Asked and Answered . . .

Lateral Career Moves and Legal Hiring

By Jonathan Chudler

For local firms considering lateral hiring or lawyers thinking about making a lateral career move, understanding a few key factors to ensure a successful transition is crucial. Jonathan Chudler is the Southfield recruiting manager at Robert Half Legal,  a prominent provider of experienced project and full-time professionals for law firms and corporate legal departments. In this role, he oversees the permanent placement side of Robert Half Legal in the Detroit area.

DLN: What is a lateral career move in the legal field? What are the most common factors that drive lawyers to consider making lateral career moves?

A lateral career move is essentially a horizontal transition into a role with a similar title and responsibilities, either within your current firm or company or to a new firm. While there are a handful of reasons for making this kind of jump, research by Robert Half Legal revealed that the most common factors cited by lawyers were earnings potential (36%) followed by work-life balance (29%).

Excellent compensation remains the highest priority for many legal professionals, so we recommend that employers benchmark and adjust salaries regularly. That said, nearly a third of lawyers would be willing to make a lateral move to gain more flexibility, and more companies in the Detroit area are emphasizing programs that help their staff better manage professional priorities and personal commitments. Work-life balance offerings have become more popular over the last few years as an effective retention tool in today’s tight hiring market where a majority of lawyers say finding skilled legal professionals is somewhat or very challenging. In fact, nearly six in 10 (58%) lawyers surveyed by our organization said flexible scheduling was the top policy offered by their firm to help them strengthen work-life balance.

DLN: Why are law firms increasing their lateral hiring efforts? Why is lateral hiring an effective strategy to increase law firm revenue?

Lateral hiring is an effective way for law firms to increase business or quickly expand into targeted geographic or practice areas. It’s a trend that is expected to grow in the months ahead as firms continue to seek ways to generate new sources of income. Strategic recruitment of lateral hires can result in adding experienced lawyers who can begin offering value to a firm as soon as they join.

Additionally, a lateral hire’s book of business often follows them to the new firm, quickly adding to the organization’s revenue stream. Targeting and recruiting lateral professionals is an effective way to expand the pool of candidates who have the unique skills and experience to benefit a firm immediately.

DLN: If firms are investing in hiring lateral associates, what are some key considerations when recruiting laterally and onboarding successfully? What can a new lawyer do to help speed up their integration at a firm?

Targeted recruiting and vetting efforts can significantly increase the likelihood that a lateral hire will fit into a firm’s culture and become a contributing and productive member of the legal team. Ensure you are prepared to offer a competitive salary and compensation package to lateral candidates. Ask critical and probing questions when interviewing lateral candidates to help determine if they will work well within your workplace and if they will contribute to the firm’s culture and growth. A few key questions to ask:

• What support do you need to help grow your practice that you’re not receiving from your current firm?

• How are you being innovative in your practice to separate yourself from the competition?

• Can you describe factors in your current firm’s culture and operational philosophy that work well – and where improvement is needed?

• What are the most effective ways you can integrate yourself into this firm?

• Why are you looking to make a move?

Once lateral hires have joined the firm, a comprehensive, well-defined orientation and integration plan is essential to help them hit the ground running during their first days on the job. During initial orientation, advise lateral hires of the firm’s policies and procedures, and introduce them to the firm’s partners, associates and support staff, professional development and marketing contacts. Personal relationships are an essential component of successful integration of lateral hires. Assign a mentor and/or peer advisor to new lawyers during their first weeks on the job to provide a reliable resource for questions, information about the firm and clients and a liaison for meeting others. Offer programs or assignments where the lateral hire can work with partners or senior-level associates to build relationships as well as learn about the firm and its culture.

For lawyers who are new to their organization, I recommend focusing on two essential goals: building relationships and delivering outstanding work, including exceeding expectations, paying attention to details and meeting deadlines. Take the initiative to introduce yourself to people in the office you haven’t yet met during the early weeks on the job. Develop relationships with people at all levels of the new firm, not only associates and partners but paralegals and other legal support staff as well. Take a genuine interest in colleagues and their work and focus on establishing value to colleagues as a trusted attorney and a productive, reliable and contributing member of the team.

DLN: Do you have advice for associates who may be considering a lateral position? And any tips to evaluate if a law firm will provide the incentives that matter to them the most?

Any lawyer considering a lateral position should thoroughly research the job expectations, skills and experience required, book of transferable business expected, and perhaps most importantly, the firm itself, including its culture, size, locations, specialized practice areas, reputation, leadership profile and client base. When a lateral move ends up not working out, it’s often because of unrealistic expectations or inaccurate assumptions – on the part of the lateral lawyer or the hiring law firm or both.

Identify why you’re contemplating making a change – and assess if the potential new job and work environment will help you achieve the change you desire. Develop realistic expectations – and test if those expectations can be met. When you receive a lateral offer, realistically consider if the new position will help you move forward to achieve your long-term career goals. And most importantly, before you decide if you will accept a lateral offer, make sure you clearly understand all aspects of the job, the firm and its expectations, so you can make an informed decision.