Navigating a lateral partner move in 2023


As the year draws to an end, law firm hiring remains active, but a marked shift in hiring activity is evident as law firms are being more thoughtful about their hiring decisions and looking to minimize risk in lateral moves. They are focused on their tightening budgets and making sure they are getting the most out of the people they already have. While firms are still hiring, they are already increasing the level of detailed review on prospective laterals, selecting partners who will meet a need within the firm.

Partners considering a move need to be strategic about seeking out opportunities and be prepared to make the business case to a new firm as to why they are the right person to bring in.

Choosing a prospective firm

Oftentimes, partners target firms that they think will be the right places for them to move their practice long before they even begin conversations with a new firm. This approach is not always ideal, however. Many factors play into a lateral move and open-mindedness is imperative so that a partner lands at a firm where they will have the most impact.

Partners making moves need to dig into the prospective new firm to ensure it is not only the right fit, but also a place where they will be positioned well for future success.

Think about how you fit in

Knowing where you fit into a firm — and a recruiting budget — will help you navigate the lateral process. Ideally, you want to target firms where you solve a business need for them. While some firms will still make opportunistic hires, it will be easier to get a compelling offer from a firm that has a strategic need for someone with your practice. Do your research to learn which firms are looking to grow in certain practice areas and which ones are changing their strategic focus.

Consider a range of potential firms

Some firms are going to take advantage of this market and work aggressively to bring in lateral partners. Other firms are going to take a wait and see approach and be very conservative on lateral hires. If you limit your search to one or two firms that you have always held in high regard, you may not be considering firms that are your strongest options.

Approaching four or five firms in the initial search may feel like a lot, but this allows for a full evaluation of the market. Remember, starting a conversation with a firm does not mean that you ultimately need to accept an offer, and if you determine you are not interested, you can always politely decline to move forward. If there is mutual interest, you will be able to thoughtfully evaluate what your priorities are. It also puts you in a much stronger bargaining position when it comes time for the offer. Ultimately, you may end up with a firm that you thought you would, but you might also end up finding the best opportunity for you was with a firm that might not have initially been on the list.

Positioning yourself for success

Culture and fit are still an important part of the lateral process, but firms are putting an even greater focus on the financials. Firms are sharpening the pencils and taking a closer look at the numbers. Lateral hiring is expensive, even more so when it does not work out. To defend against this, firms are taking an even longer look at the financials and making sure they are making the right long-term investments.

Show your work when making projections

The lateral partner questionnaire (LPQ) will ask about your clients, prior performance, and projections for future performance. But do not wait until the LPQ to talk about your practice. As you talk about your clients and prospective portables, give detail that will help a prospective firm get comfortable with the basis of your projections. 

When possible, include details about budgeted amounts and how you based your projections (ex., prior matters for that client or similar work for other clients), as well as the reasoning behind why you think a matter will or will not settle or conclude early. Explain your client base with specific detail to make the firm understand the basis for your projections. If there are existing budgets for work, include that detail, as well as the likelihood of events such as early settlement or an eventual trial. Everyone knows that projections are at best educated guesses, but volunteering the reasoning behind your numbers will help a prospective firm be more comfortable with yours.

Look out for internal competition

Making sure that existing partners keep their plates full is a top priority for a firm, so they will be hesitant to bring on a new lateral partner in an area where they have existing partners without enough work. If you have a robust portable practice and do not need to be fed work from the prospective firm, communicate this clearly.

If, like many prospective laterals, you have the goal of expanding your practice by offering your services to existing firm clients, think about what you add that is different from what they already have. Think about how you are different from existing partners in terms of background and expertise and how you could potentially capture work that the firm is not currently getting.

Do you bring new relationships that you can expand to other partners at the new firm? Is it the value of creating a better, stronger team to pitch together? If so, make sure that your team-oriented approach comes through. If you are perceived as someone who would start to get the referrals that someone else across the firm is already hoping to get, firms may not move forward.

Articulate the reason for your move

Firms are always quietly wondering why the lateral they are talking to is looking. While you may have a laundry list of problems, this is not the time to talk about them. The interviewing process should be positive.

Lateral moves often involve both a pull and a push. The pull is the allure of the new opportunity. The push may be a change in compensation, support for your practice, concern over the firm's financial performance, or other erosions. If possible, focus on the pull and resources and opportunities that you do not currently have. When talking about the push, be thoughtful about not speaking negatively about your current firm or your partners. You can articulate how you and your practice have needs that are not the right fit with your current firm without disparaging your current firm. Nobody wants to take on someone who is bitter, or worse, hard to make happy.

Changes in the economics of your firm are a good reason to explore other options. This does not reflect poorly on your ability to get along with your partners or run your practice with reasonable support. This is often an inflection point for people to wonder if there might be another opportunity out there that is better. Remember your duty to your current firm, and be thoughtful about sharing specifics.

Do your own diligence

Diligence will be a big part of the lateral process as firms move into more uncertain economic times. This includes both preparing to face more questions about your practice throughout the interview process and doing your homework to ensure that the firm is the best place for you going forward. If the questions you have about the firm have not been addressed in the interview process, post-offer is the right time to ask them.

Times are changing, and firms are taking fewer risks when it comes to hiring. If you are a lateral partner, your goal should be to come across as a safe bet, so go into your firm search ready to make your case as to why you are the best candidate. Plan to differentiate yourself from anyone who seems similar to you. And remember the market has changed — decisions may be more about the firm and their comfort rather than a reflection on you as a candidate.


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