According to the ABA Journal, law firms are set to grow even if the market takes a turn for the worse in 2020. The results of a 2019 survey revealed that 63% of responding law firms felt satisfied or extremely satisfied with their lateral hire experiences. It is believed that one of the key reasons that lateral hiring for law firms is successful is because of improvements in the lateral hiring process.
So, just what is the lateral hiring process? How does it affect your law firm? Are there benefits of lateral hiring for your law firm? Is there anything you could or should do to help the lateral hire adjust to their new professional life so that they’re more likely to stick around? Here’s how you can get lateral hiring right for everyone involved.
What Is Lateral Hiring?
Lateral hiring, also referred to as lateral recruitment, is a hiring process that involves hiring someone who has a certain amount of experience as opposed to hiring someone who recently passed the bar exam and who has practically no experience practicing law. A lateral hire could be an associate or staff attorney. It could be an attorney who could be considered for partnership after a certain length of time. Some consider the concept of lateral hiring as “cherry picking,” but it also makes good sense when you consider the needs of clients and law firms.
To some degree, the lateral hiring process for law firms is similar to the hiring of new associates and other staff. You craft a well-written job description that attracts qualified candidates. You sift through resumes and cover letters. You begin the process of interviewing potential lateral hires. Then, the real work begins to screen the lateral hires.
The screening process should focus on removing lateral hire candidates who would not fulfill your law firm’s objectives. If you wanted inexperienced help, you’d be looking for lawyers who recently passed the bar with very little to no experience practicing law. But that’s not what you’re after. You’re after someone who may need some time to gain their footing in a new position, but they know what they’re doing. What you’re really looking for is whether they have the experience in certain practice areas as well as certain skills, including skills using the legal tech adopted by your firm, to help move your law firm toward its overall objective as well as quarterly and yearly goals.
Do you expect your lateral hires to have a book of business that they bring with them? Even if the answer to that question is no, consider the business development practices of your law firm. Do you require your lawyers to engage in their own business building activities to bring in clients? If so, then look for lateral hires who have an entrepreneurial spirit and who are comfortable engaging with potential clients. They should understand how to tell the difference between someone who would make a good client for your law firm and who wouldn’t as well as how to nurture long-term, positive relationships with clients.
Once you’ve found one or more lateral hires you believe would fit in well, the next step is to verify their credentials. Like the saying goes, “In God, we trust…everyone else gets a background check.” This isn’t necessarily a sign of mistrust. Phillip Asher, also known as Phillip Reynolds, went to prison for 33 months. He wasn’t a lawyer and appeared to hold himself out as one to the general public. Of course, one could certainly argue that a representative of a law firm should be much harder to fool than a member of the public. The onus is on you to verify bar numbers and ensure that your potential lateral hires are, indeed, admitted to practice and are in good standing…and that they aren’t in the middle of a disciplinary proceeding or facing disbarment. In other words, perform your due diligence. Keep in mind that anything that comes up after you hire them could make your law firm look bad in the eyes of the public. And bad PR is the last thing you want or need.
In addition to reviewing official credentials, don’t forget to check social media, Yelp, Avvo, and even Google. While we all know that there are times when online reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, there’s a lot that you can learn from public posts, online behavior, and multiple reviews. As for Google, we’re recommending that you go past the first few pages of results. The first one or two pages could very easily be articles from bar journals, articles published in magazines or on websites whose target audience is lawyers, legal forums, and the likes. If you keep moving back, you may also find other information about your potential lateral hire that may or may not be flattering. Be careful, though. It is imperative that you ensure that whatever information you come across is indeed posted by your potential new hire or is indeed accurate information regarding your potential new hire.
How Does Lateral Hiring Affect Your Law Firm?
Lateral hiring can be a scary experience for the lawyers who already work for you. You’re not bringing inexperienced lawyers into the fold. You’re bringing in people with experience – people who could, in some instances, be considered their professional equals. That can cause concern. There could be gossip or fear that perhaps your law firm is preparing to replace one or more existing lawyers. Because of this, it’s important to reassure your existing team that the purpose of lateral hiring is to expand the firm to better serve the clients and not because you’re looking to replace anyone.
Now, from a law firm management perspective, there are a few more things that must be handled. And these things should be handled as soon as possible. First, you need to create an exit strategy. Of course, no one really wants to think about bringing on a lateral hire who will leave within a short amount of time. Hiring anyone, let alone a lawyer, isn’t cheap. You certainly do not want to go out of your way to do it again any time soon. Yet, sometimes even the best laid plans go awry. You need to know what you’re going to do if it just doesn’t work out. And you need to know this in advance. This is not a time to rely on the concept of “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Next, the management team needs to inform clients, prospects, and referral sources of the new hire. A professional announcement should be drafted and placed in the appropriate legal, business, and trade papers. These ads, as well as the informational letters sent out to clients, prospects, and referral sources should explain how the new hire will help improve the service provided by the law firm.
Marketing materials, including your firm’s website, should be updated to include the name and contact information of the lateral hire. It is imperative that this information is updated as soon as possible for two reasons. First, it creates a sense of cohesiveness. It helps show clients and potential clients that the lateral hire is here to stay. Second, it helps reinforce to the lateral hire that the law firm sees their presence as a long-term fixture. While most people certainly understand that it can take some time to make the appropriate updates, there’s absolutely no reason for it to take months. In fact, when it takes months, it sends the wrong message to the public and to the lateral hire.
Helping Your New Lateral Hire Adjust to Firm Life
Hiring a lawyer, whether it’s a lateral hire or hiring someone who recently passed the bar and has little experience, takes a substantial investment of your law firm’s time, money, and other resources. And you want them to stay. It’s important to help your new lateral hire adjust to firm life. Even though they’re experienced in the practice of law, working inside of your law firm is still new to them. It’s a transition for them. It’s still the practice of law, but that doesn’t mean that your law firm functions in exactly the same way as their previous employer. It takes time to adjust. And it is your job to help them adjust.
Designate someone in the practice area in which the lateral new hire is placed to introduce them to others and to answer questions. We hesitate to use the word “buddy.” This also isn’t a mentor since we’re talking about a lateral hire who is experienced. The person you choose is a resource for your lateral hire who can answer questions about how your law firm operates as well as how the practice group functions, everything from where to find templates most commonly used by the department to where to find the firm’s handbook to how to access and use the firm’s legal tech. This person should be friendly and available to answer questions as well as check in with the lateral hire from time to time to make sure they’re doing well and feel comfortable.
Make the lateral hire feel welcome. How you do this will depend on the lateral hire. If the lateral hire is an associate, you’ll want to ensure that their bio is placed on the website on a timely manner and that their name is placed on the letterhead and other marketing material if that’s something that your law firm does. You could welcome them in a firm-wide email or plan a staff breakfast or lunch. Issuing a press release may also be appropriate or post an announcement on your firm’s website. While this may seem like a way to put the spotlight on the firm, it also makes the new lateral hire feel welcome because it highlights all the wonderful reasons why your law firm believes that they are a great addition.
Make time for personal, informal contact with lateral hires on a regular basis. You don’t necessarily need to set appointments on a calendar, but depending on how busy your schedules are, that might be the best way to ensure that you and the lateral hire can make time to meet. Making time to sit down to have a personal and informal chat with lateral hires on a regular basis helps you (and them) make a connection. They feel valued and heard as they make their transition. You learn whether they are struggling, how you can help, and gain valuable feedback about your law firm and how it can improve for your employees.
Make liberal use of internal communication vehicles to help lateral hires. If you send out a newsletter or even weekly or bi-weekly email updates with law firm news to your employees, include helpful tips about legal tech your law firm uses inside of your newsletter or email. You could also include helpful email addresses, contact names, or contact phone numbers for Human Resources, the Law Office Administrator, the File Clerk, the Docket Clerk, and the name and contact information for the head of each practice area.
Create social opportunities for your employees. We’ve already mentioned breakfasts and lunches as a way to help welcome lateral hires, but those don’t have to be the only ways you help your new lateral hires transition. Depending on the size of your law firm, you could join community sports leagues. You could volunteer together. There are a lot of things you could do as a group to both welcome your lateral hire and foster a sense of togetherness.
Understand that it can take six months to a year to help your lateral hire feel secure. Remember, they’re experienced in practicing law, but working inside of your law firm is a new experience. It can take time to get used to new policies and procedures as well as new people with different personalities. Be patient. They are still new at two months…and three months…and even at six months. It can take up to a year before a lateral hire really feels secure in their new environment.
Recognize that sometimes it’s just not a good fit. Lateral hires can seem right during an interview and even during the first days, weeks, or even months of working in an environment. And sometimes things happen…and you or the lateral hire realizes that it just isn’t a good fit. It happens. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is unethical or that your law firm is bad or that their work is bad. The culture may not be right for them. And that’s fine. If there’s a contract involved, review it before ending the relationship. Hopefully, your firm and the lateral hire can part on good terms.
Make Sure Your Lateral Hire Is a Great Fit
Overall, if your law firm plans to use lateral hiring, make sure your candidate is the best possible fit for the environment. Then, focus on making their transition comfortable. Happy hiring!