Are you losing out on the lateral candidates you want? Perhaps this is why

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

September 29, 2022 - After a decade of working with law firms to help recruit lateral partners, I have seen common pitfalls that can be avoided to help increase a firm's likelihood of success. Firms that offer the best opportunity and make compelling compensation offers don't always land the partners they want.

Why? Because how they handle the recruiting process can also have a big impact on the outcome. To ensure a firm is putting its best foot forward, partners and hiring teams should evaluate the lateral recruiting process regularly and consider if they are making any of these common missteps.

Timing is critical

Moving through the lateral process quickly matters — but it is not just about the overall time from submission to offer.

The overall process needs to be streamlined for consistent results. Create an internal system to quickly evaluate new prospective candidates and schedule initial meetings.

(1) Getting back to a candidate quickly shows enthusiasm; taking a week or more has the opposite effect. While it is helpful to get high-level buy in before spending time and resources on a candidate, firms that rely heavily on input from senior practice leaders often experience delays that allow other firms a candidate is speaking with to get a head start.

(2) The Lateral Partner Questionnaire (LPQ) should go to the candidate only after they have had a chance to get to know the firm well enough to want to complete it. Sending an LPQ too early and waiting to get it back before moving forward can result in never getting it back at all.

(3) Once the offer is in sight, communicate the timeline of the process as accurately as possible. Being transparent on what is involved and communicating any delays are critical. Time moves differently for someone waiting on an offer, and even a few days can feel like an eternity and make the candidate question if they want to take the offer.

Create a personal bond

A candidate should feel that someone is invested in their recruitment. This does not need to be the chair of their practice group; rather, it can be a peer, office managing partner or even someone else in the firm with whom they have a personal connection.

This person should be able to:

(1) Communicate with the candidate during the process to check their temperature on meetings and determine who else they should speak with to convince them to make the move.

(2) Help the candidate prepare for interviews by giving a little bit of background on the people they are meeting and by making them feel comfortable with whom they are meeting so they get the most out of their meetings.

(3) Ensure that the firm is putting forth consistent messaging to help bring in the candidate. Building trust interview after interview will allow this person to appropriately respond to negative reactions from the candidate and hopefully be able to correct the course.

Explain the compensation system and culture early and often

Compensation systems drive culture. Prospective laterals should have a full understanding of how their contribution to the firm will be valued at the end of the year. Do not just focus on explaining the number in the offer letter. The goal should be to make the lateral feel comfortable that they will be treated fairly over the course of their career, including after the set time laid out in their offer letter expires and they fall into the regular compensation cycle.

Do not leave conversations about the compensation system for post-offer. If the firm has a formula compensation system, either for the offer letter or after, the candidate should know that long before they get the offer. If a candidate is going to receive an offer with a formula — what I call a split the risk offer — share this information before they review the letter so they can understand that is the process and not be surprised or, worse, offended.

The people matter, A LOT

At the beginning of the lateral process, it is about going to a firm the candidate thinks is a good fit. At the end of the process, it is about going to a firm they feel is the right opportunity for them.

Feeling good about the people they will practice with is incredibly important.

(1) Every interview cannot be about pressure testing the book of business and expertise. That absolutely should be part of the process, done by one or two people identified to ask the hard questions. But other interviews should focus on fit and giving the candidate the opportunity to get to know the firm and the information they need to make the decision to join.

(2) In-person meetings are better than virtual for building relationships. Video meetings have revolutionized the interview process in many positive ways but cannot replace the benefit of meeting at least some of the partners in person.

(3) Be self-aware of how the partners present to a prospective lateral. They should not be overly boastful, competitive, disgruntled or generally unpleasant. Of course, individual personalities can only be controlled so much, but partners should bring their best selves to the interview. After interviews, check in with the people who interview together to ensure that everyone is putting their best foot forward for the firm and discuss any changes that should be made going forward.

Listening is the key to success

Everyone has unique reasons for exploring other opportunities. Identify those issues for the candidate who the firm wants and work to address those needs in the interview process. If the firm is working with a good recruiter, they should be able to share the candidate's primary criteria.

Build the story of why a particular new firm is a better fit for the candidate than where they are and other firms they may be speaking with. The trick here is to listen to the candidate describe their practice and goals and help determine why and how that person benefits the potential new firm.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for ensuring success, and no firm will get every lateral partner candidate they want. Evaluating the wins is helpful, but honestly evaluating the losses will also provide very useful information. Regroup after every interview process to review what worked and what did not. Understanding where the process went astray for the candidates will help improve the process next time.

The actions discussed above will only help a firm make the process better and increase their chances of successfully wooing their next lateral candidate.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Carol Morganstern is a partner in Major, Lindsey & Africa's Partner Practice Group, working in both the San Francisco and Palo Alto offices. She places partners, counsel, high-level government attorneys and groups at firms and helps launch new offices. She can be reached at cmorgans@MLAGlobal.com.