By Pamela DiCarlantonio, Partner, Major, Lindsey & Africa
A few weeks after I graduated from the University of Maryland, I was stunned to learn of the sudden passing of my classmate and our school’s star basketball player. He had just been drafted by the Boston Celtics two days earlier and had the world at his feet . . . and then, in an instant, he was gone. The ripple effect of this athlete’s shocking death was felt for many years—by his family and friends, the Boston Celtics, the NBA and basketball fans worldwide. We will never know what might have been.
Any Maryland student or alum watching this player in action during his time at Maryland can attest that his skills and talents on the court were something special to observe. His future was so bright, only to be wiped out in a seeming nanosecond when his life and basketball career were only just beginning. The magic he could have created—and all of that potential—was gone.
So what does the unrealized potential of a college basketball star have to do with legal recruiting?
As a partner recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, I assist law firm partners and groups of attorneys in navigating a lateral move from one firm to another. As part of that process, I spend a lot of time getting to know my candidates (the lawyer or group considering a change), the details and financial metrics of their practice, and their short- and long-term career goals. I drill down on exactly what they need from a practice, personal and cultural standpoint. I then use my deep market knowledge and close relationships with law firm leaders to help the candidate identify a “short list” of firms that are worth exploring. Then we are off to the races.
In short, I partner with my candidates in a strategic, thoughtful way and help them navigate a move to a firm where their practice can grow and thrive and where they are likely to find professional and personal fulfillment. In the same way the Boston Celtics needed to analyze how to use their top draft pick and identify which player could help them “up their game,” law firms, too, spend a great deal of time throughout the recruitment process with a coveted candidate, exploring potential synergies and areas of opportunity, the alignment (or not) between the firm’s needs and strategic goals and what a candidate brings to the table, and ways the firm can help the candidate advance and vice versa. Just like a basketball team, law firms are dynamic, fluid and evolving organizations with a lot of moving pieces and each individual part impacting the whole. The investment in a lateral partner, just like a key draft pick, can be enormous.
I feel great joy when a candidate accepts an attractive position with my assistance. But that’s only the beginning. Once they join a new firm and continue their integration process (which, if done right, starts during the interview phase), I get to sit back and watch that partner grow his or her practice with the support, resources and dynamic inner-workings of the new firm. In short, I get to watch the magic happen.
Recognizing Fear of Change
Occasionally, I encounter a candidate who is struggling with “fear of change.” These partners almost always have compelling reasons to consider a change, such as recurring legal conflicts that prevent them from continuing to represent certain clients or bringing in new matters. They may be feeling undervalued if they are not being rewarded fairly for their contributions based on the current firm’s compensation or credit-sharing system (which is usually not easy to change). Their increasing billing rates might be impeding the growth of the practice or, worse, leading to the loss of important clients and revenue. Or maybe they just work with a jerk who is making life miserable for the partner and his or her family.
Fear of change—particularly for a partner who has been at the same firm for a long time—is very common and quite natural. Often the anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with fear of change leads a partner candidate to just let “no” be the final decision because it’s easier and less scary. Unfortunately, almost 100% of the time when one of my candidates turns down an offer based on this fear, they end up regretting it, mainly because nothing ever changes where they are.
Lawyers tend to be risk-averse by nature (we are trained to tell clients what they can’t do). But when you combine that natural tendency with fear of change, the result is often a strong urge to maintain the status quo. In my experience, this “non-decision” type of decision often leads to regret on the part of the partner who decided not to move. It can also lead to chronic frustration, job insecurity and—more often than you think—an eventual pink slip. When a partner is in the wrong platform for his or her practice, that fact usually becomes increasingly evident to all involved over time. Indeed, the current firm is often acutely aware of a mismatch even when a partner wants to believe otherwise.
“Risk” Creates Opportunity
Fear of change, by its terms, is not rational. It is based on fear of the unknown, of failure, of facing the sometimes daunting (but often invigorating) task of wrapping things up at one firm and starting anew at another. Sticking with the current platform may feel more comfortable, but often it’s the perceived “risk” of moving that creates the most opportunity, particularly where the new firm presents excellent synergies and areas for growth and is making a genuine commitment to the lateral partner’s long-term success.
Often we see partners who have every reason to make a change end up with one or more great offers after the interviewing and mutual due diligence process but are then unable to “pull the trigger” based solely on fear of change (rather than a logical substantive reason). When that happens, I am brought back to the tragic loss of a University of Maryland legend and a host of lingering questions about what might have been. The law firm whose offer was declined often feels the same way—namely, regret over unrealized potential.
Although we, of course, have to graciously accept the candidate’s decision, we will never get to witness the positive ripple effect that partner and his practice could have had on his new firm, his clients and his new colleagues, not to mention on himself, his family and his overall happiness. Instead, the inevitable magic is cut short and we are left with a bunch of “what ifs?”
Sometimes fear of change comes with self-awareness, but often it manifests itself in the form of rationalization. I once had a self-aware candidate tell me, “This is a fantastic opportunity and I’ll probably live to regret it, but I hate change, so I’ve decided to just suffer with my current firm’s shortcomings.” Other candidates, many of whom have very good reasons for wanting or needing to leave, suddenly are in love with their current firm and simply pretend the issues don’t exist – even when the love is clearly not mutual.
As an example, I represented a partner with decent originations but his practice was on a downward trend in terms of revenue and billable hours/personal productivity. This partner’s practice group at his current firm had suffered one defection after another, the firm had ongoing brand and reputation challenges, and the group received very little support or resources to service their existing clients or attract new ones. After engaging in a search process, this partner received multiple offers, including one from a great firm that had sophisticated work in his practice area to give him, a strong interest in the industry vertical that made up the bulk of his practice, and a collaborative culture in a fair, transparent compensation system. In fact, they offered him a significant increase in compensation.
Toward the end of his process, fear of change reared its ugly head in the form of one rationalization after another. This partner acknowledged that his long-term success at his current firm would be nearly impossible to achieve under the existing circumstances, and he was even candid with his firm about his many frustrations, with the hope that together they could work to make things better. The firm blatantly ignored his concerns, yet he stayed anyway. The rationale he expressed to me was that “things here really aren’t so bad.” His fear of change was simply too much to overcome. Soon thereafter, the law firm pursuing him filled its need and the opportunity disappeared. This partner told me later (when the challenges at his firm persisted) that it was one of his biggest regrets.
Overcoming Fear of Change and Unleashing the Magic
Fear of change does not have an easy cure, but it is “treatable” for any partner willing to make an honest assessment of his or her situation. If you are unhappy with your current firm platform but feel uneasy about the prospect of making a change, following is some general advice that might be helpful:
· Conduct a thorough, thoughtful search process: Changing firms requires a certain level of confidence and (in some cases) a leap of faith, but if the process leading up to that point was thorough and thoughtful, the risk of a failed integration or unmet expectations on either side is significantly reduced.
· Find an experienced, trustworthy search consultant who knows the market and has your best interests at heart: Support from a professional career advisor who has earned your trust and strives to remain objective at all times can be very beneficial in alleviating your fear. This advisor can help you navigate the process, assist in identifying and evaluating good options for you, and ensure that your toughest questions are answered before an informed decision can be made.
· Refresh your recollection: Throughout the process and certainly toward the end, think long and hard about the reasons that led you to consider a change in the first place, including whether all of the issues you expressed at the outset are “fixable” by your current firm. Refreshing your memory as to why the current platform isn’t working can bring very helpful perspective.
· Resist the superficial quick fix: A promise of more money from your current firm is almost never a cure-all—indeed, for many candidates it’s a “too little, too late” insult—as it’s hard to feel valued when the pay raise is long-overdue but comes in the form of a counteroffer to stay. The same is true of a long-coveted status or title change. Law firms are complex institutions that are not able to change quickly, despite good intentions or promises otherwise. (There are many downsides to accepting a counter-offer, particularly one that may be perceived by your existing colleagues as an opportunistic money-grab. Money and titles are often short-term Band-Aids that can rarely fix underlying platform deficiencies.)
· Take a deep breath and power through your fear: Often the status quo feels more comfortable at decision time, but that does not always mean it’s the right path—particularly when it’s clear that certain things are not working in the current environment. If the honest answer is “No, my issues are not readily fixable,” take a deep breath and power through your fear. In my experience, candidates who are able to do this almost always end up happy that they made the change.
Once a partner leaves a limiting platform and joins another with tremendous opportunity (for collaboration, cross-selling, inheriting clients and work, leveraging the brand, enjoying exceptional support, etc.), his or her practice can take off in amazing ways. It may be difficult to leave long-time friends and the good will a partner has developed over many years, but those friendships won’t disappear. Indeed, often those relationships thrive because the partner feels more excited and energized by the level of commitment and expanded opportunities the new platform can provide—and, as a result, is happier and more joyful.
Unlike my college classmate’s almost-career with the Boston Celtics, we all get to watch the magic unfold.