Lateral partner movement was once uncommon, and even though that has changed, a certain mythology has developed in the wake of change. The most pervasive myth I hear as a legal recruiter is that switching firms is a big career risk. That might have held some truth 20 years ago, but it certainly doesn’t pass the smell test today.
I get where the misperception originates. Lateral partners certainly didn’t used to be the most celebrated and supported partners in a firm. For years, legacy and existing partners rooted against them, sometimes even facilitating their failure.
Now things are completely different for lateral partners. Law firm management is acutely focused on (and accountable for) the success of laterals. If dept leaders and managing partners learn people are preventing their integration and success, they are not forgiving. Why?
Lateral hires are the engine of law firm strategic growth
The success of lateral partners is inextricably linked to law firm growth (and ultimately success).
Consider if firms like Latham, Gibson, Kirkland, Cooley, etc., relied solely on organic growth, only promoting partners from within. Take any successful large global firm, for that matter, with depth in practice areas and geography and examine how it got there.
Despite this evidence, pundits continue to warn of the risks of lateral partner growth for law firms. Identifying risk is fine. Nothing of value is ever risk-free. Just keep in mind that lawyers, by nature or nurture, look hard for what could go wrong. Negativity also draws media attention. Drama sells.
No one can honestly argue with the fact that lateral hires are the engine of growth for law firms. Being that driver of strategic growth is likely to land laterals in the center of the action for the firm, which equates to more value and security.
Thus, nobody will ever convince me that staying in the same firm for a long period or even one’s whole career is the default career lane with the least amount of risk.
Thinking that leaving is riskier than staying is a trick of the mind
Doing nothing often feels safe. Doing something feels riskier, even when that is not true. The chance the firm you joined 10-15 years ago is the absolute best fit for you now is unlikely. The risky decision is to stay at a firm too long after it’s clear you are not “tip of the spear,” as the saying goes. It usually has less to do with your book of business, and more to do with some aspect of the firm’s strategic focus (i.e. geography, diversity, practice area, industry verticals, etc.).
I once heard a very prominent partner (comfortable in the same firm for decades) say this after a hard-fought decision to move: “You can stay where you are tolerated or move to a place where you will be celebrated.” Maybe a smidge too dramatic, but anecdotally it rings true for me. In 17 years the vast majority of the partners I placed say it was the best decision they ever made. I was a bit surprised at first, but the tales kept pouring in over the years.
I realize my bias as an agent of change. And of course this is personal and situational. There are many instances where people should stay put. There is nothing inherently wrong with a career that lasts a long time at one law firm. But while not always comfortable in thought, there’s no denying the raw career power of lateral movement today (which more often reduces rather than augments the risks one faces over a long career).
Want to discuss? Call me.