published April 11, 2020

By Maria Laus, Author - LawCrossing

Recruiting Roadmap for Lateral Candidates

How to Hire a Lateral Attorney

A law firm is a demanding workplace, and each has a very defined culture. Some firms view attorneys who are seeking lateral moves potential problems because they are leaving one firm for another. Those in charge of the hiring process want to a clear understanding of why they are seeking a lateral move.
Recruiting Roadmap for Lateral Candidates

Statistically, lateral hires can seem like a bad bet, as research shows that over 70% leave within three to five years. That does not mean there is a shortage of bright talent looking for a lateral move, but it means that firms need a robust pre-hiring strategy to make sure they are investing in the best fit for the position.

The following steps can help ensure that firms see a return on the resources allocated to recruiting, hiring, and training lateral attorneys.

Clarify the reasons the attorney is seeking a lateral move. During the interview process, it is natural for attorneys to expect this question and to have prepared an answer that casts the step in the best light.

Blunt questions can often be the way to go. Ask questions such as, "Were you asked to leave?" or, "Should we be concerned about your loyalty?" when discussing their current or previous positions. Using discernment in how natural and truthful the forthcoming answers seem can give the interviewer insight into the motivation of the candidate. It can seem difficult to ask such pointed questions, but knowing the truth in the interview process gives you the tools you need to make an informed hiring decision.

Clarify the reasons you are seeking a lateral attorney. You cannot make a wise hiring decision if you do not understand what role you want the new hire to fulfill. Without this clarity, hiring managers can fall in love with a candidate and then trying to carve out a place to put them. This creates a stressful transition and sets the candidate up for failure before they even start.

Are you seeking someone to create a niche practice area inside the firm, or are you looking for someone to strengthen an existing practice area? If you want a lateral attorney to enhance an established part of the firm, you need to take the rest of the team into account when deciding on the best candidate. The potential candidate might be a rockstar, but if they cannot work well with others in the practice area, then the transition will be a disaster.

Too many hiring mistakes can erode the teamwork of a firm and leave gaps that impact the bottom line. If you are hiring a lateral attorney to work as part of an overall team in a specialty area, it might be wise to have second interviews that include input from other team players. Integration is the key to retention, and finding the right personality to fit with the team drives integration.

Seek the right cultural fit. Establish an understanding of the culture of the last firm where the candidate worked. Ask if the culture of the previous firm played a role in their desire to make a lateral move. If the culture of their last firm played a role in their willingness to seek a lateral move and your firm has a similar culture, then you know they may not be a good fit.

Know the size of the firm the candidate is leaving and understand the potential difficulties in adjusting. If they work at a firm with ten partners, and your firm has 500, then you should expect some level of culture shock. Likewise, a move from a large firm to a smaller or niche firm may experience difficulty in a perceived lack of support or technology.

Vet potential candidates thoroughly. Some firms make the mistake of vetting lateral hires more loosely than they do those recruited straight from law school or internship. Avoid this mistake as lateral hires have more history that can help you understand if they are the right fit for your firm. Taking the time to vet the candidate before moving forward in the hiring process can save potential headaches down the road.

Do an extensive background check. When doing an online search, use all the tools and resources available. Visit social media profiles and see what information is available. Use Google's image tab when you search for the name and always view the candidate's LinkedIn profile.

Prepare an extensive list of interview questions that establish you have researched the candidate's background. Does this make them appear uncomfortable? If so, why?

Work your contacts to find someone who may have worked with the candidate in the past.

Ask direct questions about past cases and projects and then verify the candidate's involvement.

Set clear expectations with recruiters. Recruiters who specialize in placing attorneys should be able to do much of the work before you ever receive a file about the potential candidate.

Make sure the recruiter understands precisely what you are looking for in a potential hire, which may require some introspection on your part. Is there a defined need you want the candidate to fill? What qualifications and background does the candidate need?

The candidate should have a clear definition of the culture of your firm before deciding if the position is something they want to pursue. Can you define the culture of your firm, and what values, beliefs and personality types thrive in the environment of your firm? Recruiters save time, effort, and resources when they have a clear picture of the ideal candidate and only take up your time with those that are the closest match.

Be prepared to invest in integrating lateral hires. The statistics about the revolving door syndrome of lateral hires are not solely the fault of lateral attorneys. Firms invest significant resources in recruiting new hires but forget to put the effort needed into the retention of their talent. Simple steps can help boost the success of lateral hires, such as:
  • Assign a strong mentor
  • Introduce the lateral hire to other successful lateral hires in your firm
  • Give them the back-up they need by assigning skilled paraprofessionals familiar with all aspects of the firm. Law firms often give new hires new assistants and paraprofessionals to work with, which creates a weakness as they try to learn the ropes together. Instead, assign established assistants and paraprofessionals to the latest hires.
  • Be prepared to invest in continuing education and training for lateral hires. If you want lateral hires to meet and exceed expectations, invest in conferences, seminars, and other training tools that will help them become valuable team players.
  • Have established benchmarks for lateral hires. It is easier to meet or exceed expectations when you are clear about those expectations. Before hiring a lateral attorney, know what basic metrics will measure performance. Billings, revenue, production, and new clients brought to the firm are standard baselines that can tell you how a newly hired attorney is performing.
  • Be clear about the baseline expectations upfront and incentivize a newly hired lateral attorney to exceed these benchmarks. Analytical software is excellent for allowing firms and individual attorneys to track their progress toward goals in real-time.

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