Lateral Hire Success: How to Measure It


There may not be a perfect way to categorize success, but there are well-known indicia law firms and lateral partners use every day to measure it, writes Ronald E. Wood.

A recent article queried whether a couple of recent high-profile lateral moves have been “successful,” and cites a number factors identified in two Major Lindsey & Africa surveys (on law firm culture and lateral partner satisfaction, respectively) that bear upon satisfaction and personal values. These include culture, the ability of a new firm to support and elevate a lateral’s practice, priority given to client service, candor during the interview process, and integration.

The piece cautioned that “defining success can be tricky”; that the length of time a lateral stays at a new firm is not determinative of whether the move was a success; and “that there is no perfect, or perfectly fair, way to categorize success or not.” There may not be a perfect way to categorize success, but it’s also not tricky. There are well-known indicia both sides—law firms and lateral partners—use every day to measure “success.”

How Firms Measure Success

At the law firm level, growth (or lack thereof) of the lateraling partner’s practice at different intervals post-hire (e.g., one year, two years, five years, etc.), along with their assimilation into the culture and rhythm of the firm, and any unique esteem or goodwill they add or bring to the firm, are pretty strong indicia of success. Most firms have a timetable for when they expect a particular lateral’s practice to begin hitting full stride and showing profitability—i.e., a return on the firm’s investment—and laterals who don’t meet that timetable are at risk of being deemed unsuccessful.

How Lateral Partners Measure Success

Likewise, lateral partners also have factors they measure in determining their satisfaction with a move, and hence, whether the move has been “successful.” These include (all cited in the article): culture, ability of the new firm to support and help lift the lateral’s practice to the next level, candor during the interview process as measured against reality on arrival. Indeed, the highest degree of satisfaction is found where reality meets expectations. Integration—full integration—is the surest way to assure success.

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Factors that Lead to ‘Satisfaction’

Growth – At any given moment, the firm and the lateral can both determine whether the lateral’s practice and revenue has grown or shrank since arriving, compared to what was represented or estimated during the interview phase. Most firms build in a discount for what they think is likely to occur, based on past experiences, and measure the lateral against the firm’s handicap target at different yearly intervals. Growth can also be measured in how much additional business the firm is able to capture due to the lateral’s presence, even if it does not directly benefit their individual practice.

Culture – Whether a lateral fits into the firm’s culture is something easily and early observed, as is (from the lateral’s standpoint) whether the traits of the firm’s culture align with the lateral’s personal values. While length of time at a firm is not determinative of success of a lateral move, it is certainly a good indicator of whether the lateral feels part of and aligned with the firm. Simply put, people don’t stay where they’re unhappy or not succeeding.

Ability to Support and Lift Practice – The second lawyer profiled in the article said he was drawn to his new firm when he saw they were “willing to put the resources into what they wanted to do.” Having the right resources to help support and lift one’s practice is the No. 1 reason respondents to our Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey (as distinct from the Law Firm Culture Survey) gave to a question about why they chose their new firm. Unfortunately, the article does not mention how the lawyer’s practice has fared from having all the right resources, nor whether the firm has yet realized any benefit from his arrival or has a timetable for measuring success. Silence on so many related subjects suggests not enough time has passed in the three years since the move to make a fair assessment. Nonetheless, his continued employment with the firm suggests it at least remain tolerable.

Candor and Integration – The article’s discussion of the Stroock move highlights the most consistent predictors of lawyer satisfaction—namely, candor and integration. Candor during the interview process, as mentioned by the acquiring firm’s chairman, is measured by comparing reality on the ground to what was represented during the interview process. Where reality meets expectations, laterals are more likely to report being satisfied, a proxy for “success.” Integration, or making the lateral feel like “part of the family” and that their success matters on more than just an economic level, is another key factor that, when done right, increases the likelihood of a lateral being satisfied.

Priority on Client Service – The first lawyer featured in the article acknowledged being “a client-first person,” noting that her “most important” focus was her clients. This is consistent with two successive Law Firm Culture Surveys, where respondents identified priority on client service as the No. 1 trait of their firm’s culture. Where the firm also prioritizes client service, laterals are more inclined to feel aligned on that value. Alignment on values is a good indicator a lateral will feel connected to the firm, enhancing the likelihood the lateral will succeed.

While there is no one set definition of success, it is a relatively straightforward calculus that takes into account the aforementioned factors. If a partner is experiencing growth in their practice, is assimilating well into the culture, and adds value to the firm, it’s more likely than not that their move has been a success.


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