Can the Lateral Recruitment Puzzle Be Solved?

June 3, 2016

Many law firms, including ours, have made lateral hiring an integral part of their growth strategies. And many law firms, including ours, have found that the most important currency in lateral recruiting is not dollars, but information. That insight is not unique to Levenfeld Pearlstein, but we believe the action we have taken in response to it is. Last year, we made it the foundation of a web-based resource aimed at improving our lateral recruiting efforts. Our reasons for developing that tool, our strategic choices in designing it, and the lessons learned from the experience are applicable to a wide range of firms.

A persistent contradiction has long surrounded lateral recruiting, one that can make the task appear to be a fool’s errand. The contradiction is this: firms consistently state that they intend to rely on lateral recruiting for growth, while simultaneously conceding that their past lateral recruiting efforts have not been successful. The tension between those two statements is extreme, and brings to mind the clichéd saying about the definition of insanity—doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. At best, it should give firms pause in crafting business strategies built on lateral hiring. At worst, it’s a red flag urging them to abandon it altogether.

We haven’t done that, nor have other firms, because we’ve all seen what happens when we make the right lateral hire. Successful lateral hires can greatly enhance client rosters, revenues, practice capabilities, and cultures at their destination firms. The catch for hiring firms, and the reason for the contradiction noted above, is that their “hit rate” for successful lateral hires is not nearly high enough, and of the meaning of a “great lateral hire” is not well-defined beyond a substantial book of business.

At Levenfeld Pearlstein, we began to think seriously about how we could be more efficient and effective in identifying prospects likely to be a good fit with our firm. Ultimately, that thinking led to the development of our lateral recruiting portal (www.joinlp.com).

Why This Approach?

At the heart of any recruitment is an exchange of information between candidate and prospective employer. The more information a job candidate receives about a potential place of employment, the better decision they can make about whether they might thrive there (and, consequently, whether they should accept an offer). Likewise, the more information a prospective employer gains about the candidate, the better decision they can make about whether to extend an offer.

Some employment contexts have no barriers to a full and free exchange of information. In lateral attorney hiring, however, this vital exchange of information is limited. Candidates have a professional obligation to keep the confidences of their clients, so they cannot fully describe their work. Even more problematic is the fact that one significant piece of information about any lateral candidate’s practice—how much of their clients’ business would travel with them to a new firm—is difficult to know and impossible to verify beforehand. These two factors, especially the latter, require firms to operate without full information in making their decisions on lateral candidates.

Although firms do what they can to mitigate the issue through probing questionnaires and other means, it’s a fact of life in the legal profession that no one firm can change. We realized, however, that we could take action on the other side of the information exchange—increasing the flow of information from law firm to prospective lateral. We conceived broadly of a tool that would help us inform the lateral market as fully as possible about the characteristics of Levenfeld Pearlstein, which would accomplish at least three different purposes.

First, the tool would serve a marketing function, making our firm known to the widest potential pool of lateral candidates. As a mid-sized firm whose peers are national and global firms, our first challenge is ensuring that quality candidates have been made aware of Levenfeld Pearlstein. With the right tool, we could make ourselves known directly to lateral candidates as well as the third-party recruiters that work with them.

Of course, firms with established reputations may not have a similar need to raise awareness in the lateral market. Such firms may have the opposite problem, however, in that their entrenched reputations are inaccurate. Firms that have been unfairly labeled may find it useful to correct an unfair perception that has taken root in the market.

Second, we wanted to give lateral candidates the information they needed to properly “vet” our firm. Lateral recruiting is a two-way street. Just as neither party benefits when a law firm hires an unqualified lateral candidate, neither party benefits when lateral candidates select a firm for which they are a poor professional or cultural fit. It can be difficult for candidates to assess that degree of fit based on interviews with a limited number of individual partners.

Presenting ourselves as transparently as possible, we determined, would empower lateral candidates in their search. We knew that being very candid about our firm’s characteristics would cause certain candidates to eliminate Levenfeld Pearlstein from consideration, and a law firm must be very comfortable with that. Try as we sometimes may, a firm can rarely be all things to all people, and it’s much better for lateral candidates who don’t like our style to eliminate themselves from contention early on than to do it weeks, months, or years down the road. No law firm will tell you it is tolerant of wasting resources, and for us at least, this process helps in that regard.

Finally, undertaking this project allowed us to live out one of Levenfeld Pearlstein’s core values—operating as transparently as possible within a traditionally opaque profession.

What We Did.

In line with the above, we set out to develop a microsite that would serve as a resource to give potential recruits (and recruiters) a fuller picture of Levenfeld Pearlstein than they would be able to glean from any single interview. To be clear, the portal was not designed to replace traditional search methods, nor in-person interviews (there is no substitute for those), but rather to supplement them in the recruiting process.

The portal covers many topics of potential interest to lateral candidates. We included obvious ones (compensation system, benefits, professional development, support for laterals), as well as those that may be more important than laterals first realize (firm succession and governance, firm culture, and firm systems built on trust).

We knew that our presentation would be meaningful only if we delivered real and specific information. The site contains details regarding, for example, our range of billing rates, our realization rate, and our firm’s borrowing practices. On the topic of compensation, we explain our “total scorecard” approach to setting compensation levels. In the benefits section of the site, we discuss granular matters like possible pre-tax transit plans and other benefits. In explaining our systems based on trust, we describe our partner survey process, in which all partners in the firm are invited to review all other lawyers.

Rather than a text-heavy approach, each topic is introduced through a video of a firm leader speaking on that issue. That format gives lateral candidates a sense of the personalities at the firm—and another valuable layer of information to consider in assessing Levenfeld Pearlstein. Through it all, we believe that certain characteristics of our firm show through, including our belief in collaboration, respect for our colleagues, transparency and accountability.

 

What We Learned.

The recruiting portal has helped us to achieve our goals, particularly by raising awareness among lateral candidates and recruiters, and in creating a more informed base of candidates.

Most importantly, developing the portal required us to identify and refine the key messages about the firm that we want to deliver to the lateral market. This benefit was unexpected in large part, because we have always done substantial thinking about our identity. Before starting this project, our attorneys and marketers would have said that that we “knew ourselves” well, and they would have been right. Still, the process of creating the website demanded that we distill our messaging further than we had before. That proved beneficial; in the end, we were able to articulate our appeal to lateral candidates in a more concise, accurate and powerful way than ever.

We suspect that any firm undertaking a project like this will gain similar insight. That alone makes the endeavor a worthwhile one. Of course, that’s just the cherry on top if it helps firms in their enduring quest to make successful lateral hires.

 BY ANDREA MACIEJEWSKI AND SHELLY LEONIDA

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    Mary E. Doohan, Group Counsel

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