(The names of many of the partners who contributed their views have been changed to protect anonymity. These names are marked with an asterisk.)
While a transition of any type can be challenging, it is even more daunting for partners who move from one firm to another. Everything from relationship building to marketing strategies is important in determining the lateral partner's productivity and successful integration into the new firm.
Lateral hiring is a primary marketing strategy for many firms hoping to cross-sell their services and increase their client base. The process also allows partners to switch firms in order to meet new professional and personal needs. Partners today no longer feel obligated to stay with one firm throughout their career, and any stigma associated with switching firms is long gone.
However, without proper integration and communication, lateral partners and their firms are often left doubting their decisions and forfeiting the benefits of what could have been a valuable partnership. What are the factors and issues that partners considering a move to a new firm should consider? Several lawyers who made the switch share their experiences—the good and the bad—in transitioning to a new firm, and offer suggestions to aid everyone involved in the lateral hiring process.
Book of Business
Whether or not a lateral hire comes in with a book of business can make all of the difference in the world, according to some partners. Many firms think of lateral hiring as mini-acquisitions. Bob Smith*, a lawyer who has spent a great deal of time on the subject of lateral partners and lawyers of color, says that firms primarily hire lateral partners because they want to expand into different practices in a way that is consistent with their strategic plan. While he believes that most firms expect lateral partners to have a book of business, he says that it may not always be the case. "Sometimes firms just need an additional set of hands," says Smith.
However, some laterals believe that having a book of business is a must for minority partners making the move to a new firm, since unfortunately in many instances, minority partners still have a harder time acquiring new clients than their counterparts. Sue Jones*, who has made two lateral moves at the partner level, is quick to admit that it is hard coming in without a solid book of business. Partners at the new firm have contacts that were developed and cultivated throughout the years. As a result, "They will tell you to talk to them first before approaching a specific client," she says.
Jones had an unpleasant experience at the first firm where she was a lateral, and says that there were clearly certain conflicts over client relationships that were difficult or impossible to resolve. "I had to give up clients because someone had a bigger deal with a potential conflict and they would promise to make it up to me." It never happened. Jones adds that she also experienced undertones of resentment toward her as a newcomer and she found that people who had been at the same firm for a long time had an easier time getting business, but not lawyers of color.
Mary Anderson* has been a lateral partner at her current firm for almost two years since moving over from a government postion, and agrees that the challenges are lessened for lawyers who come in with a book of business, because as a general matter, barriers to the development of significant business still exist for minority partners. However, she is quick to point out that even with a book of business, other challenges remain.
According to Karen Byrd*, a partner at a large law firm, "If you come with a book of business, then you still have to worry about fitting in with the culture of the firm, having your client fit in with the culture, and making sure their issues are really compatible with the new firm."
Transitioning from firm to firm is hard, but what about from a government position into a firm? Anderson's old firm did not expect her to have business; thus, building a book of business became her challenge. While she admits to having it a little easier because she came from a high-level position, she still worried about fitting into private practice after being in the government. "I had to readjust to being in an atmosphere where it really is a business, as opposed to a more public interest sort of environment," says Anderson. Byrd says that a book of business will always be an issue, both for lateral partners and those who came through the ranks. "How big a challenge it is depends in large part on the firm that you're working for and the mechanisms within that firm."
Jones has had more luck in her current firm. She points out that the partners asked whether she had a million dollar book of business, and she responded by asking if they wanted her to have one. The firm replied by saying that they were committed to do whatever they can to help her succeed. "I was honest with myself and the firm and said that I cannot build a million dollar book of business in six months. I knew that it would take time to develop my business." Jones says that the new firm appears to be reasonable in its expectations.
Jeff Collins also came from the government before joining his current firm and says, "Most lateral partners come with a book of business. I was starting from scratch," Collins notes. "Fortunately I am with a firm that is committed to my success. The firm has dedicated resources that assist in developing and promoting my practice." Collins adds that it is comforting not to arm-wrestle anyone over funds to attend conferences or to make sale pitches to clients.
"If you're miserable going to work every day and you're miserable while you're there, it's not going to be a good experience even if you have a ten-million-dollar book of business."
Integrating into the Firm
All of the partners interviewed agreed that coming into a new firm where there are many established relationships is one of the challenges faced by lateral partners. Proper integration into the new firm is key for lateral partners to have a successful work experience.
"By not coming up through the ranks of the firm, lateral partners have the added challenge of building effective working relationships both in and outside the firm," says Collins. Smith says that he thinks minority lateral partners especially spend a significant amount of time trying to integrate into the firm, something that he believes most firms do not know how to properly handle.
"Relationship development and management within a firm is huge," says Anderson. While she says that her experience has been positive because her firm has a "work together" kind of ethos, the one thing that laterals have to deal with—no matter how welcoming the firm—is just fitting into a group of people who have been together for a long time. "It is difficult establishing space for yourself and fitting in with a bunch of people that have already been hanging out," Anderson shares.
"One of the challenges obviously related to coming in as a lateral is that you're coming in the middle of other people's career paths," says Byrd. She believes how well a lateral hire is accepted into the new group of lawyers is dependent on whether or not the firm is supportive or if it is an "eat and kill" atmosphere. "The firm's approach will determine your success in light of those challenges," she notes.
Byrd also believes that it is imperative to at least be able to establish a cordial, professional relationship with the people that the new hire has to work with on a day-to-day basis. Before accepting an offer, Byrd says it is important to decide if your new team members are people that you would feel comfortable working with every day.
"This is more important than what type of work is being given and what type of work the firm helps you to establish," says Byrd. "If you're miserable going to work every day and you're miserable while you're there, it's not going to be a good experience even if you have a ten-million-dollar book of business."
Even under the best circumstances, Anderson believes that it really takes a couple of years to feel completely integrated into the firm. "Don't make the mistake that I made in the very beginning by not thinking it would take that long," warns Anderson. "You can feel really comfortable in the first year and have a good feeling about the choice you made, but I think to feel that you've really integrated takes two to three years."
In establishing relationships and integrating, lateral partners suggest a number of ways to jump right in and become a part of the team. For starters, find someone within the firm to communicate with and who will help make the transition easier.
Mentors Can Help
Experts say do not underestimate the power of a good mentor, or even just someone within the firm who helps to ease the adjustment. While it is more difficult as a minority lateral partner to find someone amongst an established group of coworkers to connect with, it is nonetheless extremely important.
Anderson says that having champions that stick with the new partner to help get acclimated to the firm is ideal. However, she warns against having just one person in one department, and says that laterals need a couple of people who show support to make it go well.
"It's more than a mentor and more than one," Anderson notes. "You need to be in contact with people in different areas of the firm, people who can help you with business stuff and whom you can go to confidentially. I definitely have a few folk that I believe are in my corner helping me to be successful."
Collins concurs. "It is important that you find someone within the firm whom you can confide in and who will go to bat for you," says Collins. He says that his current firm promotes mentoring that is a part of partner's profile, just like billable hours. "This sends the right message in terms of teamwork."
While Anderson says that lateral partners should definitely have people in their corner who look like them and talk like them, they should also have people who do not. She adds that it is good for African Americans to have other African Americans to talk with, even if they do not always agree with each other, as they offer a perspective that other people in the firm may not have.
"It's crucial to have someone whose office you can go into, close the door, and ask what the real deal is, but it is equally as critical to have someone different from you who is influential, a big business developer or someone whom people in the firm know as influential who is willing to get to know you, spend time with you, and maybe help you with some business opportunities," Anderson recommends. (This point is also examined in the Mentoring Across Differences column titled, "Overcoming Differences to Achieve Meaningful Mentoring Relationships" by Ida O. Abbott, appearing in this issue of Diversity & the Bar®.)
Anderson believes that many lateral partners do not do both, and they only look for someone who looks like them. "Some think that when you look to someone or choose a mentor who's different than you that you are forgetting who you are or losing yourself, but that's just not true—you have to survive in that environment. People look around and see who's supporting you and that seems to make a lot of difference."
"It's crucial to have someone whose office you can go into, close the door, and ask what the real deal is, but it is equally as critical to have someone different from you who is influential, a big business developer or someone whom people in the firm know as influential who is willing to get to know you, spend time with you, and maybe help you with some business opportunities."
Join Committees for Exposure
Lateral partners do not always take advantage of the benefits offered by joining committees and affinity groups. Experts say that it is important to let the firm know that they are available to do committee work. In fact, partners agree that although a lateral partner, especially a minority hire, may have to work harder to be included in firm committees, strategic placement on a variety of committees will help ensure that she is not being left out of key projects. In addition, it is an opportunity for the lateral to show his commitment to the firm, and it gets him out of his office and interacting with coworkers.
"People like to see your face," says Anderson. "You could be in your office doing great work and getting good results with clients, but it doesn't matter if people don't know you within the firm." Anderson, who sits on three committees that all have different key players, conveys that decision makers are influenced by their buddies. "If their buddies hear good things and are talking about you, it all helps in the perception that you are a team player in the firm," emphasizes Anderson. She also admits that while committee work takes up time from all of the hours a lateral is supposed to bill, it does make a difference, particularly to a newly hired lateral. By joining these firm committees early on, it allows the lateral to have firmwide responsibilities and interact with long-tenured partners.
Insufficient communication with clients and other partners when bringing a lateral on board can start the relationship off on the wrong foot. While there needs to be a formal plan, too often neither the partner nor the firm has one in place. This often results in both the lateral partner and the hiring firm having unrealistic expectations.
It is difficult for lateral partners to market themselves within the firm to get business from other partners, and many times access to institutional clients is limited or non-existent. In some instances, there is even resistance to the creation of any strategy that would familiarize the client base with the new partner and/or practice.
Internal and external communication regarding the lateral partner is vital. Legal experts suggest that the new and existing partners must have a commitment to participate actively in the integration and cross-selling process.
"Lateral partners and firms need to appreciate the value of cross-selling," says Collins. "When firms and lateral partners combine their resources and relationships, it creates a win/win situation."
Byrd says that she considers herself lucky because her firm has been completely supportive of her efforts. "The group I'm working with in particular has made a yeoman's effort on working me onto not only the firm's institutional clients but also helping me to develop a client base on my own because my group does marketing from a team standpoint as well. The practice coordinator has been completely unselfish in sharing clients. I recognize that I may have an experience that's different from other people, but I've been very lucky," says Byrd.
Diversity as a Lateral
Although diversity progress is being made by law firms, issues pertaining to ethnicity still exist today, adding to the list of challenges that lateral partners must face every day. From working twice as hard to prove themselves worthy of the position to fighting for equal compensation, minority and women partners at times cannot escape the fact that others may judge them by their looks instead of their credentials.
Smith says that the problem of a lack of diversity starts at the top, because many rainmakers do not work with lawyers of color on their legal teams. In order to closer examine the issue of diversity and law firms, Smith uses the pyramid model as an example: Rainmakers are at the top of the triangle, associates are at the bottom, with legacy partners, service partners, junior partners, and retired or senior status partners all in between.
"Typically, a lawyer starts at a firm at 25 years old, and it usually takes seven or more years to become a junior or non-equity partner," says Smith. "Let's assume that one becomes a partner at 32 years old. That partner would be on the low line of partnership, and it would take minimum of 15 years to move up that one. Most entry-level partners make it because they have been good associates, not rainmakers." Smith explains that next to the rainmakers are the lawyers who manage the institutional business. "The lawyers who service the institutional clients today basically inherited that relationship over time. They have just been doing the work so long and probably started off as an associate 20 years ago."
Collins says that while diversity is a hot corporate topic, partners should be careful not to be in a situation where they become pigeonholed into just being in on the sales pitch when there's another minority on the other side of the table. "Let them know that your reach is global in the value that you bring to the firm."
Anderson has been fortunate and says that her firm was definitely looking to grow its African American partner ranks, and the firm was very strategic about it. "They didn't just go and try to hire a bunch of minority partners; they really looked for the areas they needed strength in and tried to match those areas up with people who had expertise in that field."
"I think it's difficult just overcoming any perception that some partners may have as to why you're there and whether you are owning your keep. Some may think that the only reason you're there is because the firm needed an African American," admits Anderson, who says that her current firm sought her out from another firm where she had been a partner for almost five years. "I think they did a good job in making sure it was the right time and the right fit."
Partners expressed additional challenges, including the fact that big firms do not select laterals from the same pools and admission requirements are often higher. Ensuring equal compensation also presents another problem for lateral partners. "It's amazing to me that some companies still want to pay me a lower rate than my male Caucasian counterparts with no reasonable explanation," says Jones, who adds that sometimes firms will try to justify the unfair compensation by saying, "He's doing a different type of work."
"Be honest and ask them about their specific expectations, such as whether they expect a million dollar book and the type of support they will commit to giving you to achieve that goal."
Advice is plentiful from partners who have transferred into their current positions from another firm. Jones advises those partners considering a lateral move to get everything out into the open before the move. "Be honest and ask them about their specific expectations, such as whether they expect a million dollar book and the type of support they will commit to giving you to achieve that goal." Jones believes it is important for lateral hires to know how much time the new firm will give them to develop or redevelop their practice. In addition, lateral partners in firms with national clients should ask the firm to be active in making introductions. Lateral hires should also request the new firm to commit to footing the bill for any necessary business development travel.
"Each firm is different. Some firms are very traditional, some are very entrepreneurial, and some firms are just rubber-stamped," says Smith, who also points out that while the law does not change, culture and environment are the two things that differentiate law firms. Smith also agrees that partners considering a lateral move should first understand their expectations for the new firm and determine if those expectations are consistent with what the firm can deliver. "If you're expecting apples and they only give you oranges, that can lead to a big misunderstanding." Smith compares some firms to auto dealers, saying, "They would say almost anything to lawyers to get them in the door, but those promises do not match the reality."
Anderson says that partners who do not have a book of business need to be more strategic about how to make a contribution to the firm and gain the firm's support. She advises partners that before making a decision, they should find someone in the firm who will talk openly and honestly. "I spoke to two people at length," says Anderson, "a woman lawyer who'd been at the firm about 20 years and a male African American attorney who'd been there about a year. I asked some tough questions and they were honest. I felt like I was really getting a good sense of the firm from people who'd been here a long time and people who'd been here a short time."
Byrd agrees and says to talk with as many people as possible at all levels. She says to avoid broad questions like, "Are you happy?" and instead ask specific questions such as, "What clients do you work with? Have you been allowed to take the lead on some major transactions? What institutional clients do you work with? Does the firm send you to marketing meetings? Have you tried a case by yourself?"
"My advice is, 'Do as much due diligence as you can,'" says Byrd. She concludes that due diligence is critical and advises partners to remember to do it from a personal standpoint in order to truly determine if the prospective firm is a place where they would want to go to work every day.
In order to benefit from a successful lateral move, all agree that both the new and existing partners must be committed to actively participating in the integration and cross-selling process. In addition, good internal and external communications is vital. Done wisely, lateral hiring has allowed firms to expand and their partners to thrive.
Carisa Crawford-Chappell is a freelance writer based in Bowie, Md.
From the March/April 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®