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Embracing Lateral Talent for Law Firms

While law firm hiring has not—and probably will not—reached what it used to be pre-recession, it has certainly started to bounce back. A key trend of post-recession law firm hiring is the increased activity in lateral hiring. In fact, one of the reasons there are fewer jobs out in the market for law students is because of the increased activity, and value, from lateral hiring.

Here’s how law firms set themselves up to seize some of the best talent in the market from their competitors.

They embraced lateral hiring.

Lateral hiring is driving the consolidation and employment activity in the legal industry. When it comes to this type of activity, many firms hold on to the belief that they should build internally in order to attract external talent. The firms experiencing some of the most robust growth (in bringing in, and retaining talent) are breaking the mold, and willing to respond quickly and go where clients are demanding from them.

For example—as more financial services are moving to Charlotte, more agile firms turned to recruiters and existing firms to add to their ranks and establish a presence there. Clients are less willing to pay for work billed by newly minted first and second year associates—and more agile firms have trimmed those ranks, and instead, added more seasoned associates to their teams.

They filled gaps to deliver for their clients.

Lateral hiring outpaced traditional (homegrown) hiring. Most firms that did not embrace lateral hiring focus their resources on their homegrown attorneys. Internal promotion and growth varies from firm to firm, but is generally a long term game. Lateral hiring, however, allows a firm to quickly assess an experienced attorney’s ability to deliver, generate revenue, and quickly fill in the gaps in services and expertise. The expectations are often higher and easier to measure.

Think of it like hiring a specialist, or a budding novice. If you hire a newly minted attorney, you have no idea whether your investment will pay off when your biggest client suddenly needs a specialist to handle a subset of immigration work. But you can go out into the marketplace and find that specialist and bring that specialist in.

These firms had healthy, transparent, and collaborative cultures.

Successful employers are reaping the rewards from their past decisions to have firms where lawyers want to work. Their working cultures are open, more transparent, and tend to be collaborative. This makes it easy to spot cultural fit, for a lateral attorney to integrate with less anxiety, and for their attorneys to quickly jump onto a platform to develop their skills and to grow their practice.

These firms are not only collegial, they are truly collaborative. Despite the increasing pressure to bill across all firms, these firms distinguish themselves by emphasizing how a candidate can improve the firm’s overall competencies, and not just whether a candidate is bringing in a book of business. Such an environment allows them to keep their home grown talent, and be an attractive location for talent in search of a “new home.”

They took advantage of a competitive market.

Firms compete against each other for clients, marketshare, and talented candidates. When firms compete against each other, it is a candidate’s market. When certain firms make mistakes that have nothing to do with their financial results, an opportunity to approach valuable recruits arises.

This window of opportunity is brief—and firms will compete aggressively to poach and retain talent. This fiercely competitive market is a double edged sword: develop your talent, and pay attention to whether they might be eying a way out.

They kept it simple.

After a certain level, attorneys at large firms within the same market do not leave purely because of financial incentives. Often, there are deeper issues. Attractive firms do not resort to gimmicks (timing bonuses to take place after heavy recruiting seasons, for example; instead, they went back to basics: they ensure that their attorneys and talent feel heard and like they have input and ownership over the firm and their individual practice. They pay attention to empowering their attorneys to manage their own career development and see that they can achieve their professional goals.

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