(Philip Anderson)

Our knowledge of lateral partners keeps growing. We know that record numbers move each year, in, among and out of The Am Law 100 and 200. We know there is now a debate about their strategic value—what’s all this effort worth? And now, thanks to the latest survey of these portable lawyers from Major, Lindsey & Africa, the legal recruiting firm, and ALM Legal Intelligence, we know that most are very satisfied (52 percent) or somewhat satisfied (31 percent) with their moves, and that most (80 percent) would join the same firms if they had to do it all over again.

We also know that some of them, to use the cliché, had fools for clients. Only 36.6 percent reported reviewing their new firm’s financial statements. And, even more surprising, a jaw-dropping 40 percent admitted that they didn’t read the partnership agree ment of the law firm they were joining. Either that, or they didn’t read the survey question.

We asked open-ended questions about what they learned and what they might change in the process. Their anonymous answers showed a group with some lingering negotiators’ remorse—if only they had pushed harder for a longer guarantee or a better status—balanced against a fair if humbling sense that no matter how hard they might have tried, they would still have faced surprises at their new firms. Taken together, the 1,174 responses provide a valuable guide to lawyers considering a move of their own. Some themes:

Build integration plans. Lateral after lateral said that nothing was more important than having a plan to help them become part of their new firm. They wanted specifics on matters ranging from cross-selling their practices to announcing their arrivals, from conflict checks to learning a new computer system. “The key is integration,” wrote one. “It’s not good enough to rely on the new firm to do it. New partners need to be very proactive. Force the issue.”

Stay skeptical. Repeatedly, laterals advised diligence even at the risk of annoying a potential partner. Essentially they advised following the Reagan Rule: Trust but verify. Ask for what matters to you: client lists, marketing budgets, compensation grids, bonus pools, strategic plans. What would you have done differently? “Not trusted their president,” said one. Wrote another: “Verify the statements made to me … about the firm’s management structure, compensation decisions and succession plans.”

Negotiate now, not later. Simple, said one: “This is your best chance.”

Get it all in writing. Managing partners leave. Practice group leaders forget. Both can get carried away during the chase. “Unless you get it in writing,” wrote one partner, “it’s gone with the wind.”

Keep talking. Typically firms introduce candidates to a circle of partners. Laterals advised breaking out of that group—find some lawyers who’d either recently left or joined the firm for private conversations. Better still is having longtime acquaintances inside the firm who can engage in candid discussions. Said one: “The best moves are made when you already have reliable sources within the firm.”

Promise with care. There was disagreement about whether a prospective lateral should “underpromise and outperform.” Some laterals recommended that strategy because it allowed them to shine at their new firms. Others regretted low-balling their practices because they spent a couple years making less than others who “puffed” their worth.

Appreciate the ironies. Many firms want laterals for the business they can bring. Yet once at their new firm, as one put it, they’ll be asked to “make those clients ‘clients of the firm.’ Given a partner’s experience, why should the partner do this?”

Know yourself. For some, it’s only business. “The lateral hiring should not be a courtship. A move is a business transaction, and the process should be designed to determine, insofar as is possible, whether that transaction will be successful.” For others, it’s very personal. What mattered the most was “the fit,” “comfort” or “gut reaction.” As always, there were lawyers who wanted every last dollar and others who said they were willing to trade “some money and status” for a “team”-oriented environment.

In the end, said one, it’s a micro, not a macro, decision: “At some point everyone needs to decide what they want professionally and personally.” Is it culture or cash? Either is OK. Self-deluding is not.

Press is ALM’s editor in chief.