Making the decision to leave your law firm is never an easy one, but so far in 2021, 450 partners in New York have lateraled to new firms within the Am Law 200—an increase from 296 for the same timeframe in 2020. These partners made the strategic decision to take this important step in advancing their careers after many months of forethought, research and discussion. A lateral move is never a quick decision or one to make on a whim. To successfully transition from one firm to another, you need to lay the groundwork early.
Moving to a new firm begins with a strong, well-considered business plan. The plan should comprehensively describe your practice, noteworthy experience, the relevant market, and specific client and other potential business relationships. A well-crafted business plan becomes a lens through which your potential partners view you. It demonstrates your professional and business savvy, inspires confidence, illustrates potential synergies for future cross-marketing opportunities, and helps establish a foundation for critical incoming compensation discussions. A good recruiter will guide you through the process, beginning with a thoughtful exploration of your practice, business relationships, and professional and personal objectives. Your recruiter should also furnish you tried-and-true templates of plans that have worked and provide a framework for your own unique narrative.
Knowing what you want next in your career—as well as knowing how to best present your story—will arm you for success in the interview process. So, prepare for the interview process in two ways:
First, be able to convey your story with color and concision. This includes why you are selectively exploring a possible transition and what you have done that helps solve your interviewer’s needs (that could be, for example, expanding a strategic practice group, providing entrée to a group of clients or filling a practice gap).
Second, ask good questions. These will elicit the information you need about the firm’s practice, peers, clients, capability, culture, etc. The interview process affords you the opportunity to compare and contrast firms and is the first step in getting to know your new firm and colleagues. Use this time wisely to learn what you need to make an informed decision. Thoughtful questions also reflect your seriousness of purpose in this process and are a window into your judgment and values.
Once you have made your decision and accepted an offer, you will need to give notice to your old firm. This is never an easy task and is usually filled with emotion—rightly so, as you are leaving people you have built bonds with. The goal is a smooth and quick transition, not a prolonged counteroffer negotiation. After all, your motivation in moving is about long-term fit and opportunities, and not about extracting a short-term cash counteroffer. Statistics show that the vast majority of those who have accepted counteroffers eventually leave their firms within a year or two. So, be respectful but stick to your plan and keep the conversation to the point.
The Transition and Integration
It is Day One in your new firm, and you will be busy in transitioning your work and clients while getting to know your new partners. This integration process began while you were interviewing—each round introduced you to the partners with whom you will work, dug deeper into potential client relationships and cross-marketing opportunities, and alerted the firm to the resources you would need to successfully transition. Your new firm’s integration team will begin the seamless transition of your work and clients and get the appropriate resources in place to immediately start servicing ongoing matters. This team will also help ensure that you are complying with all applicable ethics guidelines.
Your new firm’s transition team will continue to facilitate introductions to those partners in the firm most likely to work and cross-market with you. But take it upon yourself to be proactive and seek out your colleagues. Get out and about in your new office, as well as virtually and in-person to other offices so that you can start developing meaningful internal relationships. Over time, you will also be able to identify “glue” partners, those who live the culture and are trusted internal resources. These partners will be invaluable navigators and ambassadors for you as you integrate into your new home.
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought about some particular challenges in integrating new laterals, we found firms ably adapted even in remote environments. We actually have found a couple of silver lining to the integration process during the pandemic. Partners had more time to pitch in with lateral integration because they spent less time on commuting and travel. Although, in-person meetings have become more challenging, the ability to meet virtually has helped partners to spend meaningful time to get to know their new lateral colleagues and explore ways of working together and pitching business together. From virtual lunches to weekly meetings, the best firms in transitioning spend great effort in sponsoring new laterals, understanding that integration is a months-long process. And from what we’re hearing in the market, the firms that get this right are being rewarded handsomely for this investment of time.
Whether in a remote or in-person environment (now that we are returning to the office), your colleagues understand that embracing a new lateral is not only good for business but also fosters an esprit de corps that will help differentiate their firm when seeking top-tier talent. As firms navigate their return to office policies, take advantage of opportunities for in-person meetings to get to know someone, professionally and personally. We hear all the time how a lunch or dinner made all the difference in feeling accepted and part of things.
When it comes to business development, you will want to maximize your wins in your initial months at your new firm. In addition to porting over ongoing matters, you will want to identify, with the help of your new firm, those opportunities most likely to bear fruit and be immediate wins for you. These early mandates will provide you traction, confidence and credibility. Do this business development with others and not on your own. By inviting partners to pitch with you, you will present a stronger service proposition to clients in this time of transition while also strengthening your internal relationships and reputation for good citizenship at your new firm. In our long experience in recruiting, we see that longer-term success is enhanced when there is a concerted effort toward integration.
Successfully integrating a new partner into a firm is the goal of your new firm just as much as it is your personal goal. As a recent lateral, there may be times when you feel that your integration is not going smoothly. If that’s the case, reach out to your new firm’s resources who are tasked with helping you settle in and assuring you a smooth glide path in transitioning your work, clients and staff. These resources can typically include the lateral partner recruiting manager, your practice head, the person who was your champion and guide during the interviewing process, and the firm’s marketing team and lead business development officer. They will be eager to help you.
Lastly, keep in mind that every organization has its unique feel, way of communicating, and unwritten rules and protocol. There is no one way that is best, so be open to your new firm’s culture and way of doing things. Show that you are invested in this transition as much as the firm is and you will find yourself feeling at home in no time.