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Paths

How often do law firm partners end up with buyer’s remorse after jumping to a new firm?

As the number of moves continues to climb–reaching a post-financial crisis high of nearly 2,900 moves last year—the regrets seem to be piling up faster too. Recruiters and consultants say lawyers change their minds in about 1 in 20 lateral moves. That doesn’t include partners who arrive at a new firm only to second-guess their decision, and either suffer the consequences or plan yet another move.

In a few recent cases, partners failed to follow through with a move to a new firm even after the hires were announced. For instance:

• In March, White & Case said that it had hired Bracewell restructuring partner Robert Burns, but the announcement was later removed from the firm’s website and Burns stayed at Bracewell.

• Simpson Thacher & Bartlett announced early this year that it had hired partners Douglas McWilliams and Jeffery Malonson from Vinson & Elkins in Houston. But McWilliams changed his mind about a week later and stayed put, leaving Malonson in limbo. Malonson finally joined King & Spalding as a partner in its corporate group and in its energy practice earlier in July. (Malonson described his experience to The American Lawyer this week.)

• Paul Hastings announced in May that Bruno Soares and two other partners were leaving Allen & Overy to open a new office for Paul Hastings in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But Soares opted to stay behind.

In most cases, such cases stem from either emotional unpreparedness, failures of due diligence, or both, according to consultants, recruiters and attorneys.  Sometimes a client conflict went undetected. Sometimes the original firm comes back with a persuasive counteroffer.

“Even successful, confident, personable law firm partners get cold feet and are afraid of change, said recruiter Adam Weiss, principal of the Lateral Lawyer Group and author of a book on lateral hiring.

“Leaving a partnership is in many ways like leaving a marriage and not undertaken lightly,” Weiss added.

Like the end of a marriage, the reasons for leaving a firm are often complex—and not always easy to define. According to surveys, most lawyers cite a desire to find a different firm culture or a better platform for their practices, answers that have been consistent for more than 20 years.

“Money is typically fifth or sixth in consideration,” said Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of the law firm practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa in Washington, D.C.

A 2014 survey by Major Lindsey showed that surprisingly few lateral partner candidates look closely before they leap to another firm: Only 36.6 percent of lateral partner candidates reviewed their new firm’s financial statements, and just 40 percent met with the new firm’s chief financial officer.

Financial due diligence “remains shockingly inadequate,” the report concluded, making it more likely that potential conflicts go undiscovered until too late.

Lowe urged lateral candidates to really study the financials, talk with the new firm’s CEO and speak to others who recently moved to the new firm to find out if their promises were kept before agreeing to anything, and to be “as zealous an advocate for themselves as they are for the client.”

Weiss said partners sometimes join a new firm but are then disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of support, unsatisfying firm culture, or toxic office politics.

“As often as not it is the same reason they were unhappy at their prior firm and they find themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire,” Weiss said. Potential laterals should thoroughly investigate the culture of their new firm with the help of a recruiter, he advised, and the firms themselves can do more to integrate new hires to avoid defections.

Will Meyerhofer, a former big law associate turned psychotherapist and licensed social worker, said it is still unusual for lawyers to renege on an offer—and it is better avoided.

“To back out leaves a lot of dents and bruises,” Meyerhofer said. “The place you were going to is miffed and humiliated, and [so is] the place you were going to leave. A lot of people are going to need soothing.”

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