41% Fail. Simple Steps to Thrive as a Lateral Attorney

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Please note that while this article is focused on lateral partners, much of the content is applicable for adapting to a range of new jobs.

According to a Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group survey, only 59 percent of lateral moves occurring between 2011 and 2016 were considered successful.  With a 41% failure rate, it’s no wonder that many lawyers seek support from coaches during their transition to a new firm. Women moving to firms with few female partners, small practice lawyers moving to big law, and counsel moving into a partnership role are just a few of those who have concerns about their ability to navigate the political intricacies of a new law firm, retain clients and expand their books of business. Here is a summary of three basic factors one should keep in mind in order to increase the likelihood of a successful transition.

Gather Information
At the beginning stages of a lateral move, partners would do well to make information-gathering a significant priority. Through research, interviews and due diligence during their decision-making process, lateral partners acquire a lot of knowledge about the firm. Yet, it’s like the difference between reading about a foreign country and actually living there. No matter how well one prepares, one still needs to figure out the personalities, culture and how systems work in reality.  I’ve worked with lawyers who arrived at a new firm to discover that an institutional client’s refusal to sign conflicts waivers (where there was no genuine conflict) stymied her ability to bring business into the firm.  In another case, a partner discovered that rivalry between groups of partners meant that he had to decide between working with one clique or the other. The sooner one identifies hidden pitfalls and/or opportunities, the more quickly one can address the issues and become happy and profitable—or, if necessary, move on. 

Questioning one’s own assumptions is easier said than done; but it is important. For most of us, our default is to assume that systems will run similarly to the way they worked at other firms or organizations where we operated in the past. Yet, that is not necessarily the case.  Just as one would, when gathering information for a client matter, it is wise to ask open ended questions and continue to ask different people about the same topics even when the answer seems obvious.  Here are some examples of the kind of information that is important for a new partner:

  • Compensation – How does the compensation system work, in reality?  Who are the influencers on the compensation committee? What if there is a conflict over origination or other credit? Who makes the final decision? What criteria is taken into consideration for compensation decisions?  Which partners tend to be “grabby” when it comes to origination and which ones are collaborative. 
  • Conflicts – How are business conflicts handled? When there is a grey area, how is it addressed? Are there any particularly important clients or partners who tend to throw their weight around and make it difficult to bring in new business?
  • Partners – Who is really invested in the firm? Who collaborates with others on cases and matters? Who has personal power and influence (regardless of official roles)?  Who is officially in a leadership role but doesn’t actually lead?  Who are the main rainmakers? Who likes change and who does not?  What are the main values, goals and agendas of the leaders, and other influential partners?
  • Staff – Who is most reliable and competent?  If you need additional or different staff support, how would you go about making that change? Who is responsible for staff allocations?
  •  Marketing –  How exactly does the marketing department work and what can they do for you? What is your budget for marketing? Who approves it, and how does that work? If you need more, how can you get it?  Who would you need to persuade? 
  • Docketing – How are docketing of due dates handled?  Does the firm docket only Law or Court-imposed deadlines?  Are reminders docketed or are they the individual’s responsibility? 

Make Friends and Allies
Many people never had to make much of an effort to make friends or network.  Their friends are simply those who were conveniently located (college roommates, work colleagues, sports buddies, etc.) Once we have a sufficient number of people to eat lunch with, most of us tend to stop there and not make a lot of extra effort.  A lateral move is a fantastic opportunity to very deliberately get to know a lot of new people and identify both friends and allies in the firm.

Anything one wishes to accomplish at the new firm will require support from the new partners; so spending significant time on coffees and lunches early on can be very beneficial.  It may feel lazy or decadent to those accustomed to focusing on billable hours or individual business development activities, but it is absolutely essential in order to gain influence and opportunities.  A new partner actively trying to expand his book of business would do well to start building trust with his partners as soon as possible.  Until a significant level of trust is established, they are unlikely to introduce him to clients or offer other opportunities.  Similarly, a new partner with a huge book of business can’t manage all the matters herself. She needs to find partners she likes and trusts to support her practice.

One-on-one interactions with partners speed up the process of learning about their practices, their clients, their approach to client service, and what they are passionate about.  Some may prefer to focus on personal conversation in a first meeting and others may wish to get straight to business, but it is also an occasion to ask questions about the firm, office politics, the marketing department, the staff, the associates, etc. 

Put Your Plan in Writing
Entering a new firm, lateral partners may know what they want regarding relationships with other partners, leadership opportunities, or work-life balance, but these are typically vague intentions rather than focused, strategic plans. Just as the mental discipline of writing a brief helps to clarify one’s thinking about a case, so too does writing out a plan help ensure that one has analyzed the goals, processes and action steps in a systematic and thorough manner.  However, this doesn’t mean it has to be complicated or time consuming.  A plan can sometimes be created in as little as 15-30 minutes depending on the situation. Naturally, plans would vary depending on the lawyer’s goals, personality and circumstances. Many people have experienced unnecessarily burdensome planning processes; so below is an example of the type of planning structure I recommend.   

Goal: Identify at least 3 partners with whom I can collaborate in landing new work, cross-selling and/or managing existing work, by the end of the year

Vision:  I like my colleagues and I feel that they like me.  I am invited to participate with other partners on pitches and other business development opportunities. I have partners whom I respect with whom I can brainstorm and bounce around ideas with regard to billable work as well as business development.  I have a good support network at the firm and know that even if I’m not in the room, there are people who will have my back and will push for my best interests.  I know that if I bring in a lot of new work, I have a team that I trust to manage it, so that I am able to put my time and energy into the endeavors that I find most rewarding and meaningful. 

Milestones:

  • April 30 – Meet with at least 16 partners, counsel or other new colleagues in the first month (4/week)
  • May 31 – Identify and verbally propose 3 opportunities for collaboration
  • June 30 – Continue to move forward pursuing collaboration opportunities
  • July 31 – Start working on at least one collaborative endeavor. // Pursue a new round of outreach, with 10 new partners or counsel or further discussions with partners who I met with in April.
  • December 31 – Have completed 3 successful collaborations with new partners. (The definition of success means that there is mutual respect, and a desire to work together in the future). 

Action Steps to the First Milestone:

  • March 23 – Make a tentative list of the top ten partners with whom I wish to collaborate
  • March 28 – Look through the bios of all the partners in the firm and identify commonalities (Same law school, from the same state/area, both on boards of charities, etc.)
  • March 30 – Schedule at least 6 lunches for first two weeks
  • April 1 – Make a list of questions for partners and others

Few people are lucky enough that their first firm is a great fit and continues to serve their needs for the entire course of their careers.  Making lateral moves can feel risky, but in reality, staying in a firm with limited opportunities or where one isn’t receiving support is far more hazardous for one’s long-term career.  Lawyers sometimes say, in resignation, that all law firms are pretty much the same; but that really isn’t true.  It takes courage to move to a new firm, but the quality of life and career benefits can be tremendous.