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Attracting Lateral Partners: Differentiation

I wasn’t sure if I was going to bring them on as a client. They were a big law firm filled with smart attorneys, just like all the others in Washington. They had done well in their home state, but their DC office seemed to be floundering in its lateral growth and was even losing a few partners to competing firms. I knew they were looking for several partners who fit my sweet spot and that I might be able to help them, so I asked for a meeting with the managing partner and their director of recruiting.

After our initial introductions, they gave me a menu list of practice areas in which they wanted to grow. I was interested in learning more about how they perceived themselves in the marketplace in comparison to other competing law firms. I really wanted to know what they saw as the business case as to why a successful partner with loyal clients would want to move to their firm.

In getting to this point in my conversations with my clients, I always like to find out how a law firm leader perceives key differentiators. I said to them, “When I am recruiting partners and engaging them in conversations about opportunities with your firm, I need to tell them something that is unique, compelling, and different about your presence in the Washington market. What would you say is different about you compared to other firms?”

You would have thought that I asked for a moment of silence. They just looked at each other and after a few moments of an awkward void, one of them looked back at me and literally shrugged as if her body language was saying ‘I give up.’ She then said, “Well, honestly we are just like all the others. We’re just a big law firm like all the rest.” They didn’t even give me the blah blah ‘great culture’ blah blah ‘robust platform’ speech. How can I sell this unconvincing presentation of their firm to a prospective partner candidate with a sizable book of portable business?

Successful partners will look at a potential opportunity from four different perspectives:

– How will this serve my clients?
– How will this serve me?
– Does the risk of moving give me an edge, and does the upside greatly outweigh the dangers of a move?
– Can I get involved in making an impact to that firm, and will I enjoy practicing there?

When I make recruiting calls to candidates, I have to pretend that every time I present an opportunity to them, they are going to ask me two little words: “So what?” I have to be ready to answer that question, and this firm could not help me come up with good answers. I decided it would be risky to add them to my small family of clients, so we cordially ended our meeting with a handshake, a non-committal grunt of how nice it was to talk to each other, and a sense of knowing that we were not a good fit to work together.

The Most Important Question Your Firm Can Ask

During your next lateral recruiting committee meeting, ask your colleagues to participate in a brain-storming exercise. Ask them to come up with answers to this question:

What is different about our firm?

This is where marketing begins. Recruiting is more akin to marketing and sales than it is to practicing law, even for law firms. This is why those with great legal minds can struggle with lateral recruiting, because the partners involved in it will use everything that helped them become successful lawyers and apply it to recruiting with a sad result. This is about a sales and marketing mindset. You have to attract people to your firm by enhancing your brand equity and crystalizing an attractive and compelling truthful message (marketing). You must manage the conversations with your prospects in a way that attracts them to you and stimulates them to make decisions and take actions to move to your firm (sales).

When you go through this exercise of identifying differentiation, you cannot talk about culture, even though we all know culture is important. In this exercise, your answers must be specific and tangible. Use these questions for a drill-down that will give your firm talking points for your meetings with prospective laterals:

1. What aspects and attributes of our firm are different than other law firms? Which ones stand out more?

2. How does our firm better serve our clients than our competitors?

3. How can our firm better serve the self-interests of a lateral partner and impact him or her on a personal and emotional level? People are emotional animals. You should establish an emotional context to the dialogue of the success someone will experience in your firm. The first rule of recruiting is this: “People only do what is in their own best interests.” You have to speak to that rule and translate your message in a way that serves him or her personally.

Remember that wars are won in the planning room. Spend time on this before you start engaging prospective laterals in conversations, and you will be amazed at how easy it is to tell a compelling and attractive story with positive results.

Copyright © 2014 Scott Love

Scott Love grows law firms and accelerates attorney careers by conducting partner-level and group searches for law firms and facilitating law firm mergers. He has been a career ‘headhunter’ since 1995 and is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy. Scott lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, two children, and a toothless rescue dog named Smoky. He can be reached at 202-737-5555. To learn more, please visit www.attorneysearchgroup.com or email him at scott@attorneysearchgroup.com.