Lateral Partner Hiring: The Right Fit

A January 2015 American Lawyer headline read: “2014 was a record year for hiring lateral partners.”  Acquiring partners, who can potentially expand a firm’s business, is a growth strategy in a marketplace with limited new revenues.

The experts in lateral partner placement say that the prime motivation for laterals to leave their current firm is not just money, but a search for the right cultural fit. Having hired hundreds of attorneys as head of recruiting at two major New York law firms, and having presented firm-specific interview training for attorneys at close to 60 law firms nation-wide, I can tell you that finding talent that fits and thrives in your culture is a real challenge. What can firms do to increase their chances of hiring the right lateral partners and helping them to succeed?

There are two best practices I have seen that increase the odds of achieving a great long-term cultural and business fit:

–  Audit your firm’s culture, so your partners can articulate the partnership’s values and what will be expected of a new lateral partner. Having done this kind of audit for many firms, I can tell you that all firms are not the same! Holding up a mirror and asking partners key questions to uncover their work values and how they do business is truly an enlightening experience, because it ensures that your partners can articulate these messages during the interview process in a coherent and consistent way.

–  Invest as much in integrating your lateral partners as you did in recruiting them. I know of one firm that has 40+ partners interview each lateral partner candidate before making an offer! That is a lot of partner billable time.  However, even if the hiring process is rigorous, firms often make the assumption that if a partner has passed their “cultural litmus test,” then they will automatically know how to practice at their firm. This is a mistake because every culture has unwritten rules that are only recognized and understood after one spends a significant amount of time immersed in it. If your firm has a dedicated professional whose role is to integrate a lateral partner, the chances of long-term retention and significant new business from this partner increase dramatically.  In the 18 years we have placed recruiting professionals (many who focus on hiring laterals), for the first time ever, we received a role that focused exclusively on lateral integration! I commend this firm for their foresight. Dedicating a full-time professional to help the new partner to navigate the firm’s culture over time (not just for 90 days), cross-sell their practice to other partners, and learn those unwritten rules (ideally by being assigned a seasoned and successful partner mentor) is a wise investment. This professional will be a liaison between business development, professional development, and the current and new partners. To perform the role well, this professional needs the time to focus on all the follow-up that is required to integrate the new partner and the backing of firm leadership.

Lateral Partner hiring is an expensive investment and it is here to stay.  Will we see lateral integration roles on the rise, too?  I hope so, but I am not sure that this kind of strategic and proactive mind-set is in the budget – yet.

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