Law firms’ fortunes rise and fall with the quality of their partners. By “quality” I do not mean partners’ brilliance, charisma, or ability to win cases and close deals. Rather, I define quality as members of law firm hiring committees do: a partner’s ability to bring in business.
The fierce competition for high-quality, profit-generating legal talent has led to what some call the “Lateral Wars,” as firms seek to entice partners from other firms to switch. In these Lateral Wars, each candidate—or, rather, each candidate’s projected stream of fees—is a prize to be won, and each candidacy is a battle, often among several competing firms.
Law firm leaders often ask, “What can we do to win the battle for attractive laterals?” Here are several principles that I share with them:
Make recruiting a priority
Building the partnership bench should rank high on firm management’s agenda—on par with such other strategic HR issues as succession planning and compensation. Internal promotion of associates is one way to build the partnership; lateral recruiting is the other. Accordingly, senior management should devote substantial time, attention, and—as needed—resources to lateral recruiting efforts.
For example, senior management needs to be heavily involved in efforts to recruit partner-level talent. Whether by being available to interview and woo candidates, or by protecting blocks of hours for in-depth hiring discussions, law firm partners need to devote time and effort to adding partner-level colleagues. Often, this is not the case—as when partners push even some substantive conversations to their in-house recruiting staff, rather than taking the time to communicate with partner-level candidates or their recruiters directly. However, in my decade of experience as a partner-level legal recruiter, I have observed that the firms most successful at attracting partner-level talent are the ones that interpose the fewest barriers between candidates, outside recruiters, and current firm partners. Particularly where multiple firms compete for the same candidate, senior management must be available and responsive in answering that candidate’s queries and understanding his or her concerns. After all, a major motivation for candidates to explore their options in the first place is the often-stated complaint that their current firm has “too much bureaucracy.” Thus, the more direct access to partner-level firm representatives, the better.
Establish effective recruiting processes by measuring results
Virtually every major law firm has some partner-level recruiting process in place. But how effective or efficient are such processes? Most firms have no idea; they don’t measure results systematically. Employing a basic tracking system is best way to start gathering data on the effectiveness of a firm’s recruiting efforts:
- How many partner candidates does the firm see per year?
- How many of them receive offers?
- How much time typically elapses from initial contact to actual offer, and what can be done to compress that period?
- How much partner-level time is spent on recruiting each candidate?
- How many partners “touch” each candidate in some way during the process?
Answers to such questions should inform the development and refinement of partner-level recruiting processes.
Get the word out that your firm is amenable to seeing candidates
If your firm is amenable to seeing qualified partner-level candidates, then let the world know! Make sure that press releases, website communications, and in-person conversations with partners at other firms all support the message that good candidates are welcome.
I’m often surprised to find that some firms keep secret their willingness to see candidates; to do my job, I need the firms’ guidance on what sort of candidates to refer. This is not to suggest that firms telegraph to the entire market any “open” spots on their bench, or weaknesses in practice area coverage—in such cases, one can understand the desire to keep such information close to the vest. However, there are many ways a firm can raise its profile among prospective lateral partner candidates without revealing precisely what its problem practices or strategic growth plans may be.
Cooperate with recruiters
In the competitive market for lateral partners, law firms have one reliable ally: the legal recruiter. In the first place, recruiters often have long-standing relationships with candidates, and are in an excellent position to know whom to contact about specific firm needs. Law firms would almost never know, for example, whether a particular partner at a competing firm might be amenable to having a conversation; by contrast, it is a recruiter’s business to know such information.
During the recruiting process itself, recruiters also lend firms an invaluable hand. Whether by shepherding a candidacy through firm recruiting requirements, connecting a candidate with the right practice leaders quickly, serving as an intermediary during sensitive compensation discussions, or alerting firm representatives that a candidacy may be in jeopardy, recruiters are an additional set of eyes and ears trained constantly on the candidate. Firms that fail to take advantage of recruiters’ insights do a disservice to themselves and to the candidates they are considering. In other words: don’t hesitate to make us earn our fees.
The Lateral Wars show no sign of letting up any time soon, so firms are well-advised to prioritize partner-level recruiting, especially by senior firm partners, whose attention is often what lateral partners most need as they consider whether to switch. Measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of recruiting processes is one way to learn how best to recruit attractive partners, as firms assess what works and what doesn’t in optimizing their lateral recruiting efforts. Firms can attract increased interest by potential lateral partners when they get the word out that they are amenable to receiving inquiries. Finally, by working hand-in-glove with legal recruiters—their allies in the Lateral Wars—firms increase the probability of actually landing the choicest candidates and practices.