Finding a lateral associate with the qualities and qualifications desired by the firm is only half of the battle. The other, and often equally daunting half, is helping the lateral transition into the firm. More specifically, the challenges in helping a lateral associate learn, adapt and embrace a new firm’s culture are plentiful. Every law firm has a culture or personality unique to it. The willingness and ability to adapt to a firm’s unique culture is part of what makes a successful lateral associate.
Undoubtedly, lateral attorneys join new firms with their own way of doing things, views on practice and beliefs on how a firm should and will operate. A lateral attorney’s perceptions are often based upon experiences at former firms — or a former firm’s culture. Despite the challenges in helping a lateral associate shed the remains of a former firm’s culture and adapt to the current firm’s culture, this must be a priority, as the benefits will prove plentiful.
A lateral associate who is able to successfully integrate into the firm’s culture is more likely to remain at the firm and be an asset in the long term. The benefits of that, of course, range from maintaining a sense of community at the firm to increased client perception. With this in mind, there are practical things that firms can do, both from a management and associate perspective, to assist a lateral attorney’s transition and help the lateral become a part of the firm’s culture.
It is fair to say that much of the onus in helping a lateral associate learn a firm’s culture rests on the shoulders of partners and management. It is this group of attorneys at a firm that is best equipped with the resources and opportunities necessary to teach a lateral associate about the firm’s culture and help make sure his or her transition is as seamless as possible.
To some extent, helping a lateral adapt to the firm’s culture begins before hire. The interview process provides the perfect opportunity to show an associate exactly what a firm is and what the culture at the firm really is. It is critical that all attorneys involved in the hiring and interviewing process are honest — giving lateral interviewees an accurate picture of the firm’s culture, what it is like to practice at the firm and what the firm values. Further, providing lateral candidates with marketing materials, including the firm’s vision statement and a list of organizations and groups the firm and attorneys are heavily involved in, gives lateral candidates a helpful sense of what the firm really is and what it is moving toward becoming.
Once an offer has been extended to a lateral candidate, it may prove helpful to connect the lateral with associates at the firm in hopes of fostering candid conversations regarding the culture at the firm. It is important to fully equip lateral candidates with as much information about the firm’s culture as possible, such that they are able to introspectively assess both whether the firm is a good fit for them and whether they are a good fit for the firm.
Once a lateral associate has joined a firm, it is important to clearly communicate the expectations for that lateral associate. Of course, the expectation that the lateral associate does stellar work goes without saying. Beyond that, though, there are other expectations that are equally important but not always articulated, often driven by the firm’s values and culture. Perhaps the firm expects associates to be active in a certain number of professional organizations, or to do pro bono work for a local charitable organization. Whatever the expectation is, the only way for a lateral to truly understand what is expected of them is for this information to be clearly communicated. The sooner this is communicated to the lateral, the sooner the lateral can begin to get a handle on the firm’s culture — and begin to achieve and exceed the expectations.
Another great way to help a lateral fit into the firm’s culture is to create beneficial partnerships for the lateral associate. A lateral will certainly benefit from the expertise and advice a more senior or home-grown associate can offer. For that reason, it may be helpful to pair a lateral associate with a more senior or home-grown associate for his or her first few assignments, so the lateral is able to learn the firm’s approach and way of handling cases. Similarly, involving a lateral associate with firm committees and special projects will not only give him or her more insight into the firm’s culture and operations, but will also foster a sense of team importance.
Lastly, at least in the first year or so of the lateral’s employment, it is important to provide to and receive from the lateral regular feedback. Given the challenges a lateral associate faces trying to discern and adapt to a new firm’s culture, the normal annual or bi-annual review simply may not be enough to ensure a seamless transition. There is a benefit to regularly checking in with a lateral associate, even if on a more informal basis. This gives partners and senior attorneys the opportunity to give feedback to lateral associates, not only on their performance, but also regarding their adaptation to the firm’s culture. Conversely, lateral associates are given the opportunity to discuss any challenges or concerns they have run into in trying to integrate into the firm. This feedback will not only prove useful in correcting any issues that have arisen thus far, but in preventing similar issues from arising when other laterals attempt to integrate into the firm’s culture.
While, in fairness, existing associates may not bear much formal responsibility in helping a lateral associate adapt to the firm’s culture, there are unquestionably ways in which associates can aid in the transition. Whether a home-grown associate or former lateral transplant themselves, associates can remember the challenges they faced joining the firm and attempting to navigate a culture with which they were once unfamiliar.
Perhaps the most impactful way an established associate can help a lateral adapt to the firm’s culture is by being accessible. Regardless of an attorney’s years of practice or breadth of experience, being new to a firm with a well-defined culture is a challenge. A simple invitation to grab a cup of coffee or lunch with a lateral associate during his or her first few months of transition will go a long way. Not only will this help forge a relationship between the associate and the lateral, but it will also provide the lateral with a comfortable environment to discuss any challenges or concerns with adapting to the firm’s culture or ask those lingering questions about best practices or ways to be more successful at the firm.
Like management, another important way an associate can help a lateral fit into the firm’s culture is by communicating the firm’s expectations. Of course, the firm’s expectations with respect to billables, pro bono hours, firm investment requirements and things of that nature are generally the responsibility of a supervisor or senior partner. There still remain certain expectations or requirements that are unwritten, yet equally important for a lateral associate to understand in trying to fit in to the firm’s culture and excel at the firm. If it is the firm’s practice that all associates participate in a certain sporting event or outing, this is something a lateral associate should know. Similarly, if there’s an optional charity benefit that is not actually optional at all, a heads up to the lateral associate is best. Communicating the firm’s unwritten expectations will help a lateral associate truly understand the firm’s culture and what it values. Equipped with a true understanding of the firm’s culture, a lateral’s transition into the firm will be much easier.
Finally, while it is certainly not the responsibility of a fellow associate to give a lateral associate feedback regarding his or her performance, a heads up when an associate sees the lateral dropping the ball — that is, failing to do something in conformity with the firm’s culture — is very valuable. Existing associates should think about the things they wish they would have known about the firm’s culture when starting out at the firm and make sure to communicate those things to a lateral associate joining the firm. •
V. Amanda Witts is an attorney at the Tucker Law Group and alumni of Hampton University and Georgetown University Law Center. She serves as an elected member of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia and practices in areas including employment law, commercial litigation and higher-education law.
Corey Osborn concentrates his practice on matters of employment discrimination, general commercial litigation and higher-education law. He is a graduate of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and currently serves as a mock trial coach at Overbrook High School.