Partners: Finding The Right Platform

What is a rainmaking partner supposed to do? You could spend half your time talking to headhunters, interviewing with other firms, or just plain mulling over different opportunities. Demand for your practice has never been more intense. Should you just tune it all out and stick with the devil you know? Or, should you open that door a crack and "see what else is out there?"

The first option must seem tempting as you sort through your voicemails deleting unsolicited headhunter calls. The second option might seem tempting as well, especially on those days when you can't get enough associate support, have been conflicted out of working on another matter for one of your clients, or the future of your current firm seems problematic. Experience has taught us that tuning out the market forces that place your practice in such demand can often prevent your practice from reaching its full potential. On the other hand, an unfocused exploration of "what else is out there" can lead to wasted time and a more than passing familiarity with red herrings and wild geese. The best approach is two-pronged: evaluate the economic, cultural and strategic condition of your current firm and then let a reputable headhunter do the work of guiding you through a manageable range of options.

Your Current Firm

You are better positioned than anyone to assess the economic, cultural and strategic condition of your current firm. However, it is important to apply some objective criteria. Are you losing business because your firm lacks capacity in certain practice areas that are important to your client base? Are you unable to generate new business in your own practice area because competing firms are viewed as stronger brands? Are the billing rates in your firm too high for the more rate-sensitive practice that you have built? Are the most significant client relationships in your firm concentrated in a small number of partners who are closing in on retirement? Are you dissatisfied with the culture? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it would be useful to consider an alternative platform.

Evaluating A New Platform

"Platform," now there is an over-used and under-scrutinized term. It is sometimes easy to forget that the only way that books of business can grow is if a partner is able to secure new business from existing clients and/or secure new clients. A better platform can help achieve that. The question is, at the end of the day, what makes for a "better" platform? The answer, of course, will vary from firm to firm and candidate to candidate. Still, there are some components that every lateral partner candidate should consider in evaluating alternative platforms:

-- Billing rate compatibility
-- Practice area compatibility
-- Client base compatibility
-- Cross functional capacity
-- Brand strength
-- Cultural cohesion
-- Fair-minded client origination allocation
-- Fair-minded compensation systems
-- Firm profitability

The analysis in most of these categories is straight forward. Our experience has taught us that the most troublesome components to accurately assess are client base compatibility and cultural cohesion. Many lateral partner candidates, and the firms that recruit them, place too much emphasis on practice area compatibility at the expense of client base compatibility. While matching practice strength with practice strength can often make sense, it doesn't necessarily improve the candidate's ability to grow the practice. And, in some cases (IP litigation and mass tort defense work, to name but two) candidates and firms that are strong in the same practice area may encounter client incompatibilities if they put their practices together. These incompatibilities may not rise to the level of formal conflicts as the parties go through the due diligence process, but they can surface as nasty surprises down the road when clients in the same industry sector discover that the firm is now representing one of their competitors. When this happens, it is almost always the new lateral partner who has to give up some business.

Reputable headhunters can help identify these potential client incompatibilities early in the process and save everybody a whole lot of time. The lesson here is that comparing client bases is more than an exercise in identifying formal conflicts. It needs to focus on potential incompatibilities as well as potential opportunities for growth. Candidates, headhunters, and firms need to drill down hard on this issue.

Then there is culture. Candidates are understandably very concerned with this component. Law firms are equally energetic in touting their cultures. How do you assess? Candidates should focus on spending as much time as possible in the courtship process talking to recent lateral partners to get their take on the cultural transition. Also, candidates need to understand firm governance and the decision-making process within the firm. Is the firm governed in a way that is reasonably designed to achieve fair and growth-oriented results on questions of client origination, partner compensation, and strategic direction?

All of this requires a significant investment of time. There simply are no acceptable shortcuts. Headhunters can help streamline the process by eliminating some alternatives based on their market knowledge and experience with certain firms. Still, every lateral partner candidate needs to appreciate that for a few months (and sometimes longer) the exploration of alternative platforms is going to eat up a lot of time. But the investment is well worth it. For those partners whose current firms are simply incapable of helping them grow their practices, the move to another platform almost always works out well. The satisfaction levels of lateral partners, as measured by their first few years of work at their new firms, are among the highest in the profession.

The demand for portable books of business will remain inelastic and intense. The headhunter calls are not likely to stop any time soon. As the new year approaches and year-end distributions come into focus, many candidates may feel the urge to consider alternative platforms. If you're feeling such an urge then it is likely that one or more of those "red flags" are flying at your current firm. It's probably a good idea to see "what else is out there."



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