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The Friday Five

How to Win the War for Lateral Talent

By Steve Nelson

Hiring lateral partners and groups is a key component of success in today’s competitive law firm market. And while large firms get all the headlines for key coups, smaller firms have both more to gain and lose in recruiting talent. Winning in the lateral market depends on how well you execute in a variety of strategic areas. Here are ways to succeed in some of the more important ones.

1. Develop a Strong Case for Your Firm

Laterals want to join a firm with a strong vision and cohesive culture. But too often, firms build their case for laterals on trite aphorisms such as “We have a collegial culture,” or “This is a great place for someone who’s in the shadows of a big rainmaker.” Instead, you need to look at recruiting talent as a sophisticated marketing exercise, just like efforts geared toward clients.

2. Integrate Your Search with Your Strategic Plan

Too often, firms get sidetracked by “shiny objects” that get presented to them as a target of opportunity. While you should seriously consider these targets of opportunity, you need to consider that efforts put into these opportunities may take energy away from the real needs of the firm.

3. Keep an Eye on Succession Planning

In the past two years, we’ve seen more firms begin to seek advice on succession planning, given the aging out of the baby boomer generation. This issue is particularly acute for small firms that often rely on one or two rainmakers. Unfortunately, many firms embark on this exercise without really understanding what succession planning is all about. The key objective is to maintain the firm’s existing client relationships, but firms tend to address that problem by hiring someone with a substantial client base of his or her own. Inevitably, the existing clients — feeling forgotten or ignored — go elsewhere.

4. Hire for Talent, Not Business

When hiring new partners, many firms focus too much on the portable book of business that a lawyer will bring and overlook the personal qualities and talent of the individual. The whole concept of “portable business” is largely becoming a myth. In today’s chaotic business world, existing clients are continually being purchased, experiencing turnover in the C-suite (including the general counsel) or slashing their outside counsel budgets. That puts a premium on talent in terms of general legal skill, but also in the ability to attract and maintain clients. Certainly, a business development record is important. But by focusing on so-called portability, firms penalize laterals who are sharing client relationships at their current firm. Isn’t that the exact behavior law firms should be encouraging?

5. Use Legal Search Consultants Effectively

The legal search industry is unlike executive recruiting in a number of ways, and you should do your homework to understand the nuances. On the one hand, law firms need to stay on the radar of as many search firms as possible, since many search firms enter into exclusive relationships with candidates. But on the other hand, you want to cultivate stronger relationships with one or a few search firms that your firm can depend on to both attract and deliver candidates.

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Categories: Business Development, Daily Dispatch, Friday Five, Law Firm Hiring
Originally published May 26, 2017
Last updated December 3, 2021
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Stephen Nelson Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson is an executive principal at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm based in Arlington, Va. Steve conducts partner-level searches, searches for in-house counsel, and searches for administrative professionals for law firms. In addition, he serves as a consultant for law firm merger planning, practice area expansion, and in recruiting strategy. Steve is a former attorney with 17 years in legal journalism and publishing and is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow him @SKNLegal.

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