.

Ross-Butler said that, given all the other demands of her job, she has limited time to devote to sourcing lateral candidates; instead, she looks to search firms to go out and bring her the great candidates. But as Darin Sands of Lane Powell noted, law firms don’t like paying the recruiting fees — so outside search firms need to add value to the process.

5. Conduct the sourcing process with care.

This is especially true in niche practice areas. Lawyers who excel in niche practices often have distinctive personalities, and recruiters need to be mindful of those personalities when dealing with such candidates. As Tricia McGrath of Lateral Link noted, many tax lawyers are focused intensely on their work “and don’t follow all the industry drama — they don’t all read Above the Law.” (Thanks for the shout-out, Tricia!)

When trying to source candidates, especially in niche areas, in-house recruiters and outside search firms need to marshal a variety of resources. Lawyers who already work in the field in question can be good resources. Some niche practices generate a lot of outside writing; reviewing publications can unearth candidates. And of course there are a variety of technological resources, such as Leopard Solutions and LinkedIn (which can be searched using keywords).

It’s important to manage the hiring partner’s or hiring committee’s expectations, especially when conducting a niche search. Some flexibility, as to specialization or seniority or both, might be necessary. As Shannon Davis of Mintz Levin put it, depending on the nature of the position to be filled, “Sometimes a single résumé is a victory.”

6. Search firms to law firms: help us help YOU.

After playing the famous Jerry Maguire clip, Hodes emphasized that law firms need to work closely with recruiters if they want to get the best value out of recruiters. Firms need to give recruiters the best information they can about openings — including information that might not necessarily be in the listing, such as the personality types of the lateral’s future colleagues — as well as the selling points of their firms. When recruiters approach possible laterals, the laterals want to know: why is this opportunity better than the one I currently have? So law firm recruiting personnel should give outside recruiters all the information they need to sell their firms to prospective laterals.

As David Cruickshank of Edge International said, prospective lateral partners want to know: how can the new firm make me even more successful? Search firms need to be able to explain that to them — aided by the information they’ve been given by the firms.

7. It’s the integration, stupid.

Many lateral moves fail to work out, or don’t work out as well as they should, due to inadequate integration efforts at the new firm. Mike White and David Cruickshank of Edge offered several ideas for enhancing integration:

  • Figure out which lawyers at the new firm might connect best with the lateral at an interpersonal level (perhaps due to compatible personalities or shared educational or professional backgrounds).
  • Assign lateral partners to mentor strong associates.
  • After the lateral partner has had some time to settle in (perhaps 12 to 18 months), assign her to a committee role or project within the firm.
  • Introduce the new lateral partner to prior successful laterals; consider hosting a lateral partner reception.
  • Make sure your laterals adequately transition their clients into becoming clients of the firm.

My thought on that last point: easier said than done. Some laterals can be quite mercenary — they’ve moved once, they might move again — and they guard their client relationships jealously.

“Easier said than done”: that’s actually an excellent description of lateral recruiting, which can be mishandled in so many ways. But when done correctly, it can be a win-win situation for both the candidate and the firm. Good luck to everyone involved in that complex and fascinating process.

(Flip to the next page for descriptions of the three panels I attended, including the names and affiliations of the presenters.)


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