About a year ago, the legal recruiting market emerged from years of minimal hiring. Shrinking, not hiring, is how many firms got through the recession. Some firms did not survive. In the first part of 2014, law firms and corporations again started hiring, now with a view to growth.
Most encouraging, some placements in this renewed market are smaller optimistic ones. Both sides of such transactions will surely do better because of the hire, but the rewards are not required to be overwhelming. People are willing to take chances on something being great, if it will at least be good.
Many law firms have a renewed willingness to bring on lawyers with moderate books of business, a business track record, a realistic business plan and a rainmaking attitude. Correspondingly, now that lawyers see their professional lives as reasonably stable, they are interested in finding a new firm that makes career sense, but does not require unrealistic guaranties. Both sides are no longer holding out for the extraordinary, and anxiety is no longer making them cling to the status quo.
As a result of this renewed optimism, partners with only moderate books of business are leaving firms that have been good to them, but have also kept them down because others, with more business, power, or both, needed their hours. These “partner level” (usually non-equity) lawyers are moving to something only slightly better initially, because the new firm has the potential to be astoundingly better for them, and the old one did not.
The lateral lawyers can substantially contribute in the new firm because they now have time to develop and do work for their own clients. They are not locked in to effectively functioning as associates. Partners who had not been given enough time or any budget to growing their books, are welcome as true partners at firms where they are helped and encouraged to expand their client base. In rainmaking, luck is always a factor, but so is encouragement and freedom.
These moves are investigated with great caution. Will my clients indeed follow me? Can I expand my client base? Who besides me will keep me busy? Can I get anyone to do work I bring in but cannot do myself? These questions all need to be investigated.
Lateral partner moves that give lawyers both greater ability and greater responsibility to bring in business make it impossible to precisely predict compensation. It is possible to predict a range of likely compensation, and perhaps establish a floor, generally without a guaranty. However, when your book is a major factor in your income, the only locked-in compensation offers that can be made are ones most laterals would rather not accept. The best you can do is see what your hours and collections would have netted you at the new firm had you been there for the last few years.
The opportunity to move beyond an effectively salaried position is the reason many younger partners want to leave their current firms. It is freeing to no longer be someone else’s assistant, and only grudgingly allowed to develop your own client base.
Whether a new firm has work for a lateral partner varies, but is seldom a mystery before the move is made. Regardless of whether the new firm has work for a new moderate rainmaker, what ends up happening is that a substantial portion of the lateral’s compensation is based on his or her production, and is therefore his or her responsibility. This can be scary, but is also empowering.
Risk is a double edged sword. Someone who does not feel able or willing to take primary responsibility for his or her own compensation, should not move out of a service partner role. Service partners are still needed, but less and less so. But if you do not control your own professional life, someone else will, and you may not like the results.
In large part, the differences between being an employee (regardless of your title) or moving to a situation where your own business skills control your career and compensation is a choice about attitude. Do you believe in your own rainmaking skills? Can you accept defeats, which are inevitable, and move on from them? Can you live with regular uncertainty about your compensation?
Fear and faith can co-exist. However, since in a true financial partnership (as opposed to a salaried position) it is impossible to accurately predict your future income, acting with confidence, resilience and acceptance of the results is likely to produce the best overall outcome. It will inevitably produce more professional happiness.
If you are moving, it helps to believe you are as valuable as the firm that hired you does. Keep plugging away and making connections, for yourself and your partners. When combined with hard work (and a willingness to sometimes fail because you will) confidence and resilience are building blocks for an upward career trajectory. Appreciate the opportunity.