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I've long been intrigued by lateral recruitment, which has always been grossly inefficient. Not the actual recruitment per se. There are lots of good recruiters who can find and attract the laterals you seek. I'm referring to actually getting what you thought you bought.

I see lateral recruitment as a fluid and dynamic set of interrelated issues:

  • Vetting recruits' claims of client portability

    • How much of the $600k can she actually bring with her?

    • What can we do to raise that % before she leaves her current firm and joins us?

  • Hiring process

    • not merely confirming skills and capabilities and assessing cultural fit, but also

    • assessing what it will take to end up with an economically productive partner

  • Planning the lateral's assimilation into the firm, which includes various forms of training and communication

  • Assimilating the lateral's clients

  • "Completing" the lateral, e.g., business development training and support


Long ago, when I was a headhunter in IT, I recruited serious programmers who could write commercial system software. They were a rare breed, hard to find. Most of the hires were "laterals" from other system software companies. However, the shortage of such people, and their relative immobility (their existing employers paid them extremely well and provided plenty of technical challenges) meant that, to enlarge a small talent pool, my clients also had to consider systems programmers from the end-user community, where the level of technical proficiency required to support, say, a bank's systems was much lower than that required for commercial software. It was akin to Major League Baseball teams having a minor league team system to develop players to be ready for the majors. 

Clients accepted that, because of the rarified skills required, few candidates would walk in their door fully qualified. That meant their technical interviews were less about skill validation than skill calibration (against their standards). It was "gap analysis." In relation to commercial technical standards, where did this candidate fall on the capability spectrum? They had to assess how much development investment would be required to end up with a valid "product."

Law firms have a lot of experience with a lesser version of this with 3Ls, who arrive with basically no marketable skills, so firms know that they're hiring a raw talent that they'll have to develop from nothing.

Laterals’ gaps

Laterals, though, are much more like my technology industry example. They bring a lot more to the table, but you don't know what percentage of "completeness" they bring with them. It would be healthy for your firm to shift its hiring mindset to assume that any lateral will be deficient to some degree vs. your standards for a complete partner (which you should have articulated), or a complete 6th-year associate, in at least some categories and that the firm will have to invest in completing their development.

Just as all the ideal merger-partner law firms have probably already married somebody else, it's prudent to assume that the few optimal laterals have found homes, too. It's an exaggeration, but it's a more realistic perspective to apply to hiring than hoping or assuming that once you hire them you're done. If you get a fully-formed partner from time to time, good for you. But it's not the way to bet.

When you evaluate the cost of a lateral hire, you should add "remedial development" to your existing list (draw, points, overhead, headhunter fee, relocation, and economic ramp-up).

One area almost certain to require meaningful investment is lawyer business development training. A lateral partner with any seniority will likely have acquired their book of business during the 20-year boom in legal service demand. Those conditions are gone forever, so don't assume that they'll bring with them everything that they appear to have now. They're not misrepresenting anything; they don't understand that portability is never 100%, that there are real "switching costs" that can prove insurmountable for at least some clients.

My experience over 20+ years coaching lawyers is that most laterals manage to bring only about half to two-thirds of their book with them.

To give you an idea of how incomplete most purported rainmakers are when removed from boom conditions, here's an example of the standards for a complete business developer, who would have to:

Opportunity Generation

  1. establish clear, specific measurable goals with deadlines (how much; what kind; from whom; by when)

  2. identify the underlying business problem that drives demand for your most valuable service

  3. define the optimal industry that experiences the demand-driving problem

  4. profile the your optimal subset, i.e., companies that make up your "sweet spot"

  5. define the logical functions/positions of stakeholders in your problem

  6. define their job-specific version of your demand trigger

  7. create a differentiating message that makes you relevant to those stakeholders

  8. identify trusted communication channels that reach those stakeholders

  9. establish relationships with those channels based on your relevance

  10. publish consistently enough to establish visibility, credibility and "thought leadership"

  11. convert the above into speaking invitations

  12. deliver presentations that motivate attendees to introduce themselves and discuss their company-specific flavor of your problem

  13. establish a social media presence to generate organic sales leads

  14. establish and maintain a mechanism to remain informed about current clients' industries and emerging issues

  15. discuss such issues with sufficient frequency to cement your relevance with clients and protect access to and relationships with upper level stakeholders

  16. develop a client team that sustains #15, provides opportunities for younger team members to contribute to BD and gives them early practical BD experience

Opportunity Conversion

  1. probe initial stakeholder to learn the company-specific version of your demand-triggering problem

  2. elicit that stakeholder's perceptions of the problem's current consequences and impact (strategic, operational, economic, emotional)

  3. identify and engage the critical mass of other stakeholders required to reach a decision and commitment

  4. facilitate a decision process among many stakeholders

  5. devise a high-impact solution and correlate it to the problem discussion

  6. oversee and manage solution implementation

  7. get performance feedback

  8. earn references and referrals

  9. feedback market/client intelligence to the client team and firm'sMarketing function

  10. loop back to Opportunity Generation

Each of those items is itself a macro, so we're talking about a lot more than this list. What are the chances that any lateral (or incumbent, for that matter) will be capable of all this? Continuing development is essential. That's why all your clients invest so much money on continuous training.

Assume that you'll have to invest in incoming talent. It will expand the pool available and reduce the failure rate.

Mike O'Horo

To fill in the gaps between the standards above and your own business development capability, learn more about RainmakerVT's affordable just-in-time online training.

If you've ever purchased or participated in any kind of business development training, you know that much of the training you're asked to devote time to feels like "just in case." You can't see any immediate application for it, so you put it in the "get around to it when I have extra time" column. (We both know when you'll have extra time.)

RainmakerVT can help you develop the rainmaking skills you need to succeed amid real competition. This is not your grandfather's training. There's no program to follow, no big commitments, no nagging.

This is just-in-time training. That means you buy only the course you need right now to prepare for what you'll face in the next week or so.

Take a look at our course list, and then read what lawyers like you said about RainmakerVT in user-feedback interviews.