“Susie” is a midlevel Biglaw associate who has worked at the same firm since she graduated law school. She’s had a good run, but a few months ago she decided it was time to move on. Her practice area is in demand, and she’s acquired solid experience at her current firm, so she figured it shouldn’t be too hard for her to get a lateral offer without help from a recruiter.
In the months since she decided to make a move, Susie has drafted her materials, researched and applied to potential new firms, prepared for and completed three rounds of interviews at her top-choice firm, and received an offer. All good, right? But there’s a catch. The new firm needs a list of every matter Susie has handled at her current firm. She now has to gather all of that information (preferably without tipping off her current firm). Fingers crossed there isn’t an unresolvable client conflict!
Identifying past matters
The first thing Susie should do is go back in time and set up a running tab of clients/matters she has worked on. If Susie had kept such a list throughout her current firm tenure, her task now would be considerably easier. She would be able to submit the conflicts form quickly, speeding the new firm’s review process and (assuming no conflicts were found) making it possible for Susie to give notice at her current firm sooner.
(Incidentally, a running tab of matters is useful for many purposes beyond lateral recruiting: updating your firm bio, future networking, aiding in conflicts checks for your group, impressing partners in your group with institutional knowledge… It’s never too late to start assembling your list!)
Because Susie doesn’t have her list at hand, she will need to consult other sources. The most precise method is to scan through billable hour reports, which some firms give out monthly as a matter of course. Note, however, that accessing the reports through a firm database can be risky because some firms have alerts set for when associates pull this information. Given the risk of tipping off the current firm, lateral candidates tend to default to scanning through old emails to identify clients/matters. This is easier said than done, particularly for more senior associates who have worked on dozens of transactions (100+ matters is not uncommon!).
Wait time for a conflicts check
The duration of a conflicts check depends on both the candidate and the firm. The sooner the candidate returns the conflicts form, the sooner the firm’s process can begin. A recruiter likely would have advised Susie to start identifying all of her clients for conflicts purposes at latest after she passed the second interview with the new firm. By waiting until after she received an offer, Susie has introduced an unnecessary source of delay.
On the firm side, Susie will be at the mercy of her new firm’s conflicts department. These departments are often short-staffed, with frequent turnover. They must juggle competing priorities: in addition to clearing lateral associate conflicts, the department will be responsible for clearing conflicts for a partner’s potential new business. The partners are typically prioritized. The upshot is that Susie’s wait time is hard to predict: it could be 3-4 days, but it could also be two weeks. Clearing conflicts almost always takes longer than a background check.
Getting a waiver
Let’s imagine the conflicts department identifies a conflict between one of Susie’s former clients and an important current client of a partner at the new firm. What now?
There are various ways this can go. One factor may be Susie’s jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions allow a firewall to be created without notifying the potentially conflicted client, but still give that client the ability to object later. Firms tend to be wary of this situation, requiring that the affected partner grant approval before proceeding with the hire. Other jurisdictions require an actual waiver from the client in question. Where a waiver is necessary, the new firm will most often contact the client to request it. But not always.
We have occasionally seen cases where firms ask candidates to seek a waiver themselves. Do not do this without talking to your recruiter first! It might not even be necessary. In this worst-case scenario, the hiring firm asks the candidate to go to the current-firm partner responsible for the client, admit their intention to leave the firm, and seek the partner’s help in contacting the right person at the client to request the waiver. In one particularly extreme case, it took over two months for the client to make its decision to grant the waiver.
In these situations, having a recruiter on your side can make a real difference. Sometimes conflicts supervisors aren’t fully informed about the nuances of ethics rules in every jurisdiction — we have occasionally helped draw their attention to exceptions that helped smooth the process. More broadly, we know what standard practice looks like, and when a firm makes an unreasonable request, we are in a strong position to push back.
Special considerations for partners
If Susie were a partner, the conflicts question would be even more consequential. Successfully clearing conflicts can make or break a lateral partner’s ability to port over business. It’s critical that lateral partner candidates get accurate advice, with full documentation, before committing to a new firm. If there is any uncertainty about conflicts, waivers, or any other ethics matter, the wisest course is to talk to your recruiter; if needed, they can refer you to a skilled attorney for advice. (This likely will not be expensive: often the cost is below $1000.)
For example, “John” was negotiating a lateral move without the assistance of a recruiter. He took the word of someone at his new firm who assured him that a conflict would not be an issue — unfortunately, he didn’t get that assurance in writing. Lo and behold, it became an issue, and John was not able to port over his client. The situation didn’t prevent him from practicing at the new firm, but it did hinder his ability to hit his promised numbers.
A recruiter would have advised John not to make a move without formally documenting the mutual understanding that he could serve this client at the new firm. In the absence of such written assurance, the recruiter would have recommended John consider alternative firms.
The value of having seen it before
An individual lawyer will make, at most, a handful of lateral moves in his or her career. Given that context, it’s entirely understandable that a candidate would be unaware of common conflicts pitfalls. If you are considering a lateral move, don’t assume the best-case scenario. Issues can easily arise. When they do, an experienced recruiter will be well positioned to help you navigate the situation. We know what is normal, the traps that can be avoided with advance planning, and how to manage unexpected complications. Ideally, you will sail through the conflicts check. But if you hit a snag, having a credible recruiter on your side can be critical to bringing the process to a successful conclusion.