The next lateral partner or group placement I work on in which portables are not a factor will be the first. Granted, lesser weight may be placed on that variable in some circumstances, such as when a firm: is recruiting a more junior partner whose book is just taking shape; brings in a partner to fill an unexpected need for a major, long-term matter; has longed to add a partner from a specific firm and hopes to use this recruitment as a springboard for other recruitments; is recruiting someone in a highly technical or niche practice area in which it has significant work; or needs to bring in a "name," regardless of business, which could help it in any number of ways.
However, in most cases, numbers matter. This has only been exacerbated by the recession, as the need to minimize hiring mistakes has dramatically risen. In some situations, projecting what work will follow is not too difficult. Partners with repetitive work, especially for long-standing clients, should be able to provide highly reliable estimates. Litigators with serial cases (personal injury defense and products work come to mind) and transactional lawyers who handle recurring matters (such as closings or financings) are two good examples.
In most other recruitments, the potential move is fraught with much more angst as to whether clients will follow. In lieu of creating some algorithm for projecting portables, which I believe would have little real value, this article will discuss some of the important underlying factors that, if carefully evaluated, should be more telling.
First, special attention should be paid to the prospective partner’s law firm that goes well beyond its readily available demographic data. For instance, is the firm one that has succeeded at institutionalizing its client base? If so, how many other partners do work for the key clients that the prospective partner projects bringing with him? Answers to questions like these will not often be found in a partner’s business plan; rather, they need to be asked during due diligence.
Institutionalization of clients is a goal that every firm aspires to but few achieve. If the prospective partner is in a firm that has seen a fair amount of lateral movement (in and out), this may be a telltale sign that client relationships may be much more lawyer-dependent. This would not be surprising, as most in-house lawyers tend to hire lawyers and not law firms, especially in this free agent world. So, if this is the environment in which the partner practices, the odds of his most significant clients following just increased.
Second, much like a mutual fund company’s standard disclaimer — "past performance is no guarantee of future returns" — a partner’s track record does not necessarily ensure a repeat performance in the future. Nevertheless, history does matter and is frequently one of the best indicators as to how a partner will perform, particularly if someone has been a partner for more than 10-15 years. Such a length of time provides an ample period to better assess how one has bounced back from an off year and whether a partner’s practice is still on the rise (or at least holding steady) and is not on the descent. If the partner moved before, it would be instructive to assess (if the data are available) how his originations fared in the first two years after joining his new firm.
There is an "X" factor in play for major rainmakers, namely, their career-long ability to unearth the next big case or deal, which almost magically appears when their big matters wind down. In many situations, the rainmaker could not have told you from where or when that big matter was coming, but they knew it would surface. This makes many people in the lateral’s prospective firm nervous, as this phenomenon is a bit more mystical and not rooted in certitude.
My challenge for them is to look at the biggest producers in their firm and assess whether there are similar partners in their firm who have similar track records. I can almost guarantee that there are, as this is a pattern that cuts across all sizes and types of firms. As such, if the prospective lateral has a long enough record, and your platform is one that will enable him to thrive, why shouldn’t that be an excellent predictor of continued success?
Third, even though a group move can entail more risk and short-term cost, it has many advantages (such as more efficiently utilizing firm resources in integrating lawyers). One that is often overlooked is that it also normally raises the odds that the lead partner’s work will follow. Someone who has a significant practice will leverage it, and, if he’s savvy, will get those other lawyers tied in with his clients. As those clients become reliant on the other lawyers over time, the clients may not follow the lead partner en masse if some of the more junior lawyers stay behind. If the lead partner can bring the group, the clients are much more likely to follow. If that type of integration has occurred, it also bodes quite well for the future, as it is a terrific sign that the lead partner engages in the type of team-first behavior that firms desire.
Fourth, all firms will examine a prospective partner’s client list carefully. Conflicts will be checked and assessments will be made as to what type of synergies may come into play with existing clients or relationships. I am somewhat mystified that more firms do not dig much deeper to inquire about the nature of the client relationships. For example, just how strong are the client ties? How long have they existed? How widespread are the lateral’s contacts in the client organization?
All of these questions obviously cut both ways. Strong, deep and wide-ranging relationships militate heavily toward the work not only following, but remaining in place for many years. Conversely, a relatively recent relationship with one person, while not debilitating, certainly should trigger some deeper due diligence and caution.
Fifth, a firm should carve out some time to discuss what techniques the partner employs to develop business. In many cases, especially with more established partners, this step is skipped, as more attention in the hiring process is paid to one’s existing practice. I think this is a key step, because some of the traditional methods (speaking, writing and networking) dovetail nicely in assessing portability.
Partners who devote the time to "spreading the word" after the move often reap significant dividends. Many partners I have placed, who sent out their announcements, and followed up with contacts, brought in new business that they otherwise may never have received. In many cases, this was triggered by reconnecting with contacts who had slipped off their radar over the years. After those networks were re-established, it put new pathways into place that resulted in new matters coming in.
Finally, a simple, but critical question to ask is: "How confident and excited is the partner about making this move?" Although any potential change triggers trepidation and caution, it is important that the lateral emotes confidence about what lies ahead. The lateral’s clients are surely going to sense his feelings when that important conversation takes place about the client’s decision on where its work will be going. Similarly, your firm’s own lawyers and clients will also gauge the lateral’s temperament.
Someone who projects incertitude or is not upbeat about the change is less likely to be embraced quickly within the new firm. Firm clients who also sense that vibe may also stay at arm’s length, which can hurt the flow of new matters to the lateral.
The early stages of lateral recruiting are akin to dating, and an eventual match is analogous to a marriage once the lawyer comes on board. If someone isn’t happy and enthused at the outset of this new relationship — when everyone is on their best behavior and excitement is normally at its peak — just how likely is it that things will improve as time goes on and challenges follow? •
Frank M. D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.