The trend of the affair

March 7, 2012

Will the latest recruitment trends help or hinder your lateral move?

Photo: Shutterstock

A second year of research from Motive Legal Consulting shows that firms are losing about a third of their lateral hire partners within five years.

But while the research may point to continuing problems with retention strategies in the legal profession, they also hint at broader changes in the recruitment landscape. But what are these changes? And what do they mean to potential movers, such as you?

1. Taking on teams

This year’s research includes an interesting new angle: the hiring of multi-partner teams. According to Motive’s managing director Mark Brandon, this is now the preference of many firms when it comes to lateral partner hiring.

And it makes sense. Team hires may come about through acquisition – a popular pastime among law firms in these days of market consolidation. But even without merger, the team hire is a popular way to quickly gain critical mass and win new clients in a particular practice area.

Statistics from Motive’s research also suggest that teams of lawyers are easier to retain,  at least in the short term. For example, 10% of partners hired as part of a team in 2010 had left by 2012, compared to 13.5% in the general sample.

However, there are dangers with the team approach. The most obvious is a cultural mismatch. With an individual, cultural differences might be just about manageable. But a whole team that has a particular way of working that doesn’t accord with the rest of your firm? That’s a legal horror flick in the making.

It may be no coincidence, for instance, that Motive’s research showed that after two years team-hire partners are slightly more likely to leave than other partners. The reality of the team hire may often not live up to the high expectations.

2. It’s all about the clients

Related to the team hire is the increased desire to recruit partners with benefits – that is, partners with clients in tow. Team hires may be more likely to bring clients with them, but individuals can still wield considerable power if they have an assured client following.

In recent years of economic uncertainty, legal recruiters have reported increasing numbers of firms expressing only an interest in recruiting partners who have a client following. Such a following can ensure that a lateral hire hits the ground running, which can at least offset or completely cover the considerable costs of recruitment.

There are, however, dangers here too, most notably a failure to clarify exactly what is meant by a client following – which can lead to early disappointment and a ‘failed’ hire.

Another problem revealed by Motive’s research is that many lateral hire partners will leave within five years. If they brought clients with them, then firms have to assume that they’ll also leave with them.

That is unless firms can institutionalise the clients – making them belong to the firm rather than the lawyer. This continues to be the aim of many firms today. If successful, though, those firms also have to accept that hiring partners with a built-in client base might not always be an option.

And what is the meaning of partnership, if future partners cannot ‘own’ their clients?

3. The alternative to partnership

The majority of firms still recruit within the confines of the traditional partnership model. This means considerable time and money is spent attracting partners who must then stick around if they are to offset the costs of their recruitment and integration.

But such a strategy may well be unsustainable.

For instance, the Motive research found that of the 2007 lateral hire partners polled, more than 50% have now left their firms. This may not be entirely surprising. With the impact of the credit crunch, many of the recruits for that year may have found themselves out of a job. But of those hired in the far more careful recruitment landscape of 2008, 37% have still left.

The fact is that just as law firms are lateral hiring a-plenty, so are partners wanting to move on to enjoy these burgeoning levels of opportunity.

In addition, where firms can’t offer job flexibility at partnership level, lawyers are choosing to ditch any ambition for partnership altogether.

For law firms this presents two considerations:

  • The long-term viability of the traditional partnership model. Does it really fit with a modern view of a successful career?
  • The alternatives. Some firms have introduced new roles as an alternative to partnership – for example, counsel. But if they are to continue to attract and keep future talent, this trend is only the beginning of what is needed, which is a radical overhaul of the traditional partnership model. Alternative business structures will likely lead on this.

Retention in a changing world

Conversations with legal HR teams confirm that talent retention strategies are a key priority for the year ahead. But law firms are unlikely to resolve their retention issues until they face the fundamental and long-term changes happening in the career landscape.

Short-term recruitment objectives (we need new clients) will at best only produce short-term results.

In the long term, it is the firms that are truly prepared to modernise – even at the expense of the partnership model – that will be most successful at maximising the potential of future talent, for however long it sticks around. CP

Share Our Posts

Share this post through social bookmarks.

Related Posts

Full team ahead

Your team’s defecting to a rival firm. What’s in it for you? More…

Movers: February 2013

Spinner knocked for six by OC, and other innings and outings


Movers: March 2012

Who’s been clearing their desk this month?



  • Guest

    A very interesting piece based on the research of the ever-impressive Mark Brandon.

    A huge part of what we do is advising on lateral moves, whether as individuals or teams. And it never ceases to amaze me how often firms fritter away their investment in those laterals by failing to ensure that they become properly integrated into the organisation and are consistently well treated after they arrive.

    In pretty much every other sector a significant acquisition such as this would be followed a programme of integration and change management to respond and embed the team in the business and yet in law firms there seems to be very little interest in this. There’s also very little interest it appears in personality-profiling the lateral(s) to ensure that they will be a good fit – though on a personal level I have some sympathy for resisting this and suspect it would be incredibly off-putting to most potential laterals even if it did mean a better long-term fit resulted for both firm and individual.

    Typical reasons for leaving mentioned to us by laterals over the last year or so include for example any one or more of the following:

    1. Platforms of work and opportunities for cross-referral promised by the firm for the incoming team not materialising – either they were overstated by the firm or other existing partners were not willing to introduce their clients to the newcomers (and possibly anyone else..);

    2. The firm, having acknowledged that it will take a certain period to transfer the lateral’s client base to the new firm, losing patience when results do not appear from the lateral in a very much shorter timescale; this in turn may occasionally lead to the firm trying to wriggle out of guaranteed profitshare for the lateral for the agreed fixed period.

    3. A change in firm or team management so that the sponsors of the lateral(s) are no longer in power, either because they have stepped down, or in a number of cases, themselves exited, leaving the lateral(s) feeling exposed and somewhat abandoned.

    4. Failure by laterals to undertake enough due diligence on the new firm and being consequently unpleasantly surprised on or after arrival by its finances, liabilities, partnership and management style, and often its merger plans.

    5. Client conflicts repeatedly occuring with their new firm’s client base which prevent the lateral being able to take on substantial new client matters which go to competitor firms instead. This (or indeed other unhappy factors) often results in their clients quietly suggesting to the lateral that they find another new home and take them with them…

    Understanding and anticipating some of the main reasons why laterals typically leave (and in our experience it’s rarely just for more money) would be a step in the right direction for hiring firms. Undertaking an integration programme to embed the laterals into the firm and its culture in the months after arrival, to address the above type of issues and generally still remembering to make them feel loved and wanted after the honeymoon period is over, should go a long way to helping them hang onto their laterals longer-term.