licensed by Walker Clark LLC from Getty Images

The melodramatic title and image for this posting might overstate the point; but it is one that small and midsize law firms frequently overlook when recruiting a partner from another law firm.

Don't make decisions about how to navigate through this very important decision based only on what you believe that you see above the waterline.


Liking and trusting another professional is limited by the degree to which we really know that person. Our confidence in someone else is usually shaped by shared experiences and observations of another person "in action" over a period of time. When we can look to examples of how that person has demonstrated integrity, commitment to colleagues and clients, and ethical behavior; we have a track record from which to make assumptions about that person's future capabilities.

However, sometimes we can have a stimulating interview or meeting where we just "click" with another person. Or a colleague or client might speak highly of a prospective new hire, and we become excited about the opportunities presented by working together.

Unchallenged optimism is shaky ground for hiring a lateral senior associate or partner.

This is why we advise our clients to approach lateral recruiting with the same care and diligence that they would apply to merging with another firm. Many of the dynamics that define the risks and determine success or disappointment are the same.

Of course, there must be a clear business case to recruit a lateral partner, based on the candidate's demonstrated expertise and financial performance, and not just on conjecture about what the new partner possibly could do.

The cultural due diligence is even more important for smaller firms, where the effects of a mistake in lateral recruiting often can damage the working relations among partners and distract the entire firm from achieving its goals. Cultural due diligence is more than just speculating about whether the new partner will "fit in." As Lisa Walker Johnson pointed out in her WorldView article, "Confronting Cultural Realities," is a complex, searching inquiry that: "...provides essential information to partners so they can confidently make important decisions about the implementation of changes in their firm."

For a law firm that is considering a potential lateral partner, this sometimes requires especially careful due dilgence that, for some people, might be uncomfortable.  For example:

  • Have you verified the candidate's description of the nature and size or his or her book of business at his or her current firm? This might require that the candidate present financial reports, with information that is irrelevant to the inquiry redacted.
  • Have you verified how much of this book of business truly is "portable?" In our experience, law firm partners tend to over-estimate, albeit usually honestly, how many of their clients and pending matters will move with them to the new firm. This might require a discussion with the candidate about his or her client relationships, at a level of detail that some candidates might find uncomfortable unless they have the clients' consents.
  • Do you have any doubts about the candidate's professional integrity? Have there been any rumors about possible lapses in professional ethics or questionable transactions? If so, have you investigated these issues sufficiently to ascertain the facts and to rule them out?

Just your asking these questions might be deal killers for some potential lateral partners. A reluctance to discuss them fully and, if necessary, to provide supporting documentation or information from third parties -- even under a non-disclosure agreement -- could be one of the biggest danger signs of all. By contrast, full, appropriate disclosure -- asking the right questions and getting complete answers -- usually produces the best lateral recruiting decison for both parties.

Norman Clark

Lisa M. Walker Johnson