Winging It Is Not a Plan

Photo credit: urbanfeel at Milwaukee Art Museum

Photo credit: urbanfeel at Milwaukee Art Museum

Lateral Partner Integration Calls For Project Management

Lateral hiring is a peculiarly difficult business. And there’s no shortage of legal industry commentary to make you think twice about its efficacy as a growth strategy. But let’s assume that despite the frustrations and the doubts, you continue with your hiring. Let’s also assume that you woo and vet candidates successfully and make good hires. Without a tailored and effective integration process for each one, however, lateral success may prove elusive both for the individual and for the firm. Given this, are you clear on what the lateral integration experience is at your firm and how effective it is? If your laterals are not all working out as expected, there’s a good chance that your integration process is the problem.

Lateral partner integration in large law firms typically has many elements but two key foundations for successful and repeatable integration are Clarity and Engagement.

Let’s start with Clarity: What are your firm’s success criteria for a lateral partner? For example, let’s take clients: Do you expect the lateral to draw and generate work from the firm’s existing clients? If so, has the work been done both pre- and post-hire to take advantage of the opportunities you anticipate? Is your goal to institutionalize the lateral’s client relationships and associated client work? If so, is this realistic? For a start, is it aligned with the lateral’s intentions? Is your plan to increase the size of the pie by cross-selling? All these questions should have been addressed during the interviewing process. Whatever the answers, they will guide what happens during the integration process.

Management should not assume that each and every lateral simply "knows" what is expected of them even if they have moved before.

 In some firms, once a lateral has joined, management quickly moves on to its next priority. As a result, there’s an element of the lateral being left to get on with their work and bill with little focus on the distant horizon. That’s not a recipe for long-term success. Management should not assume that each and every lateral simply “knows” what is expected of them even if they have moved before. The more explicit expectations are upfront, the better. It is important both to reinforce and to expand on what was said (or should have been said) during interviews. It’s essential for both sides to be clear on expectations for partner performance generally and to discuss any expectations specific to the lateral’s context and practice.

Someone in authority has to ensure that other partners know what their roles and responsibilities are in relation to each hire.

At the intersection of Clarity and Engagement is the integration team, for it is most definitely requires a team effort to successfully integrate a partner. With that in mind, does your firm have clearly defined roles and expectations in relation to lateral integration? In practice, many firms place too much reliance on their administrative teams but however talented, focused and informed an administrative team is, it can only achieve so much. When it comes to lateral integration, administrative efforts are best focused on logistics and practice support. Management needs to focus on and ensure cultural and financial integration.  The critical goal in any lateral partner integration is to get a new lateral working together with established partners and/or associates on active projects as soon as practicable. This is the single most important factor in successful integration. That’s why someone in authority has to ensure that other partners know what their roles and responsibilities are in relation to each hire.

In terms of the core integration team, at a minimum, it should include:

  1. A member of the recruiting or PD team who has overall accountability for different administrative aspects of the integration. Recruiting will usually have day-to-day conduct of the process during the recruiting phase, this typically transitions to others following the hire. Nonetheless as one of the first people a lateral interacts with, a recruiter can easily find him- or herself becoming a go to person for a newly-hired lateral. And, in the first few weeks, as the lateral finds his or her feet, that’s not to be discouraged.

  2. A member of the BD team, preferably someone whom the lateral met during the recruiting process. For more on the role of the BD and marketing team, see Lateral Partner Hiring: 4 Ways To Leverage Your BD and Marketing Team. Both the recruiting and BD representatives are friendly faces in a sea of unfamiliar faces. More importantly, they are connectors and facilitators and can play a vital role, particularly in the early integration process.

  3. A partner (preferably a mid- to senior-level partner in the same practice group) who has responsibility for the new partner’s integration over the first one to two years. This needs to be someone “with juice” so that they can organize around business integration and get things done where it involves the participation and cooperation of other partners.

  4. A partner mentor (or “buddy”) to organize around cultural integration.

The administrative team should move past the “how-the-phones-work” orientation as quickly as possible so that everyone can focus on real integration. It generally pays dividends to focus much of the logistical orientation on the lateral’s team (associates, paralegals, assistant) or if he/she has arrived alone, make sure that a well-established assistant is assigned and that established associates know that their role is not only to assist with the billable work but also to help smooth the lateral’s transition.

There is no point in developing thoughtful approaches and then just letting integration just happen to the partner.

However integration is envisaged by the firm, you still need to be responsive to the concerns, questions and ideas of the lateral. There is no point in developing thoughtful approaches and letting integration just happen to the partner - he or she needs to be a part of it. It’s essential that the overall integration experience is explained to the lateral partner. Ask the lateral partner what his/her ideas and preferences are in terms of integration. If the lateral has moved firms before, ask what worked before (and what didn’t!) and can it be replicated (or avoided) at your firm? What support does he or she expect or need? If the lateral’s ideas and expectations are not aligned with the firm’s strategy, culture and practices, management needs to be prepared to address this early on. Although it’s a honeymoon period, accommodations and exceptions should be given to a lateral with care. In a worst case, extreme or numerous exceptions and accommodations for a lateral will upset the equilibrium of the partnership, create jealousies etc. and severely disrupt the lateral’s integration.

While both the firm and the lateral may want to see the partner hit the ground running and immediately working on active matters (since this is evidence of the much desired portability), the reality is that the lateral’s success is more likely dependent on factors beyond those active matters. Be sure to revisit the business plan developed during the selection process and ensure that both the firm and the lateral commit to it because it needs to be reviewed regularly with appropriate follow-up.

Since relationships are the key to success in a law firm, when it comes to the business side, the best technique for ensuring integration success is to involve an influential senior partner (or more) in the process. The established partners are likely to enjoy a wide range of relationships within the firm and can most easily make introductions and facilitate meetings.

A lateral hire is a project: It needs to be managed as such.

It’s a cliché to say one size doesn’t fit all but it’s also wise. Consider what other techniques you can use to enhance the effectiveness of integration. Beyond the video introduction shared with the rest of the firm and the obligatory first month lunches include, are you:

  • Focusing on social and cultural integration (e.g., a welcome event, a roadshow to other offices, extending specific and personal invitations to the lateral to participate in firm events or sports teams)?

  • Organizing joint marketing visits to clients with other partners?

  • Connecting laterals with fellow law school alumni at the firm and with colleagues who share similar interests?

  • Encouraging active firm citizenship (e.g., firm committee memberships)?

  • Showcasing laterals’ skills and experience (e.g., by inviting laterals to lead practice updates and training programs, or, at the next partner retreat, by organizing specific and structured networking events so that they and their fellow partners are “required” to get to know each other)?

  • Providing integration or business development coaching?

Whatever measures you put in place, everyone involved has to follow through. It’s all too easy to front-load orientation and then leave much of the real integration to happenstance. A lateral hire is a project: It needs to be managed as such.

For more on lateral partner integration, see The First 90 Days: Lateral Partner Onboarding and Integration.

Nicholas Jelfs-Jelf advises law firms and lawyers on talent management including the recruiting, onboarding and integration of lateral partners.

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