Getting an Edge in the Game

She called me and gave me the bad news after the interview, saying she lost interest in joining my client, telling me it was because the firm was not serious about growing the office. I was surprised when I heard this because the firm’s managing partner told me this search was a priority. I asked her why she felt that way and she said that one of the two partners in the meeting kept checking his blackberry during the interview. She ended up joining another firm.

Two weeks later, this same law firm interviewed another lateral partner candidate I submitted. I asked him how the meeting went, and the first thing he told me was that one of the two partners in the meeting kept checking his blackberry during the interview. Two months later, he joined another firm.

If hiring successful lateral partners with loyal clients is a priority to your firm, then everyone involved must appear to make it so. At the partner level, the deals are fragile and are lost from these little things such as a misunderstood comment, a misinterpreted tone of voice, or a minor sign of unintended disrespect such as a quick glance at the email during the interview. These ‘tells’ influence perceptions and ultimately decisions. I doubt the partner checking his email would have done that on a meeting with a prospective client to get work.

A critical suggestion I have made to firms on this subject is to make lateral partner recruiting a priority on the same level as client development. If you want to grow your firm, you have two options: get new clients, or recruit those who already have them. You need to discuss this with your partners and let everyone see how adding productive partners with loyal clients in strategic areas will help everyone grow their own work over time. You need to discuss how lateral recruiting, when done with a clear strategy and in a smart way, adds synergistic and symbiotic value on multiple levels. This has to be part of your firm’s story.

Lateral partner recruiting IS client development.

From my personal experience of watching hundreds of candidates fall off of my magical recruiting circus bus over the years, here are three tactical suggestions to get an edge in the lateral game and keep your potential lateral placements moving forward:

1. Serve the good wine first.

Consider who will best represent your firm and have them start the process of meeting the prospective laterals. Once a good impression has been made, then bring in the others who might be the next choice in the process. Get the rainmakers and leaders involved early in the process because usually they have mastered the skill of developing authentic and meaningful relationships. I have several clients who are adept at bringing in the big guns first. A visible display of the commitment to the candidate by law firm leadership is a positive “tell” that says to the prospective lateral, “This practice group is a priority. Growing it is a priority. You are a priority. And if you join our firm, you will be a big deal to us.”

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who observed what motivates people at work, developed the most widely adopted perspective on human needs in the 1960’s. One of these five fundamental human needs is recognition: we all have a need to feel recognized and important.

This is a leadership issue. Some firms do not have effective leaders in place that know how to orchestrate and articulate these issues, and some feel that positive leadership is beneath them and that their old and tired brand should be enough in itself to draw people to them.

2. Practice before the game, not in the middle of it.

Make sure that those partners engaging the candidate during the first interview understand the potential contribution he or she can make, and how the firm and the new partner together can derive a mutual satisfaction of needs.

Prep those involved partners about the candidate’s motives and clarify your firm’s “hiring value proposition” as it relates to this specific lateral prospect. I have created a significant advantage with my clients when I facilitate a conference call with the leaders and involved partners before a meeting. That way we are all on the same page and everyone knows what questions to ask, what hot buttons to press, and how to move things forward.

3. Accept the fact that this takes time. A LOT of time.

You may get resistance from the partners to spend time on the above exercise. I know that everyone is busy with competing agendas, but this is an issue of leadership and priorities.

There must be someone involved in the process that has enough political capital in the organization to steer all the partners in the same direction. Partner recruiting, at least when it comes to the face of the firm, must not be delegated to staff, even if they are highly motivated and competent. There must be a peer-to-peer facet of the relationship between your firm and prospective laterals at all times.

If your entire lateral recruiting process is nothing more than a flurry of emails between everyone, then you are losing an edge because you are not sharing information in an effective and creative way that can provide key solutions to bringing that lateral over. When you are emailing, you don’t think of asking a certain question the way you would in a phone call, and that one small piece of information could possibly be the single greatest resource in getting that candidate to consider joining your team. Communication during this process should be a continuous brainstorming exercise, not one-way information dumps.

You need to spend time on this, and recruiting lateral candidates needs to be as great of a priority to your firm as acquiring new clients. If you make it a priority and follow these steps, you will get an edge over your competitors in the game for winning talent.

Copyright © 2013 Scott Love

Scott Love grows law firms and accelerates attorney careers by facilitating law firm mergers and conducting partner-level recruiting for law firms. He has been a career ‘headhunter’ since 1995 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.