While the lateral market for law firm partners is robust, ever-evolving and increasingly sophisticated, there is one thing that hasn’t changed and never will: How similar the recruiting process is to dating. The many parallels – originally outlined in my Valentine’s Day article published seven years ago in The Legal Intelligencer – still hold true today. From the setup and first date (interview) all the way to the proposal and marriage (offer and acceptance) to happily ever after, the tried-and-true advice set forth in this article should serve as a useful guide for any law firm partner or group “looking for love” (a new firm) in 2020. As a professional “matchmaker” who brings together lawyers and law firms, I hope you will take it to heart!
The Dating Game
- Know Thyself. Be honest with yourself about your “type” and what you want and need in a long-term relationship, so you are able to recognize Mr. or Mrs. Right when he or she comes along. Likewise, avoid wasting valuable time with an otherwise bad match who might look good “on paper.” Keeping an open mind early on is not a bad thing, but when it’s clear five minutes into a first interview that a relationship is not going to work – for example, a deal-breaking client conflict comes to light – it may be time to move on, regardless of great chemistry or a strong cultural/practice fit.
- The Matchmaker. Assess early on whether a legal recruiter can add value to your search for a mate (in this case a new law firm), or whether you should go it alone. Some attorneys are more marketable than others and, as counterintuitive as this may seem, the stronger candidates with a lot of options are the ones who can usually benefit the most from having an agent working on their behalf. Consider working with a reputable, experienced legal recruiter who has strong relationships with firms in your market, and understands law firm economics and what factors make you marketable (or not). Because legal recruiters work on commission, a good one will be honest with you about whether he or she is able (and willing) to help you.
As in dating, beware of online matchmaking services and the limitations they present; less is usually more. A tailored, targeted approach to find that special match is generally more effective. At the same time, don’t be skittish about a blind date. Focusing solely on firms where you have a direct personal contact means a better opportunity may pass you by without you even realizing it.
- The Setup. If you are a partner with portable business and limits on your time, deciding on a shortlist of firms that present the best potential fit (based on the metrics of your practice and a number of other factors) is critical. In addition, in the same way you never know where you might meet that special person, an experienced attorney considering a job change will rarely be presented with a neat menu of options from which to choose and certainly will not have all suitors on the same timeline. In this increasingly competitive market, it's important to do your homework by identifying opportunities that make sense for you and your practice, and pursue those with vigor. In the same vein, you need to be brave enough to take a pass if the right opportunity is not before you, no matter how unhappy you may be in your current situation. Promiscuity (reckless job jumping) can seriously damage your marketability down the line.
- First Date – Interview #1. To use a litigation analogy, both the prospective employer and candidate should always treat a first interview like a motion to dismiss and not summary judgment. In other words, you need not share every last detail about your background, nor run through an exhaustive checklist of questions. Don’t talk your way out of a second interview. If there are ten answers to a specific question, offer the best two or three, and be prepared to expand if appropriate. Any questions you ask should show that you are interested, enthusiastic, insightful, thoughtful and smart, and that you have done your homework about the firm and why it would be a good fit.
Be positive and show enthusiasm without being annoying, and always follow first-date rules (no religion or politics, and definitely no sob stories or bitterness about an ex). It may be necessary to explain why the current relationship isn’t meeting your needs, but you should do so in a matter-of-fact, unemotional way. Nothing will make you unattractive faster than bad-mouthing your current or past firm, even if your interviewer invites you to do so. In addition, be engaging without being a chatty Cathy – there’s no need to share every thought that enters your mind, and a little intrigue at this stage is not a bad thing.
- The Love Fest. Even if it feels like love-at-first-sight, there is no need to rush the relationship. Sometimes you know it when you see it, but proceed with caution until you know for sure. This means many more dates before anyone uses the “L” word.
- Opening the Kimono. Today firms and candidates spend a lot of time getting to know each other and conduct extensive due diligence before making a long-term commitment, as they should. This means lengthy and sometimes onerous lateral questionnaires, conflict checking forms, many rounds of interviews (often including travel to other cities) and background checks. Throughout this entire process, which ultimately helps with integration, healthy communication and responsiveness are key.
- The “Dance.” Always put your best foot forward while assessing fit. This means continually selling yourself –even if you may ultimately decide to break it off. Don’t be overeager early on, but do be ready to “show the love” when the time is right. Pace yourself. Radio silence or delay, while typically not a good sign, may have nothing to do with you or the firm’s interest level. Be forgiving unless or until you have all of the facts. If you see early warning signs or deal breakers, you may decide to stop the process rather than chasing an opportunity that doesn't feel right; again, know yourself and what you need, and don’t force it. Follow your instincts.
- “Fatal Attraction.” The most appealing candidates are doing well where they are, but find themselves in an environment that is impeding their long-term success, usually for a platform-related reason. If you are (or even appear) desperate, the firm will sense your impatience and find you a lot less desirable.
- The “Cougar” Effect. Sometimes vintage does matter, and more experience does not necessarily mean greater marketability. Many large and midsize firms are still lockstep in terms of billing rates and compensation at the service partner and associate levels (often tied to law school graduation date). From an economic standpoint, this can make it more difficult to bring in a senior lawyer to fill a role designed for a more junior one. Even if you consider yourself a “catch” or a “bargain,” the prospective employer may not see it that way, so be realistic.
- The Breakup. If at any point you realize the fit isn’t right, it’s important to handle the breakup in the most professional and honest way possible (not through a series of unreturned phone calls or mixed signals that are likely to burn bridges). You never know when your paths will cross again in the future. Take the high road here, not the easy one.
It’s Getting Serious
- Due Diligence Phase. At this stage, the relationship has come a long way and is trending in the right direction, but both sides still need to be on the lookout for red flags. These could take the form of high maintenance behavior, confusing or evasive candidate questionnaires, lack of follow-through, less-than-stellar references, etc. Both the prospective employer and the candidate should continue to size up one another, and give themselves an occasional reality check. Resist the temptation to follow the “shiny bright thing” (the trophy wife or the hot guy with the flashy car). Instead, focus on the long-term viability of the relationship, at this stage more than any other. It’s better to be left at the altar than face a tough divorce later.
- Meet the Parents. Meeting key decision makers can come early in the process or at the tail end; you should be ready for either. Every interaction with the prospective employer and its leaders should be treated as a formal interview, even if they are showing lots of love and the momentum starts to shifts in your favor. As the process moves toward its final stages, it is appropriate to ask deeper, more probing questions. Remember, due diligence is happening on both sides.
- Two-Timing. Attractive lateral candidates are often exploring more than one firm simultaneously, which can lead to tricky timing issues if the various firms are not moving at the same pace. The lateral market is not like pursuing your first job out of law school, which is largely dictated by strict NALP (The Association for LegalCareer Professionals) guidelines and generally keeps all of the firms on a similar track. If you are working with a recruiter, he or she can help you navigate timing issues and try to streamline your process as much as possible. Once you make a final decision, you should let the other firms know as quickly and professionally as possible so they are free to pursue other opportunities.
- Prenup – the “Guarantee” Period. When it’s time to make a marriage proposal to a law firm partner (the offer), firms will often propose an arrangement in the form of a guaranteed base salary for a specified period of time with built-in, performance-based bonuses (“if you do X, then you will get Y”), as a way to allocate the risk between the two parties. Either side may prefer a high-risk, high-reward scenario, or more predictable cash flow with less potential for upside, and this is often negotiated in advance so that expectations are clear upfront. Title is usually determined on a case-by-case basis (equity partner/shareholder, income/non-equity partner, contract partner, of counsel, etc.). It is becoming increasingly common for partners (even those with large books of business) to prefer a non-equity arrangement initially, to avoid assuming the risk of ownership in a firm they are still getting to know and/or having to make a substantial capital contribution from day one.
- The Wedding (Joining the Firm) and Honeymoon. Once a lawyer and firm have made a long-term commitment to one another, “moved in together” or gotten married, successfully integrating that lawyer into the fabric of the firm is critical. This is a two-way commitment and the firm and the new lateral must each do their part, particularly in the first 90-120 days (the honeymoon). Any issues should be addressed promptly and, again, healthy communication is essential.
- Happily Ever After. If you are careful and thoughtful in making the right choice, and if both you and the firm follow through with your respective “vows” and make a meaningful commitment to your long-term integration, you can avoid divorce and have a future filled with many happy anniversaries.
This story originally published in The Legal Intelligencer, February 14, 2013.