Lateral recruiting at the partner level is a complex process: from the initial contact with a prospective firm, through the exchange of information on clients and finances, interviews with other partners, and formulation of an offer, can take anywhere from a month to over a year. At the core of the process are actual meetings with one’s prospective colleagues at other firms—i.e., the lateral partner interviews. To help partner-level lateral candidates prepare for interviews with their hoped-for future colleagues, here are some key pointers that I have developed during more than a decade as a partner-level legal recruiter.
If you are a partner considering switching as a lateral to another law firm—or if you are already in the process of doing so—you should always keep in mind the ultimate goal: to receive an offer. Helping your interviewers understand the following aspects of yourself and your practice will make it easier for them to extend an offer to you. You may want to make a mental checklist to be certain to address each of these top 5 issues:
- Yourself. What are some of the personal traits that make you a good advocate? (You might mention your meticulousness, thoroughness, strategic thinking, and understanding of people’s motivations and interests, etc.). What makes you a good team player? (Give examples of your personal concern for colleagues—including associates and staff). If appropriate in the context of an interview, mention some of the more notable cases or matters you have handled, and how they have shaped your professional development as a lawyer.
- Your practice. If the size of your book, billing rate, and typical annual billings are impressive, it is beneficial to reiterate such information during interviews. Likewise, mention any of the more important (or impressive) clients on your roster, explaining what you do for them as well as the strength of your relationships with their key decision makers—i.e., the people who actually decide on which firms to hire as outside counsel. Your interviewers will likely already know a fair bit about the type of legal work you do, as this is usually available from the biography on your current firm’s website and from a quick Internet search. Just in case you are interviewed by someone who is not as thoroughly prepared as they should be—an annoyingly common occurrence, to judge from my candidates’ feedback—I recommend having a thumbnail overview of your expertise ready at the tip of your tongue. (At the very least, this will spare your interviewer some embarrassment, while giving you a chance to toot your own horn). Finally, describing your practice furnishes a good occasion to explain how likely it is that your most important clients will follow you to a new firm. Being able to articulate all of these things will assist interviewers to understand what you do, for whom you do it, and how you would build on that practice at a different firm.
- Your business development process. This point is probably the most important, and most neglected, topic of discussion at interviews. After all, in most cases, a lateral partner candidate is being assessed primarily on his or her ability to contribute to firm profitability—of which business development acumen (i.e., new revenue generation) is a principal driver. Accordingly, a key question firms ask is: “How do you source new business?” A compelling answer to this question could push an otherwise marginal candidacy into positive territory; a flabby response could doom it. Compelling answers illuminate the following issues for your interviewers:
- Strategy: Describe, at a high level, your business development strategy. That is, describe how you think about approaching the overall potential market for your own personal legal services—and for your firm’s other legal services. For example, how do you divide the potential market into segments you can approach? Are there particular industries or types of organizations that are good candidates for becoming clients? Which types of lawyers and law firms do you consider to be your primary competitors and how, if at all, do you distinguish yourself from them when you pitch business?
- Replicability: Here are two compelling statements: “I have a thought-out process or method, and it consists of [fill in the blank]”; and “I could do this stuff over and over all day long with my eyes closed”
- Variety: “I develop business in a number of ways, including speaking, writing, making and receiving referrals, promoting my current firm, performing pro bono, and so on.” Be able to explain how several of your recent matters came through the door, selecting examples that demonstrate the use of various business development methods.
- Your leadership. Speak to how you have taken a leadership role in your firm or department. Areas where you might have demonstrated leadership include recruiting, associate development, firm administration, expense reduction, and syndicating best practices for business development. Highlight specific accomplishments: “As a member of the new associate recruiting committee, I reorganized our summer associate program” or “I initiated my firm’s transactional department newsletter, which is now distributed online to hundreds of actual and potential clients and has contributed to generating over $5 million in new business over the past year.”
- Thoughts on why the firm might be a good fit for you and your practice. Emphasize this point to demonstrate how you have already thought through the reasons why you could see yourself at the prospective firm. Focus, for example, on complementary practices, cross-selling opportunities, the firm’s reputation in specific areas, partners with whom you anticipate collaborating, geographic coverage, and other aspects of a firm that would make it a natural fit for you. Demonstrating your knowledge of the firm can help your interviewers envision you as their partner already, and get them thinking about what it would be like to have you as a colleague rather than as a competitor.
Note how each of these points is designed to move the discussion of a potential affiliation with the firm forward toward an actual offer. In particular, these 5 topics naturally lend themselves to positive thoughts about how beneficial it could be for a partner-level interviewee to join the firm. Overall, the idea is to get the parties thinking productively—figuratively sitting on the same side of the table in order to think through the possibilities together.
Lateral recruiting at the partner level, like lateral recruiting at the associate level, is a process with distinct phases, and the interview phase furnishes, in equal measure, an opportunity to shine and an opportunity to flop. As with most aspects of being a lawyer, there is no substitute for thorough preparation, so whether you are currently a candidate or just considering becoming a candidate, knowing what to say during interviews can only improve the chance of receiving an attractive offer.
These 5 talking points should be easy enough to keep in mind, but if you think you might have difficulty remembering them, make a written note and consult it briefly before each interview. If you are working with a recruiter, rehearse discussing these points before you interview, and make sure to give a download as soon as practical after you finish at each firm. A post-mortem on each set of interviews will help you prepare for the next round, either at the same prospective firm, or at the next one on your list.
As noted above, a poor performance during interviews can imperil an otherwise excellent candidacy. Here are 3 top pitfalls to avoid when interviewing:
- Saying the wrong things. Examples include asking about issues embarrassing to the firm—recent notable departures, malpractice claims and the like. Similarly, criticizing your current firm is strictly verboten: not only does it undercut your posture as someone who would be perfectly contented to stay where you are; it also raises questions about your discretion. After all, if you are willing to criticize your current firm and partners, your interviewers may well wonder whether you would be similarly inclined to criticize their firm if you were given the opportunity to join it. And of course, never be the one to raise the subject of compensation, which is a major red flag. If your interviewers bring up the issue, it is appropriate to discuss money in response to their questions, but the real time for that conversation is in the context of negotiating an actual offer—a conversation that is usually better done through a recruiter, whose participation will preserve your positive relationship with the firm even while he or she negotiates in a hard-nosed manner on your behalf.
- Failing to say the right things. Firms expect you to address issues that are critical for them to make an informed decision about your candidacy. Thus, if you neglect to mention cross-selling opportunities presented by your client base, the partners you are talking to may think that such opportunities are nonexistent or insignificant.
- Not being enthusiastic enough. There’s no need to gush over the possibility of joining a firm, but firms are made of people and people always like to know that they are wanted. It is important to convey a sense of enthusiasm about joining every firm you talk to; even if you do not ultimately accept the firm’s offer, it is far better to have that offer in hand. In other words, interviews are no time to demonstrate reticence; rather, they are an opportunity to show excitement about new professional possibilities.
Interviewing for a partner-level position is not the same as interviewing for an associate position. From the firm’s perspective the stakes are much higher, both in terms of dollars and in terms of disruption to client relations and firm administration if the lateral acquisition does not work out. Accordingly, interviews are a critical factor as firms weigh a prospective lateral partner’s candidacy. Keeping in mind the talking points presented in this brief article will make you a better-prepared candidate, and the better prepared the candidate is, the greater the likelihood of an attractive offer.