What to know when considering a lateral partner move?

While each partner move is unique based on any number of factors, they share enough similarities that I’ve been able to discern common patterns.

In the first of a two-part column on what to expect in a partner move, I cover timelines, books of business, compensation, and conflicts. (In part two, look for some tips on things partners need not get overly concerned about).

What follows are common questions about making a partner move.

 How long is the partner move process?

Typically, the entire move process ranges from four weeks to four months. If both sides are extremely focused and motivated, it can be a month (or perhaps even less in uniquely time pressured situations).

Personal and professional circumstances can dictate longer periods. Think of closings, trials, personal events, timing/deferral of existing compensation.

Scheduling busy people is what it is. Zoom can speed up the process, but personal meetings can be important and are making a comeback.

How big of a book of business do I need to have?

All recruitment scenarios are unique and factors related to practice size vary considerably. Issues of relevance can include vintage, practice area, industry, and alignment with firm growth strategy. There may not be any portable book required if the lateral move is deemed a significant strategic imperative.

There may be a preference for a mobile practice of some size. To offer guidance, many firms indicate general thresholds, applied case by case. One common benchmark I see is a lateral partner keeping himself/herself busy along with one other junior lawyer in the first year of the transition. The general idea of incoming work is attractive as it helps buy some time for a firm (i.e. pays the bills) while management seriously engages in efforts to integrate the partner into the firm and with firm clients.

How does lateral partner comp work?

Firms work to be both fair internally and market reflective in determining lateral compensation, and try hard to get this right for a lateral partner. Lockstep partner compensation is largely gone, and it’s now an organic case by case analysis, many firms referring to their comp system as a “meritocracy.” It’s worth noting that the lateral partner comp market is not guided by “efficient” market mechanics (cf. Real estate, the stock market, sports salaries, other areas with significant public data). Because there is virtually no public information about particular lateral deals (i.e. they are private), and there is significant variability on how firms ascribe value, this high-end labor market lacks market efficiency (which means offers from firms can widely vary).

The American Lawyer’s PPP figures offer some guidance about average comp, but they don’t answer any specific questions one may have about their personal market value. Key Factors such as existing compensation, strategic fit, and economic analysis of practice metrics all play important roles. Someone with significant experience with lateral deals can be helpful in navigating this terrain.

Who’s interested in my practice? (aka “Who’s looking?”)

This question is loaded, so bear with me. The issue about who’s interested is often deemed critical to a partner considering an initial confidential meeting. This is understandable, as busy partners don’t want to waste their time (or the firms). And there are bona fide searches where this question is germane. This question however isn’t dispositive on what firm a partner might best consider, as virtually every top firm is opportunistic about adding quality partners, provided they fit within a firm’s practice offerings (and firms may even be interested in practices they don’t have, despite not having fully thought about it yet). This seriously distinguishes the partner labor market from the only relevant cohort, the executive talent market (including GC’s), where recruiting is driven to only fill very specific needs – companies need to be actively and aggressively “looking.”

In stark contrast law firms and law firm partners come together at any time the transition makes sense for both, usually without there being a “job opening” or “search.”

For friends, I sometimes causally answer the question of “who is looking out there?” with “everybody and nobody.” This flippant response requires explanation. While there are certainly firms looking for specific areas/partners, virtually every top firm tells me they are always interested in talking to talented partners that will benefit the enterprise. That said, those same firms also tell me they will be fine if nobody turns out to be a cultural and practice fit, and they can certainly go without (unlike the C-level executive need which is acute –i.e. a company needs a CFO and can’t go without).  Thus I say “everybody” is looking (or, if one applies a “glass half full” perception, perhaps “nobody” is looking). The point being law firms may be extremely interested in adding partners, but the recruiting market works differently than what many people expect (think staffing), and is unlike companies occasionally looking to fill commensurate (compensation wise) C-Level positions (one needs a neon flashing vacancy sign; You don’t submit a GC resume to a company that has a GC).

Nuanced as this is, the evolving legal industry provides partners with a consistently active market to explore change, and is reflective of increasing career mobility and flexibility (unlike partners from previous decades who faced myriad of movement obstacles, a topic I have written about previously- see here). An experienced headhunter with full market knowledge can assess brand/platform options from the partner’s perspective and serve as a “market maker” for entrepreneurial career minded partners.

How are client conflicts assessed?

Client conflicts are an important issue but certainly navigable. Earlier in the recruitment process, once a partner is comfortable, there is a preliminary analysis of portable clients, with the heavier lifting of precise conflict clearance being done towards the end of the process. The sequencing of this diligence is unique to each recruitment. This internal analysis is always done confidentially.

Next up, I’ll share some tips on what not to seriously fret about when it comes to making a lateral move.

Want to discuss? Call me.