Building your own practice is essential to career success. Therefore, one of the most important considerations when contemplating a career move, especially at the partner level, is to assess which firm has the best platform for you to develop your client base.
Just as hiring firms conduct due diligence when acquiring a lateral attorney, it’s equally important that you, the candidate, do your homework before making a move. Questions to consider include:
Where would your current or potential clients best fit?
Assessing a potential move on the basis of its effect on your ability to attract and service clients is crucial. Unless you’re assured of inheriting a book of business from a retiring partner, which happens on rare occasions, you need to build your own book on the platform provided by your current or prospective law firm. Most importantly, consider where your current clients, or the types of clients you think you can attract, will fit in and be valued. Look at the following: size of client; client type—individuals, small businesses, or corporations, government or non-profits; industry sector; billing rates; and any legal or business conflicts.
Does the prospective firm have the size, practice breadth, geographical scope, and resources necessary for you to properly service your current clients and the type of clients you hope to attract? If your client base requires others to fully service it, is there adequate associate and administrative support currently available at the prospective firm? If not, can you bring with you or quickly hire the associates, paralegals, and support staff you need?
Is the rate structure conducive to building your business?
Will your existing or potential clients be comfortable with the prospective firm’s billing and collection practices? If not, you risk losing them. Negotiate with the firm, if applicable, any increments for rate increases and their timing. On the other hand, is it possible for you to charge lower rates or initiate alternative fee arrangements, thereby attracting clients you couldn’t serve at your present firm? Is it possible to offer blended billing rates or some contingency arrangement in order to be more competitive?
The hard truth is that the largest firms most often want only the largest corporate clients who can afford to pay top rates. Unless you can attract that sort of client, you might be better served going to a smaller, boutique, or mid-sized firm, which will allow you more flexibility. The bottom line is: Only go where both you and your clients will be supported and valued.
Is business development supported?
Firm structures, processes, and policies affect your ability to develop business. Explore whether there are programs available to assist you. Ask about the onboarding and integration process for laterals. What kind of follow-up support can you expect to receive, and for how long? Does it include connecting the new lawyer with marketing and business development support resources? How efficient are the processes for bringing in new clients and matters, and handling conflicts and waivers? How is time spent on business development activities treated—does it count (at least partly) towards billable hours expectations, or is it expected in addition?
Is there business development training and mentoring, even at the associates and junior partner levels? Are there resources to help you identify prospects and reach out to them? Are there professionals who will work to connect you with speaking and writing opportunities? Is there support for memberships, sponsorships, and attending relevant events and conferences? Is there a business development budget, and how is that allocated? What other resources and support is available and/or might you need?
Does the firm encourage collaboration in business development?
Moving your practice to join forces with lawyers who have clients you can service, or who can service your existing clients, can be an effective way to increase revenues without having to find new clients. Are there formal structures for you to meet everyone in the firm whom you could work with to cross-sell to existing clients (theirs and yours) and joint market to new ones?
Does the firm’s compensation structure reward collaborative business development? How is origination credit awarded and shared? Is credit allocated by client or by new matter? You don’t want to find out later that your client is “owned” by someone at the firm who brought them in ages ago and has nothing to do with the business you can bring in, thereby leaving you empty-handed.
Ask about the target firm’s track record for supporting the rainmaking efforts of lateral partners it previously hired. How much have their books of business grown since they joined the firm? What have been their successes and failures with senior lateral hires and why? Have any shortcomings on the firm’s behalf been addressed?
These are only some of the questions you must ask to successfully assess whether the platform of a potential employer firm is optimal for you to build both your practice and your career. Pay attention to the answers before making a move.