The No. 1 Lateral Partner Move Myth I Hear

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.

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Legal Recruiting: “I just Zoomed to say I love you”

With apologies to Stevie Wonder, this doesn’t have the same ring to it does it??

Why the song reference? Let’s begin by asserting that face-to-face meetings have always been the lifeblood of legal recruiting at the partner level.

People meet! Both in and out of the office, coffees, lunches, and dinners were part of routine business development. It only made sense that the industry swiftly embraced video chat platforms like Zoom as the default mode of meeting and recruiting when Covid-19 struck, as I explain in the ABA Journal.

Since writing that piece, I’ve wondered: How is our industry’s zeal for Zoom impacting our ability to build trust and rapport in new relationships? Are we relying too much on Zoom? Do we need to reprioritize the importance of other modes of communication, like the good old-fashioned phone call?

I’ll go ahead and use Zoom like we use Kleenex (there are many video services, but one day we will wax nostalgic about being there when “Zoom” became a noun). Zoom has been a boon to the industry from a business continuity perspective, and there are changes that will likely continue into the future, regardless of virus concerns. However, as Zoom has become the norm, I can’t help but feel there are times when something has been lost, like our ability to focus completely so that we can connect at a deeper personal level.

Study finds Zoom sucks your energy and splits your attention.

The concept of Zoom fatigue, detailed by Stanford University, is a real issue. Researchers found that having to maintain constant eye contact with others is incredibly draining. It is also tiring to take in your reflection while trying to carry on a conversation (Zoom pro tip: Hide your self-view). Video calls split your attention in myriad directions, adding stress and leading to exhaustion.

Contrast the Zoom experience to a phone call. Without all the tech to touch and visual stimulation, you can focus like a laser on the issues at hand. Less distracted, you feel more at ease, which is conducive to cultivating trust and forging friendships. As an example, I was recently rushing to an important  Zoom call, and in the final minute, I realized, to my great delight, that it was a scheduled phone call!  I am sure my cortisol levels dropped substantially. I was immediately more relaxed and soon found, without much effort, I had a more inviting, positive approach to that call. Relaxed focus is better than intense focus when creating and enhancing a relationship is a goal.

Video calls are still valuable and important.

This value predates the pandemic. But I see more clients realizing they are not the end-all-and-be-all to building strategic relationships. Recruiting high-end partners involves delicate issues best addressed with intimate, focused conversations.  Although we have all found efficiencies that many want to preserve going forward (especially involving busy lawyers in different locations), it’s worth being mindful of why certain recruiting elements existed pre-pandemic.

Zoom dominates today. What the typical business meeting will look like down the road is uncertain. While recruiting strategies likely stay tethered to Zoom for overall efficiency, I worry about an all-or-nothing approach. At the partner level, there will be competitive disadvantages for those who adhere too rigidly to video meetings for the sake of convenience.

Pivoting should not be that difficult, and I see it happening today (some). The phone is one of our oldest friends: Virtually all experienced partners have “grown-up” creating significant business (and personal) relationships over the phone. It’s fairly easy to supplement Zoom processes with this older “dial-up” technology. Encouraging follow-up phone calls (i.e. to inquire how the Zoom meeting went, clarifying or adding information, etc.) which paves the way for further personal calls at later stages, would represent a small but valuable change (I am surprised how little this occurs).

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Zoom and have certainly built relationships on screen. We all know it’s here to stay. But maybe we need to fold back in some traditional phone calls (and face-to-face meetings – when it’s safe to do so). My guilty pleasure in recruiting is comparing the level of competitive ethos among major law firms. To those who want to win – and you know who you are – it’s worth considering the “zig and zag” of communication trends.  If everyone else is zooming, maybe it’s time to zag to make a stronger connection.

Want to discuss? Call me.

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