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Thinking of making a lateral move? Know what to expect when you decide to start the process.

Making the Lateral Partner Move

Nancy H. Greene

Working with lateral partners requires skills that develop over time after interacting with law firms of all sizes and attorneys at all levels and in all practice areas. Each individual law firm partner is far more than simply credentials and specialty. Add a group of partners to the mix, and the variations are never ending.

And just as individual attorneys have different personalities, so do law firms. There is history, size, types of practices, locations, profitability, management style, compensation methods, tiers of partnerships, and overall relationships between partners. Analyzing a potential match between a lateral partner and a new law firm is almost like selling or buying a home. You have to listen carefully to what each of the parties is really looking for and what makes sense for each, all things considered. In working on partner searches and partner placements, one quickly realizes that listening is key to the process. Each person and each law firm brings a unique individuality to the table that goes far beyond the obvious. From the law firm side, it is an understanding of the firm’s discreet needs and growth strategies balanced with the potential ability of a new partner to meet those needs that combine to enable the successful conclusion to any search. From the partner’s side, it is the recognition of a certain platform that could maximize the partner’s practice that will lead to a successful placement.

At the outset, portable business is the most significant variable. Over the last few years, law firms have hired large numbers of lateral partners who have promised books of business and have received guaranteed compensation to match. In many cases, the actual revenues have not measured up to the promises. As a result, law firms are tending to be more cautious in their partner hiring practices, and a past history of solid business generation speaks for itself.

Like it or nor, age is also a key issue. It is a basic marker as to where a partner is in his/her career. Is the person a young up-and-comer, with a growing client and contact list and a book of business that is steadily gaining momentum? Is the person a late 40- early 50 year old with a clear history of client development? Or, is the partner reaching what some firms deem to be mandatory retirement age, yet with no interest in retiring and a solid portable practice? Immediately, based on those factors, a number of firms could be included or excluded from a list of firms that would be suitable to approach on the partner’s behalf.

And finally, the contrast between a partner’s plain old fashioned personality and a firm’s unique culture cannot be ignored. Whether a firm has a partnership that prides itself on being a true unified group of individuals who know and care about one another or a partnership that is comprised of various silos generating business for the larger enterprise, or something in between, all law firms care whether any new lateral partner will “fit in”.

Understanding and respecting a partner’s personal and professional preferences, while recognizing the unique qualities and needs of specific law firms, is the first step toward facilitating a successful lateral transition.