You are a partner in a law firm and you have decided to make a lateral move. You want it to be the right move to a better platform. Where do you start and how do you maximize the likelihood of a successful outcome? The lateral candidate process differs among firms and candidates. But the more you are prepared to answer and ask questions, the greater the likelihood this next move will be an optimal one for you and the firm you are joining. Consider the approach detailed below regarding the research, preparation and vetting activities associated with a lateral partner move.
Begin your process by evaluating your current firm. Make a list of what is attractive about — and lacking in — your firm's platform. Next, develop a chart containing a list of "must-haves" in a new firm, and add the names of firms whose platforms appear to provide what your practice needs. At this stage, it can be beneficial to enlist the help of a trusted adviser such as a close colleague or an attorney-search consultant with deep knowledge of the local market.
During the interview process, many firms will ask you to provide a business plan that projects future growth of your practice. Consider developing a business plan during this preparation stage. It will help you sell your practice down the road. Begin by listing your portable clients and the collections for each during the past three-five years.
Compensation is among the most important things you should be prepared to discuss. Most firms will pay lateral partners on a fixed deal for 18-24 months and then compensate them in the partnership array going forward. That deal typically includes a base compensation plus incentives on originations and individual timekeeper receipts. Be clear in your mind about what you want as base compensation and how much of the "risk" you are willing to share in the form of incentive compensation.
Finally, devise an elevator speech about your practice and what you are seeking in a move. As you develop a deeper understanding of the market and how the market perceives your value, you should re-evaluate and refine your speech.
Even if you have a sizable book of business, devising a way to promote yourself to other firms can be a daunting experience. Either you will reach out to firms on your own or you will partner with an attorney search consultant to make the initial inquiry. To grab the interest of other law firms, you should provide this basic information:
If a law firm is interested in learning more about you, it will schedule an initial meeting. Preparation for each firm interview is important. You should research the firm, its practice areas and the lawyers/professionals you will be meeting. Bring a list of your clients and your historical collections (for your reference and not necessarily for distribution) to help you talk about your business.
Be prepared to answer questions about anything listed on your bio and resume. Also, be prepared to answer questions designed to confirm or explore the initial information you provided. Most important, be prepared to answer the "why our firm" questions and "are you a value-add" questions. Below are some examples of questions you will be expected to answer in your interviews. If you have made multiple moves every several years, be prepared to go through each move and discuss why you left. Be as positive about your prior firms as possible.
Why Our Firm?
Are You a Value-Add?
Typically, a firm will schedule an initial meeting before it will ask you to complete its Lateral Partner Questionnaire (LPQ). The LPQ is the most time-consuming but very important part of the lateral process. You should consider the LPQ as a document of advocacy that shares your vision of how you expect to contribute to the new firm. The information requested includes biographical information, education, employment history, client-by-client billings, collections, ownership information and a variety of ethical questions. Take the time to complete the LPQ honestly and thoroughly. Send all documents in PDF format to maintain the integrity of the document and to ensure that you do not accidentally send metadata.
Although the process of determining cultural and practice fit will start during your first meeting, lawyers who meet you after you submit your LPQ will ask questions to determine whether the business you listed on your LPQ is likely to follow you. Other firms may assign one colleague to evaluate your book more fully after the interviews are completed.
Law firms cannot afford to make mistakes in their lateral hiring process because of the costs involved in bringing in new lawyers. As a result, law firms have become more intentional about the vetting process, particularly related to the lawyer's portable business. Although a lateral lawyer's success cannot be guaranteed, many firms engage in strategic vetting to help maximize the likelihood of a successful match.
These are the types of questions you should be prepared to answer for each client you list on your LPQ.
Additional Portability Questions
Your Book and Compensation
As a lateral candidate, you should vet potential new law firms as carefully as they vet you. You may be able to glean information during the normal back-and-forth of your conversations. Use good judgment to determine the best time to ask hard questions. Timing is important. Strategically, it will not be during your first or even perhaps your second interview. You want to be in sell mode until you have a sense that there is a mutual interest. That interest will not be clear before a firm has had an opportunity to evaluate the information you presented in your LPQ.
Use the initial list you developed of "must-haves" to shape and refine your questions. Those questions will vary, of course, depending upon what you seek in a new firm. If your current firm lacks certain capabilities that have caused you to lose work, then you want to determine whether the potential firm has those capabilities. If you are looking for a firm that has a cross-collaborative culture, your list should include questions that elicit specific examples of successful cross-selling.
Below are examples of some questions you may consider asking during the interview process. Use your judgment to determine when to ask more probing questions.
Practice Area Synergies
Firm and Practice Area Culture
Firm Management and Finances
Be prepared to negotiate compensation terms. The more confident you are about the value you bring to the firm, the more you will be able to negotiate from a positon of strength. It can be helpful to rely on a colleague or a recruitment professional as an adviser and sounding board during the negotiation process.
Your list will include other questions about firm management, its strategic plan, succession issues, firm historical and projected profitability, client base, partner compensation and benefits, cross-marketing activities and firm culture. You should explore questions about the importance of your practice to the firm and the number and reasons for recent acquisitions and departures. You also may want to ask more specific questions about firm capital, debt obligations and lease obligations. If the firm is reluctant to provide certain information, that may be a signal for you to conduct further research.
As you can see, the lateral process requires strategic thinking, research and mutual vetting. If you invest more in the early stages, you are likely to land a lasting and fulfilling opportunity.
This article was originally featured in Law Journal Newsletters, Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report, May 2017.