Sticking to our recruiting theme for this week, I thought I’d address the issue of recruiting lateral partners.  According to Vivia Chen at The American Lawyer, during the first twelve months of the Great Recession there was a movement of “2,775 partners [who]  left or joined the biggest firms in the country.”  That’s a 10.7% increase from the previous twelve months, and a trend that many in the industry think will not slow down for some time to come.  Gone are the days where a firm brings in a first-year associate and grooms them to become a partner at the firm.  To borrow a baseball analogy, it seems that firms are bringing on partners through free-agency rather than through the farm system.  Sometimes that works out great, but many times the firms discover that this lateral partner looked a lot better on paper than he or she did in action.

I’ve been discussing this with a number of people lately and one of them said that in a market that is built upon recruiting talent from other firms, you have to be careful not to recruit the “third-stringers”.  By that, they mean that there are a number of lateral partners that are riding the coattails of others in their firm, getting their names on important matters, or assigned to important clients, but haven’t really done anything great on an individual basis.  This sort of thing happens in almost all industries.  Where you bring someone in during an interview, they look and sound great, have an impressive resume, tell you all of the people they’ve worked with and all the deals they’ve worked out, only to bring them on board and discover that they don’t quite live up to your expectations.  These third-stringers hint that they will have a number of people that will follow them to your firm and that the clients will jump ship from the previous firm and rush to bring all their legal business to your firm.  Six months after the lateral joins the firm, you look around and the only person that followed them was a secretary (whom you didn’t really need.)

So how do you avoid these third-stringers?  One answer I got said that you could cut through the smoke by asking just a few questions and watch how the potential lateral partner answers those questions.  When a potential lateral starts mentioning all the General Counsels (GC) they’ve worked with, ask this simple question – “Have you ever had [name of GC] over to your house for dinner?”  Watch to see the expression on their face.  If they answer ‘yes’, then see if they begin telling you about the experience, why they had dinner, and what their current relationship status is.  If they fumble around on this question, then perhaps their relationship isn’t as close as they are saying.

I also saw a series of questions posted on the Lateral Attorney Report back in November 2009. These are much more straight-to-the-point questions to back up the statements that the potential lateral partner has made.  Dan Binstock uses the phrase “narrow-pause” to define that period of time when the potential lateral is trying to conjure up an answer for which they were not prepared.  Questions like “How were your reviews?” or “Were you asked to leave your current firm?” and how they react to those questions can let you know if this is a quality lateral, or a third-stringer.

One thing you should probably keep in mind during this era of ‘free-agency recruiting’ is that all of those partners that you’ve managed to push out of your firm because they either didn’t fit the personality of the firm or didn’t create the book of business that he or she should have given their position, they usually wind up somewhere.  So, for all the times you thought “thank goodness we off loaded that partner”, or chuckled when you read on that a peer firm “raided” one of your third-string partners, someone else might be chuckling and saying the same thing about that third-string partner you just brought in to your firm.