Full team ahead

July 24, 2013

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

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It’s no longer enough for law firms to lateral-hire individuals. The team move has become increasingly popular, allowing firms to acquire talent en masse.

The reasons are obvious: a team move can quickly add capability and depth; even better, a team is much more likely to be successful in bringing to a firm a client following, critical in these competitive times.

It’s usually not bad for the team involved either. Apart from the awkwardness of leaving your existing firm in the poop, these moves are often great money spinners, with a new firm willing to pay big bucks for a hot-shot team.

Considering the rising popularity of these team acquisitions, though, there seems to be surprisingly little advice out there for the individuals concerned. This is especially the case if you happen to be an associate asked to follow the lead partners. What exactly is in it for you?

Migration watch

The most recent example involves two firms operating in the Middle East. The team moving from one to the other includes eight partners, 14 lawyers and a number of support staff – quite an exodus.

One of the departing partners was quoted as saying that ‘the time was right for my team to seek something new’. No doubt team discussions behind the scenes were aimed at carefully securing buy-in from all. But it’s the kind of statement of ownership that could make one wonder whether the ‘team’ actually had any choice.

This idea is only exacerbated by the fact such moves are by necessity conducted in considerable secrecy. Partners looking to move their teams elsewhere will have to tread very carefully to avoid breaching their partnership obligations. This may well mean they divulge nothing of their intentions to their broader team until a fairly late stage in the proceedings.

Like a merger announced from up high, an associate and others may feel that by this point it’s pretty much a fait accompli. You better move with the partners or be left up a creek without a paddle.

Ideal bridge

Okay, you might get the promise of a great new firm and a hefty pay rise out of the arrangement. But that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily be your ideal career choice with your preference of firm. Don’t assume either that the new firm will allow your team to function in the way it always has done. You will have to adapt to the culture and working practices of the new firm, or face the chilling prospect of wall-to-wall hostility.

In addition, there’s the risk of getting used for short-term ends with little genuine interest in your on-going career development. In this age of lateral hiring, law firms have grown understandably wary of partners jumping ship and taking all their clients with them. That means that partnership agreements often include restrictive covenants preventing partners from taking clients, or at least imposing some timescale within which such clients can’t be approached.

An associate can be very handy in this scenario. They may share the same client relationships, but not the restrictions, making them the ideal bridge over which the lead partners can transfer their affairs.

This might of course just give you more negotiating power. It may also get you closer to the clients – no bad thing if you’re seeking partnership yourself. But you’ll still want to ensure that you get as much out of the deal as the partners, both in the short and long-term. For instance, what real opportunities for partnership exist within the new firm – and are they likely to be open to you?

The allure of the team move can be strong, not least for financial reasons. You’ll be entering a new firm in a position of relative power, with the backing of a team you already know.

And while there are inevitable risks combined with some lack of personal choice in the team hire, the merits may well outweigh the risks. That is assuming you:

  1. Genuinely enjoy working with the team and have enjoyed more personal career success from being part of it; and
  2. That you trust the partners to act in the best interest of the team, which should also mean its team members.

It’s a question of faith, backed up by the wisdom of experience. And perhaps just a smattering of good old fashioned risk-taking. CP

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