All the right moves?

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Published 08/02/2010

Even as firms were laying off and otherwise letting go of associates and partners during the Great Recession, they were also hiring laterals from other firms.

In fact, one major legal industry publication reported that lateral hiring at the country’s 200 largest law firms was at a record high in 2009. The firms apparently saw a buyer’s market, and the lawyers, by choice or necessity, often headed to greener pastures when they could.

Not all lateral moves are marriages made in heaven. A Texas law firm recently lost its defense against a lawyer it had hired. The plaintiff worked for another law firm and was lured away based on alleged representations of the firm’s future and the collegiality of its founding partners, and he found neither to his liking.

Does this mean there will be an increase in litigation from dissatisfied lawyers claiming negligent misrepresentation when their lateral moves do not turn out as desired? And if firms enticed the move, are they at risk of being sued by the first law firm for interference with contractual relations?

Certainly, if firms add lawyers in today’s environment, it will be only to meet specific client demands and strategic goals. That places far greater focus on lateral hiring of experienced lawyers who have specifically desired skills and a strong book of business.

Hiring laterally, in effect, makes the most of another firm’s investment in legal talent by bringing on the right lateral for the right job without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyer training and business development.

There are plenty of positives to lateral moves for attorneys as well, provided that the decision is made with eyes wide open. The starting point for a lawyer’s successful lateral move is a careful evaluation of the prospective firm to ensure that the move will be worthwhile.

Will the lateral’s existing clients gain additional resources through the move? Are the lawyers at the new firm supportive and easy to work with? Does the financial reward at the new firm make a move worthwhile? Does the new firm take a shared approach to compensation and clients, or is it every attorney for himself?

In an effort to excel, which is made more intense by the pressure of economics, lateral moves can cause problems. Generally, attorneys are successful because they are competitive. But if they don’t know when to stop, and keep moving from firm to firm in order to come out on top and in control, their striving for success can be counterproductive.

Leaving an existing practice is an emotional process, and a successful transition to another firm will require all the traits that define success: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency and commitment.

There is no reason why a lateral move should have a negative stigma for either lawyer or firm. The decision to leave is ultimately a business one. A lateral move is part of the business dynamic that all clients understand; it should be so for lawyers and their firms as well.

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