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In a recent meeting with a large law firm client that we’ve been helping with partner searches for many years, one of the lead partners commented, “If we spent one-tenth of the time and money on lateral hiring of partners as we do in recruiting new associates from law schools, we would be much more successful in our efforts to bring in name partners.” Similarly, firms are spending an increasing amount of money on marketing and business development. But maybe these firms are giving their attention to the wrong efforts. While business development efforts are expensive and are often hard to measure, lateral recruiting efforts can be much more effective. Elaine Rinaldi, director of strategic expansion at Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, points out that although it’s important to approach growth from both client-focused business development efforts and lateral hiring initiatives, recruiting is often a preferred route. “In general, business is generated through a strong relationship with the client,” she says, adding, “Lateral recruiting allows you to more readily gain access to someone who already has such a relationship.” But so far, firms are not dedicating anywhere near the resources to the lateral hiring of partners that they do to building their business development. This is surprising, as surveys show that law firm leaders consider hiring talent at the partner level to be one of their biggest priorities. Despite the fact that the number of partners moving from firm to firm continues to increase, very few firms we talk to are happy with their results. Part of this is due to a major structural problem. Firms generally try to tackle partner recruiting by assigning full-time practicing partners to lead recruiting efforts. Usually, this is done on an office-by-office basis, whereby the managing partner of the office, or an assigned lateral hiring partner, is responsible for partner recruiting. Although these partners are often supported by recruiting staff, what inevitably happens is that the partners get busy on client matters (which always come first), and things fall through the cracks. By the time the partner comes up for air, the lateral candidate is gone. ONE SOLUTION A number of firms are beginning to address this by hiring chief legal recruiting officers. According to The National Law Journal, “firms are creating new top posts and filling them with people who may or may not have a legal background, bringing on for the first time, �chiefs’ charged with overseeing attorney hiring and employment matters.” Although that article primarily focused on hiring from law schools and initiatives to improve retention rates, some firms have begun to focus much more on the partner side. A number of firms have selected an existing partner to devote either most or all of his time to lateral partner recruiting efforts, and others have hired a former partner or associate at a top-level position with a clear mandate to concentrate on the partner-level recruiting efforts. Among those examples are: •�Kara Baysinger, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, who has been the point person behind the firm’s successful lateral hiring efforts in recent years. According to The American Lawyer, Baysinger, who had built a successful insurance regulatory practice, now spends a majority of her time as the firm’s lateral acquisition partner. •�Elaine Rinaldi, the partner at Cozen O’Connor who serves as the firm’s director of strategic expansion. Rinaldi, who is still a member of the subrogation and recovery department in the firm’s Philadelphia office, devotes much of her time to lateral partner and group recruiting activities. •�Marijane Benner Browne, who last year was hired by Goodwin Procter as the firm’s first director of lateral partner hiring and integration. Browne previously was a partner at Bingham McCutchen in Boston, and she had served as that firm’s national hiring partner. •�Diana Iketani, who earlier this year was hired by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips as the firm’s first chief legal recruiting officer. Iketani was previously a senior associate at Manatt (and was a lateral addition herself). FIRSTHAND KNOWLEDGE These professionals bring several things to the table that solve problems in the lateral hiring process. First, lateral hiring is their top priority, so the crush of client work never gets in the way. Second, having been an associate or partner in a law firm, they have a firsthand knowledge of many of the issues that come up in lateral hiring efforts, such as conflicts, particular nuances about certain practice areas, and the difficulties in measuring portable business. Finally, they often have credibility with the management of the firm, so, at the very best, they can force firm leadership to address certain issues. Of course, recruiting directors who haven’t been practicing lawyers can be effective as well; many are so good that they can quickly establish the credibility needed to get things done. It’s just that convincing the lawyers that a nonlawyer can operate at a peer level is another hurdle that has to be cleared. Iketani says that Manatt decided last year to create the chief legal recruiting officer position because “it had decided that it needed to increase responsiveness in the recruiting process.” Quickly, she says, “the firm came to the realization that somebody from the inside would do a better job.” Iketani, who had served on the firm’s associate representative committee, was in the process of evaluating her own career and realized that taking on the position might enable her to shift her career path, but to stay in an environment that she really enjoyed. “Manatt is a place with a very special culture and a family-type atmosphere,” she says, adding that the firm has a commitment to pro bono activities, community involvement, collegiality, and diversity that is distinct from other firms. “I think it was important to them to hire someone in this role who really understood that culture.” Moreover, she says, “having worked there as an attorney, I built up a degree of credibility and trust within the firm. They realized that I also understood the legal issues that impact the hiring decisions better than some nonlawyers would.” As chief legal recruiting officer, Iketani has responsibility over not just lateral partner recruiting but also the summer associate program and lateral associate hiring. Although she says that the priorities often change during certain times of the year, she estimates that she has spent about 70 percent of her time so far on lateral partner hiring and integration issues. Browne of Goodwin Procter took a somewhat different route to her current position. Browne was an associate and then a partner at Bingham, where she specialized in bank finance, for many years. Interestingly, as hiring partner, her responsibilities included everything but lateral partner hiring; she was in charge of the summer associate program, lateral associate hiring, and, later on, professional development. Gradually, her recruiting and training duties took more and more of her time, to the point that eventually she spent little time on her practice. When the Goodwin Procter opportunity surfaced last year, one of the attractions was the commitment that the firm was making to lateral recruitment and integration efforts. “Goodwin realized that this was an important priority, and that they needed someone to devote 100 percent of their time to it.” And the fact that the position was in an area she hadn’t really concentrated on made it even more attractive. The biggest challenge in the job, she says, is evaluating whether candidates will fit in culturally with the firm. “We are looking for synergistic fits from both a practice perspective and a cultural perspective,” she says, noting that having been both a partner and an associate at a large firm helps her understand which personalities fit and which don’t. As lateral partner hiring becomes an even more important element in an increasingly competitive legal landscape, the hiring of lawyers with experience at big firms is likely to increase sharply, although statistics on this are not available. the National Association for Law Placement reports the number of directors and managers of recruiting having J.D.s rose from 14 percent to 17.6 percent from 2004 to 2006. Gone are the days when firms could merely call up their headhunters of choice and tell them about their needs and why partners with big books of business should come there. Instead, an effective lateral hiring program involves a number of things that firms can do proactively, such as: •�Using competitive intelligence to help select and evaluate prospects. As a result of the information explosion, there is much more data than ever before concerning both individual lawyers and practice groups. Tools are available to determine such things as other attorneys representing a set of clients, the volume of work handled by a specific practice group in a specific practice area, and background data on particular attorneys, such as their job history, the times they are mentioned in the press, and their performance in particular cases. •�Helping the firm’s existing personnel to become more effective at recruiting lateral partner candidates. Just as in business development, lawyers and other personnel often need guidance on the best methods for approaching potential prospects whom they may know. Firms need to have an experienced hand guiding recruiting efforts so that they are effective. •�Developing and communicating the best story possible about why the firm is the best option for particular laterals. As a legal recruiter, I’ve attended too many meetings where the question, “Why would partners come to your firm?” is answered by vague references to the firm’s culture, or, even worse, by statements such as “We can pay them better.” It’s critical in today’s legal environment that lawyers can effectively communicate a story that will provide real details about how joining their particular firm will benefit a particular partner’s practice or work environment. Moreover, it is important that everyone who interviews a particular candidate is on the same page with regard to these issues. •�Integrating lateral hiring into a firm’s practice management program. Firms have increasingly gone to practice group management, so that each practice group is responsible for its own financial performance. But, as indicated earlier, firms generally handle lateral hiring on an office-by-office basis. Firms should set up mechanisms so that practice group leaders are intimately involved in recruiting efforts that cross geographical lines. All of these issues require understanding as to how an individual firm operates and an ability to garner the appropriate resources within a firm. Having someone with law practice experience can help in the war for talent in an increasingly competitive legal environment.
Steve Nelson is managing principal for the law and government affairs practice of the McCormick Group, an Arlington, Va.-based executive search firm.

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