Anyone who works in the Big Law industry has probably heard the myth that lone lateral partner hires are a waste of law firms’ time and money. First, the legend goes, more than half of all laterals fail to meet their new firms’ expectations. Having promised more than they can deliver, these laterals predictably prove inept at adapting to, and integrating with, their new firms. As a result, close to four in ten lateral partners don’t stay at their new firms long enough to cover the cost of their hiring.
The above narrative has spun throughout the legal trade press and gained traction in consulting circles, but it’s overblown and fails to address the full scope of the issue. Bear in mind, the data supporting the claims that lateral partners yield lackluster returns has been lifted from surveys of the same firms that made the investments. Meanwhile, with the exception of a nudge for firms to improve their vetting on future lateral candidates, there’s been very little assessment of the hiring firms’ performance in deals that didn’t work out. “It appears that law firms are so adept at undertaking due diligence for their clients that they overlook doing it for themselves,” concluded a January 2018 report by Decipher Global that was picked up on law.com. “It’s the proverbial ‘shoemaker’s children’ story come to life.”
Firms that complete a more robust review of future prospects’ qualifications will unquestionably enhance their chances of recruiting laterals who stick. We recommend that they go a step further by expanding their integration efforts. Managing partners, practice group leaders and business development professionals can and should play an active role in helping laterals succeed. Jenner & Block has instituted a year-long transition program for incoming lateral partners that serves as an excellent example. By shepherding new partners through informal and formal meetings with firm leaders and other partners and administrators, the firm at once builds buy-in for the hire and at the same time builds a bridge between the recruit and prospective business relationships across the firm.
Our experience has taught us that successful relationships hinge on that kind of bridge-building, and great deals often begin with law firm leadership who understand and describe explicitly how a lateral will fit within the firm’s big-picture strategic goals. We’ve also seen firms benefit from outlining a concrete business plan in advance of the lateral partner coming on board.
In addition to mapping out how the firm intends to service the incoming partner’s clients, an ideal lateral hiring plan addresses the urgent need to get the incoming lawyer working on existing client matters as soon as possible. Every firm is understandably anxious for the lateral partner’s business to carry over instantly, but that’s rarely the reality. There’s a good chance the new partner’s business will start off slow, and existing partners should be prepared to supplement their workload. Unless existing partners share work, and unless they bring the lateral along on pitches and introduce them to clients across multiple practice areas, those partners will jeopardize the lateral’s success, and, by extension, their own.