“We come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”

— Sam Keen

Lateral partner recruiting is vital to all law firms today — even the holdouts, who may have eschewed such expansion in the past, have now jumped into the fray. This is understandable, since, if a firm wants to grow top line revenue, there are three ways to do it: 1) get more work from existing clients, 2) get new clients, and 3) add laterals who bring business with them. Much like sports teams that need to go outside of their own development systems to bring in free agents to stay competitive, law firms, too, need external additions of new revenue sources to drive revenue and profits.

In light of the importance of lateral partner recruiting, the costs and time associated with it, and the impact on firms when bad hires are made, most aspire to attract the “perfect lateral partner” who seemingly has unlimited upside and little or no downside risk. If one sets aside specific numbers, such as hourly rates, book minima, and performance metrics (as these vary for every firm), the “super lateral” that firms seek would likely be a lawyer who is a loyal and consummate team player, has a very large portfolio of portable business that will follow him, has never made a move before, is decisive and will actually leave his firm, and, after joining the firm, will never leave.

It may be hard to find anyone who would not agree that such a “super lateral” would be a terrific hire. The challenge is that such persons, to the extent that any truly exist, are extraordinarily rare. The reason why finding such persons is so difficult is that the ideal characteristics, discussed above, are inherently contradictory in this context, as they seemingly cut against each other in practice. An analysis follows.

A lateral with a big book is highly coveted — if he also is the consummate team player, he assumes “rock star” status. In reality, these two characteristics are most often diametrically opposed. Although some lawyers with huge practices are the beneficiaries of inheritance, the vast majority have built their books through considerable effort, and, most importantly, by taking significant risks. Unlike many of their peers, these lawyers are not afraid to put themselves in the spotlight, especially when it entails going after business, even though they often will fail.

This type of person, if we stick with the sports metaphors, wants the ball in the final minute and is thus a special breed. This often entails asking for more resources inside of a firm, cajoling and urging management to not be too conservative, and generally pushing the firm to adapt and move with client needs. This is at odds with the team player persona, who blindly accepts management directives, routinely takes a back seat to others, and quietly goes about his work.

Consequently, when the lateral with the big book appears, he often is a very confident lawyer, who, lo and behold, may have a healthy ego and may not be the quintessential team player. As long as the confidence doesn’t cross over to arrogance, this may still be an attractive lateral. One way of determining fit is to closely examine his key supporting cast (if you can) during due diligence. Big hitters can only amass sizable practices by developing a team — your challenge is to assess whether they respect their leader, work well together, and embody the overall characteristics of your firm. If the team is solid, it is a reliable indicator that its leader is, too.

Desperately seeking the lateral who has never, or even rarely, moved is increasingly becoming an almost unattainable goal today. Part of this is driven by the mobile society that we live and work in today — the IBM paradigm of working for one company throughout a career is as rare as congressional support across party lines. Bureau of Labor statistics reveal that workers today, including professionals, change jobs every 4.5 years. Skeptics who may think that the legal profession is different would be sorely disappointed. Recent reports have suggested that almost 10 percent of associates leave their law firm at the end of their first year, while more than 40 percent depart by their fifth year.

The foregoing statistics did not crop up overnight and surely encompass many young to midlevel partner candidates. A close review of the bios of many senior level partners in firms shows that many of them have also made a move or two in their career.

Wanderlust is often not the driving force for change among partners. Conflicts, a need for a different platform for their clients, changes (or lack thereof) in their firms, weariness in dealing with resentment or similar feelings from less successful partners in their firms (or frustration with more senior lawyers who do not recognize their accomplishments), a yearning for the cathartic effect that change can trigger, and compensation inequities may be legitimate and compelling reasons for those moves. As such, one should not reflexively look askance at the lateral today who has moved several times; rather, probe for the reasons behind those moves before reaching a firm conclusion.

Loyalty seemingly goes hand in hand with the number of moves, and, to some extent, that may be true. When someone is tied to an organization, it really does make it more difficult for him to leave and that is an admirable trait. But, today, loyalty is no longer a one way street, as the security of yesteryear, in which a firm could essentially guarantee a position for life for accomplished partners, is gone. Firms are under unrelenting pressure to perform at high levels, and as we have seen, with the rather alarming dissolution of a few venerable firms in recent years, things can unwind quickly. Consequently, partners are increasingly being jettisoned, even if this often is done quietly to escape media attention.

Loyalty has thus become a more complex issue today. While it is still important and valued to be true to your firm, this has to be balanced against allegiances to clients, the team of lawyers one has built, a lawyer’s family, and himself. For example, retaining and attracting new clients is a partner’s ultimate protection, as this ensures that the other members of the team will be secure, keeps the draws and bonuses coming, which is of major significance to the lawyer’s family, and ultimately safeguards the lawyer if the firm fails.

Firms understandably want to recruit partners who, at the end game, will be decisive enough to actually make a move. As the stakes are so high, lateral partner recruitment is often a long and emotionally exhausting process for all involved. Assuming it is demonstrated that the move makes sense, and the deal that is offered is fair, it can be crushing to all involved when the partner does not have the temerity to pull the trigger.

Once again, competing characteristics are in play here. Expecting decisive action, if the candidate has never made a move before, is often unrealistic. Inertia keeps many professionals in place long after they realize that a change needs to be made; law firms are likely at the upper end of the spectrum, as the torpor that grips lawyers is frequently immobilizing. One of the best ways to assess how decisive someone will be is to track the progress of the recruitment in its initial stages. If the candidate postpones meetings or otherwise slows the process early, it is often a telltale sign of what may happen later if the recruitment should somehow get there, as things rarely accelerate as the process moves forward.

One of the great uncertainties in lateral partner recruitment is the eternal question of just how much of a partner’s book will follow. Although some partners outperform their projections, nothing is guaranteed here, frequently for reasons that are outside of everyone’s control. As such, if a firm had greater assurance that a partner’s business would follow him, it just may be the holy grail.

Past may be prologue, here, and it should be examined during due diligence. Inquiries as to how much of a partner’s book followed him in prior moves, and the rationale for why the business did (or did not) move, can be predictive. The rub, once again, is that there is no such history that can be examined with the “perfect lateral” who has never made a move before.

Finally, all firms hope that the star lateral they are recruiting will find a permanent home with them (and will never move again). Irony is interlaced here, as firms are trying to forecast how likely it is that someone will ultimately stay with them, and are doing so at the very same time that they are working to pull someone away from his current firm.

It behooves firms to probe here and listen carefully when the reasons for leaving prior positions are given. Do they make sense? Special attention should be paid, of course, to the rationale that is driving a potential move now. It is important that your firm really does have systems in place or provides the platform that addresses those shortcomings. If it doesn’t, it may be likely that the candidate could move again when those same inadequacies are eventually revealed.

As with other factors discussed above, retention also runs both ways. While firms are probing how likely someone is to make a long-term commitment, candidates similarly are inquiring about a firm’s track record in supporting their new lawyers beyond the honeymoon period. Integration, which is the key tool in minimizing subsequent departures, also requires a willingness by the new lawyer to get involved and a firm’s efforts to make him, and his team, part of its fabric. •

Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts (www.attycareers.com), a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. 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 fdamore@attycareers.com.