Are Those Clients Really Portable?

Are Those Clients Really Portable?

In most cases, the success of a lateral partner hire is greatly determined by the successful transition of his or her clients. A few years ago, the managing partner of a large law firm announced to a roomful of search firm consultants at a NALSC (National Association of Legal Search Consultants) conference that “We have excellent attorneys; what we want is excellent clients.” That’s putting it baldly, but clearly. So, how do you determine whether the lateral candidate’s clients really are portable and assess the likelihood that they actually will send their legal work to the new firm? What can you do to make their portability more likely?

Virtually all law firms use the LPQ (lateral partner questionnaire) to gather information about lateral candidates’ billings, rates, collections, client names, and the like. (Note: In many jurisdictions, new legislation makes it illegal to ask about past or current compensation.) The LPQ provides the lawyer’s past record and a snapshot of the present. It’s a good place to start, but it doesn’t go far enough. The acquiring firm must use interviews and the process of building a business development and integration plan for the candidate to dig deeper into the nature of the candidate’s relationships with clients and, therefore, the likelihood they will follow.


Interview process

The interviewing team needs to fully explore the nature and depth of the candidate’s client relationships to set realistic expectations regarding client portability. A good initial question might be whether the candidate currently is the designated relationship partner for the clients listed on the LPQ, and how much origination credit he or she is given for each. For additional probing questions to reveal the nature of the candidate’s client relationships, see our blog post on writing an effective business development plan.

Assessing the fit of the candidate’s clients with the practice of the firm is just as important as assessing the candidate’s personal fit with the firm. The more closely the clients align, the more likely they will move their business to the new firm. To that end, it’s common for lateral partner candidates and their interviewers to brainstorm about overlapping business opportunities, cross-marketing, and potential introductions to each other’s clients should the lawyer join the firm. Without having a formal process for memorializing those discussions, however, that valuable information often is lost or not acted upon when drafting the business plan or during integration. Lack of follow-through on suggestions made during the interviewing process can lead the candidate wonder about apparent promises not kept and to view the firm’s talk of “platform” and growth opportunity as just part of a pitch to lure them in with no intention of follow through.

To preserve this valuable information and maximize the integration of the candidate’s clients into the firm, law firms need to devise an institutionalized way to capture all the business development ideas promulgated during interviews. This could be as simple as adding a specific section to interview the evaluation form for the interviewer to list any ideas discussed. The recruiting staff then could collect and pass the information along to the firm’s business development and integration personnel for further action. Additionally, the firm could implement a formalized system to ensure that all the previously discussed introductions and cross marketing contacts are made. One suggestion is to require the appropriate practice group leaders and relationship partners to sign off on their responsibilities as part of the potential new recruit’s business development and integration plan before the final hiring decision is made.


Business Development Plan and Onboarding

Ideally, by the end of the interviewing process, the candidate shows solid existing client connections with robust growth potential in the new firm’s environment. A good match is where 1+1 equals much more than two. Using the information gleaned during the interviews and data typically found in the LPQ, the business development plan weaves a narrative showing how the candidate expects to get from the current point to the desired future.

Done right, as a collaborative process between the candidate and the acquiring firm during the interviewing process, the business development plan evolves into an integration plan which delineates what the parties will do once the candidate arrives at the firm. The recruiting team must work closely with practice group leaders and marketing, business development, and onboarding personnel for the successful integration of a lateral partner hire.

To ensure the ultimate success of the lateral partner hire, the firm must pay equal or more attention to onboarding his or her current and past clients, as well. The firm must do all in its power—through billing rates and policies, file opening procedures, staffing decisions, etc.—to make the transition and ramping up time as painless as possible for the lateral’s clients. Estimating the portability of a lateral partner candidate’s client base is an inexact science at best, but the hiring firm can utilize the interviewing and onboarding processes to increase the probability that those clients really move along with the lawyer.


Valerie Fontaine
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