The LFQ—Lateral Firm Questionnaire, or What Lateral Partner Candidates Need to Know
Virtually every law firm engaged in lateral partner recruiting requires candidates to fill out a LPQ, or Lateral Partner Questionnaire, as part of its vetting process. The LPQ requires information critical to the firm’s decision-making process such as the candidate’s educational and employment background, client base, billings and collections, and various ethics issues such as malpractice claims, involvement on corporate boards, etc. Equally important is what lateral partner candidates should ask their prospective law firm employers.
Astonishingly, a 2013 American Lawyer survey found that most lateral partner candidates never ask the most basic questions of their potential new firms about finances, firm management, or their partnership agreements. These sophisticated business lawyers never would allow a client to enter into a business combination without scouring the books, yet don’t do the same for themselves.
Perhaps partners who have been with one firm for many years assume that all law firms are alike. From 40,000 feet they may seem alike, comprised of smart, usually personable lawyers, with sophisticated clients and businesses. But, once you drop below 40,000 feet, firms are very different. Compensation systems vary and management styles vary, all resulting in different incentives and different firm cultures. Suffice it to say that, for a successful lateral partner move, it’s important to know that firms are different and there are questions you should ask.
Just as most firms, at some point in the courting ritual, require that prospective lateral partners complete a LPQ, we propose that a senior lawyer contemplating a move consider something similar—an “LFQ” or “Lateral Firm Questionnaire”—a checklist of the information the lateral partner candidate needs to make a sound decision. To that end, we created a generic LFQ.
But, first, a couple of caveats:
Caveat #1: Who should use our LFQ? Who should be most concerned about the hard questions that American Lawyer finds aren’t being asked?
Certainly there are questions that more junior lawyers should ask in addition to the obvious ones about money and practice group, such as about training and partnership prospects, but our LFQ is not aimed at the junior lawyer. That’s another subject.
Our LFQ is for the more senior lawyer whose compensation most likely will be based upon a combination of individual performance and firm performance. Thus, the candidate will need to know a lot more, such as,
• What is the general health of the firm?
• What is the firm’s history with laterals?
• Are the firm’s structure and billing practices likely to positively affect the lateral’s ability to attract and service clients?
• What is the firm’s leadership modus operendi?
Caveat #2: When to ask? Timing is everything.
Just as the easiest way to scare off a potential girlfriend or boyfriend is to ask probing questions on the first date about future plans, earning potential, and the like, clearly, the candidate and prospective law firm want to be making googly eyes before broaching the hard questions. Even in the age of the Twittersphere, there is information that is sensitive. The best time to ask these questions is when the prospective firm serves up its LPQ, as in “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” With that symmetry, it’s a lot less awkward. But remember, our LFQ is a little tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t have to be a formal document; rather, it’s more of a checklist to make sure the candidate gets all the relevant information. There may be opportune times to pick up bits and pieces along the way.
Caveat #3: How? Don’t be too pushy – you want this job! But be pushy enough.
Before you really know if you want the job, you need this information. The firm that should be attractive to you is one that values lawyers who make important decisions based upon germane information, gathered at the appropriate time. The most telling information about a firm may be the firm’s reluctance to provide it, so pay attention not only to the answers to your questions, but also to the reaction to the fact that you asked them.