The secret to successful lateral moves

Connie Lahn, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Like it or not, lateral moves are a fact of big-law life. But that doesn't mean they always go well. Too often, when lawyers jump from one firm to another, the move ends in disappointment for everyone.

Close to 60 percent of AmLaw 200 lawyers have practiced with at least one other firm at some point in their careers, according to The American Lawyer's 2018 Laterals Report. ALM Intelligence revealed 2,895 total partner moves among firms in the AmLaw 200 between Sept. 30, 2016, and Oct. 1, 2017.

And while most firms make deliberate efforts to integrate laterals, their success has been limited.

AmLaw 200 firms surveyed in the report declared that 30 percent of lateral hires didn't last five years, though The American Lawyer notes this number might be a gentler look at the reality: their market analysis says that number should be closer to 38 percent. The report also pegs the national average of lateral hires who stay with their new firms for a full five years at 55 percent.


Before you make a lateral move

Deciding when it's the right time to make a lateral move is never easy to begin with - knowing there's at least a 30 percent chance it won't work out only makes it tougher. You probably understand that there's more to a firm change than just packing up your desk and ordering new business cards. But how do you know when a new firm will be the right fit? And how can you tell whether your potential employer will give you what you need to succeed there?

In my role as office managing partner, I've seen laterals succeed and I've seen them fail. We've worked hard to ensure we're giving laterals what they need to make it at Barnes & Thornburg, and we've had success - 85 percent of Barnes & Thornburg lateral partners who were hired from 2013 to the beginning of 2018 are still with the firm.

On our end, the biggest driver of that retention rate is the recruiting process; put simply, we really get to know our candidates before we hire them. Sure, lawyers may come to us with a huge book of business that fits perfectly with our existing client base, but will they be a good fit for our firm? Do we see them succeeding long term? These are the main drivers of our firm strategy and certainly what is necessary to remain competitive in the Minneapolis market. This road to success begins the first time we meet the candidate.

But the lawyers must do their due diligence as well. I realize that can be difficult, and of course it's impossible to be 100 percent certain that any new job will work out. Here are a few things lawyers can do to give themselves a higher chance of success.


The interview process

Laterals looking to make a move should try to glean as much as possible from interviews and the recruiting process. It may seem obvious, but it can't be overstated: Gather every bit of information you can about your prospective employer.

It is important to talk to lawyers at both the local office that is hiring and the firm's other offices. Meeting with different people across the firm can help both sides see if there will be a cultural fit. It can also give a lateral a look into what day-to-day life will be like at the firm. Laterals should also talk about potential client conflicts early in the process so that any potential issues can be addressed early.

Ask the right questions

One red flag a lawyer should look out for is when the firm says you'll be working in an office filled with other laterals. In those situations, you're likely to feel isolated and unlikely to get the support you need. You probably won't be included in pitches or have much hope of progressing into a leadership role. Is the firm committed to laterals across all their offices? It would also be important to find out what portion of partners in each of these offices are laterals.

I would also ask how often the firm has hired laterals before, what the onboarding process looks like and what the success rate has been. How many members of the firm's management committee or practice group managers are laterals? It can also be a useful exercise to talk to partners in the firm's biggest offices and get a sense about what their feeling is toward laterals who are at the firm.

At Barnes & Thornburg, we have a two-year onboarding process. During that time, the director of lateral integration and other members of the management committee receive monthly reports showing what business the lateral has been doing, what clients have come over, how many hours they are billing, etc. The reports help us see where we can provide new lawyers with assistance and they illuminate any struggles, including some the lateral might not be aware of.

"We try to engage with people the best way we can," says Jesse Reeves, Barnes & Thornburg's director of legal recruiting. "Their happiness and success at the beginning of their tenure with the firm will influence the trajectory of their career long term."


Careful listening

When you're considering a lateral move, you should pay attention to not only what people at the firm are saying, but how they are saying it. Try to detect whether partners and others are genuinely enthusiastic about present and future clients.

And while cultural questions may seem like extraneous fluff, you should always ask about what values are important to the firm, about pro bono work or what diversity looks like at the firm. Sometimes these can be the most important questions to ask.

Again, it is immensely helpful to ask all these questions to multiple people across the firm to see if their answers align. If you get conflicting answers, it could be a sign that the firm lacks a cohesive vision.


Lateral success long term

Once you decide to make the leap, you have to work as hard as the firm to ensure the transition works out. Laterals should try to meet people from all over the firm once they are hired. Travel around the country to different offices and even different practice areas to interact with a variety of lawyers and staff face-to-face. It is also important for laterals to immediately be clued into firm events and client pitches.

It is due in large part to these thoughtful processes that lateral strategies work. We can proudly say that at Barnes & Thornburg, 11 members of the management committee are laterals and eight of our office managing partners are laterals.

The bottom line is, when trying to make a move, be sure the firm is prepared for you to join, ready for you to become integrated, and positioned for you to succeed.


Connie Lahn is the managing partner of the Minneapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg LLC.

Published: Thu, Nov 08, 2018