The Lateral Move

What is a “lateral move”? It’s the move a lawyer makes, either within their current company or to a new organization with similar title, pay and responsibility according to salary.com.

Lateral hiring is an effective way for law firms to increase or diversify business in targeted geographic or practice areas. It’s a trend that is expected to grow in the months ahead as firms continue to seek ways to generate new sources of income. Most of Robert Half’s South Florida lateral hiring is being done by midsize and boutique firms that have a critical need for experienced associates to help them expand high-demand practice groups. Most attorneys from law firms move at least once during their first three to six years of practice. Associates can leave a firm for several reasons: they are working long hours with high billables or on the other hand, don’t have enough work, they may not like the culture of the firm or are working with an abusive partner, they may want out of a niche practice area, or they want development and training opportunities/mentorship.

With so many mergers and consolidations happening in South Florida, partners are moving as firms are going through constant structural changes.

Value of Lateral Hiring

Lateral hiring can result in adding experienced lawyers who can begin offering immediate value to a firm upon employment. Additionally, a lateral hire’s book of business often follows him or her to the new firm, quickly adding to the organization’s revenue stream. According to Robert Half’s research, many legal organizations report that finding skilled legal professionals, especially those with specialized expertise, is challenging today. Targeting and recruiting lateral professionals is an effective way to more quickly expand the pool of candidates who may have the unique set of skills and the experience required for the open position.

Risks of Lateral Hiring

There’s always a possibility that a lateral hire will be lured by another firm down the road. But that said, there’s no guarantee that any hire won’t choose to resign at some point to pursue other employment opportunities. That’s why a lateral employment strategy requires a strong and formalized recruitment, hiring and on-boarding process. Maintaining effective retention policies and a comprehensive compensation program are also key priorities for law firms within today’s competitive hiring environment.

What About the Lawyers?

Firms are on board but what about the attorneys? The job market in Southern Florida shows the unemployment rate at 3.9 percent (the same as the national average), meaning there are more jobs than there are people to fill them according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The legal unemployment rate is even lower, at 1.3 percent.

A Robert Half Legal report also found more than one third (36 percent) of lawyers surveyed said they would be more enticed to make a lateral shift  to another firm if it came with a higher earnings potential. Work-life balance came in second as a top incentive to leave their current employer (29 percent).

With the incentives of more money and more of a work-life balance weighing on associates, here are some tips you can take to evaluate if a law firm will provide the incentives that matter the most:

  • Set realistic expectations: When a lateral move ends up not working out, it’s often because of unrealistic expectations or invalid assumptions—on the part of the transitioning lawyer or the hiring law firm or both.
  • Do research: Any lawyer considering a lateral position should thoroughly research the job expectations, skills and experience required, book of transferable business expected, and importantly, the firm itself, including its culture, size, locations, specialized practice areas, reputation, leadership profile and client base. Look on the websites for law firms you are interested in to see if they post information about compensation, work-life balance, professional development and other office policies. Talk with people in your network who may be familiar with the firm to learn more about the organization’s reputation regarding incentives and workplace issues that are important to you. And during job interviews, ask specific questions to gather additional knowledge to help you determine if the firm will meet your professional and personal expectations.
  • Identify why you’re making the change: Identify why you’re contemplating making a change—and assess if the potential new job and work environment will help you achieve the change you desire. Develop realistic expectations—and test if those expectations can be met.
  • Assess your long-term goals: When you receive a lateral offer, realistically consider if the new position will help you move forward to achieve your long-term career goals.
  • Prepare to answer questions: Be prepared to answer tough questions during the interview—for example: Have you ever had a challenging experience working for a boss (or when someone worked for you)? How did you handle it? Have you ever disagreed with a client? How did you handle it? How would your manager or co-workers describe you? Why should we hire you?
  • Understand the expectations: Most importantly, before you decide if you will accept a lateral offer, make sure you clearly understand all aspects of the job, the firm and its expectations, so you can make an informed decision.

When you’ve decided to take the next step, the key to a successful integration is to build relationships internally with the firm. Connect with new colleagues as soon as possible on a social, and professional level. Adapt to the culture, work on matters generated by members of the firm, and be willing to use the services of other team members.

Debra Frank Montero is regional vice president of Robert Half Legal, the premier provider of experienced project and full-time professionals for law firms and corporate legal departments in South Florida.