Tag Archives: Legal Headhunter

Questions to Ask Your Interviewer in a Lateral Interview

Are you a law firm associate preparing for lateral interviews?  If there’s one thing I can guarantee, it’s that your interviewer will ask at some point: “Do you have any questions for me?”  This article will help ensure you don’t meet that invitation with an awkward silence.

Asking thoughtful questions has two benefits.  First, you score points with the interviewer by demonstrating your genuine interest in the firm.  Second, you can elicit useful information to help determine whether the firm is the right fit: don’t forget that you are interviewing the firm, just as the firm is interviewing you.

Asking questions helps create a genuine dialogue

Before delving into what constitutes a good question, it’s worth pausing to talk about the overall interview dynamic.  The most successful interviews are dialogues, not depositions.  Your goal is to establish a natural back-and-forth, with both parties eliciting and conveying information, building on each other’s points.  Don’t feel you need the interviewer’s permission to ask a question.  Instead, play your part in making the interview a genuine conversation.  

Naturally, you want to leave space for the interviewer to ask most of the questions in the first part of the interview.  But there’s no reason to hold all your queries until the end, especially if you have a question that follows directly from something the interviewer has just said.  The more seamlessly you weave in questions throughout the interview, the more likely your interviewer will leave with the impression that it was a great conversation and that spending more time with you would be enjoyable.

Formulating intelligent questions

Whoever said there’s no such thing as a stupid question must not have been talking about law firm interviews.  Taking the time to learn about the firm and formulate some informed, targeted questions is an important part of preparing for your interview.

Speaking generally, good questions tend to invite the interviewer to elaborate on their perspective about a topic that arises in the interview or to share insights from their personal experience.  These questions help build rapport.  Conversely, asking questions that seem overly formulaic or divorced from the interview conversation will tend to damage rapport: you risk giving the impression that either you weren’t listening closely or you weren’t interested in what the interviewer had to say.  Whatever you do, don’t ask for information that is readily available on the firm’s website!

Law firms and in-house legal departments want to hire lawyers who are genuinely excited to join their team.  Asking specific, informed questions that show you’ve diligently researched your interview panel and the firm will demonstrate real interest.  Questions that suggest an appetite to stay for the long haul are especially favored.  Asking about topics like performance reviews, feedback, mentoring, training, and business development signals to the interviewer your interest in building a career at the firm.

Keep in mind that most people — and especially attorneys — love to talk about themselves.  So be sure to ask questions about your interviewer’s practice.  In particular, this is an opportunity to communicate your interest in the firm by asking about information you’re able to find from the interviewer’s web bio, firm website, LinkedIn page, or even public records such as PACER for a litigator or Pitchbook for transactional lawyers.  For instance, if you’re interviewing with a litigation partner, check out the representative matters section of the partner’s web bio and ask about a recent case or investigation they handled.  If the interviewer is ranked in Chambers or Legal 500, mention that you saw the write-up and ask about a deal referenced there.

A particularly savvy form of question, when executed well, is one that both highlights something you bring to the table and confirms that that attribute or experience will be valued at the interviewer’s firm.  This could be a skill, an achievement, or an aspect of your personality.  You can both ask an intelligent question and simultaneously steer the conversation toward a point you wish to make about your interests or qualifications.  An example: “I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to take a handful of fact witness depositions at my current firm, which I really enjoyed.  Would the team consider giving me the opportunity to handle more senior tasks if I prove I’m ready for them?”

Remember that your time is limited, so you want to be strategic about how you allocate questions across interviewers.  For example, partners will likely be better equipped to answer questions about the matters and clients you will be staffed on and the firm’s growth trajectory, while associates will be better equipped to answer questions about the firm culture, training, mentoring, and reviews.

What to ask

Below is a non-exhaustive list of sample questions to use as a starting point.  In addition, you should feel free to ask the hiring partner (or the recruiting coordinator) about the next step in the interview process and when the firm anticipates deciding who will advance to the next stage.

Role, Team, and Nature of the Work

  • Is this a growth position or are you replacing someone? 
  • What are your (or the team’s) biggest staffing needs right now?
  • What are you looking for in this role?  For example, what qualities do you think make for a successful mid-level corporate associate at this firm (or on this team)?
  • Will I be working primarily with a particular partner or team?
    • If not, how are associates staffed on matters?
    • If yes, who makes up the team?  Are there particular clients/matters/cases/deals that I will be working on immediately?  Over the next year?

Firm Culture, Clients, and Growth Plans

  • How would you describe the firm’s culture generally and the culture in this practice group?
    • [If interviewing outside of the firm’s main office] Do you think the culture in this office aligns with the culture firmwide?
  • Who are the firm’s biggest clients?
    • Does the firm have institutional clients in [your practice area]?  Or is developing business from new clients emphasized?  
    • How does the firm support and encourage cross-selling within the firm?
  • What can you tell me about the firm’s future plans?  Are there plans to grow, and if so, how do you think the firm will look in the next 5 or 10 years?  Any specific growth plans you can share relating to our practice area?
    • If the firm has recently merged, acquired a firm, or expanded into a new market, work that into your question.  For example, you could say, “I read that the firm recently opened offices in Texas and Miami.  Does the firm have plans to continue expanding in the Southeast?”

Integration, Training, Mentoring, Evaluations, and Promotions

  • How does the firm handle integration of lateral associate hires, both here in this office and firmwide?  Is there a formal integration program or is it more informal?  
  • Do you have any recent lateral hiring success stories you can share?
  • [If the interviewer lateraled to the firm] How was your experience as a lateral hire?
    • How did the firm support your integration?  
    • Were there formal events or was it more informal? 
  • [Ask about success stories for other lateral hires, such as lateral hires who have made partner at the firm.  If you’ll be working with a particular team, consider asking if any lateral hires have made partner from that team or in that practice area.  However, if you get the sense that your interviewer isn’t prepared to answer these questions, don’t put them on the spot.  You can always ask to speak to successful lateral associate hires after you’ve received an offer and are evaluating it.]
  • What training opportunities are available for associates in my practice area?  Is there a formal training program or is it more informal?  Does the firm offer access to outside training resources, such as litigation skills courses offered by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA)? 
  • How does the group/office/firm handle mentoring (formal and informal)?
  • Does the firm do formal evaluations on an annual or semi-annual basis?  Will I receive more immediate feedback on my work product in between?
  • What is the typical path to partner for a lateral hire?
    • Are there objective criteria/benchmarks that I’ll be expected to achieve to make partner? 
    • [If you are a senior associate] When will I first be eligible for partnership consideration?

Lateral Attorney Hiring in a Softening Economy: Diverging Trends Across Practice Areas

2022 saw a pullback in lateral attorney hiring, as inflation and high interest rates slowed corporate and lending activity, and as law firms found themselves overstaffed after record hiring in 2021.  Unfortunately, we have also seen recent associate layoffs, mainly by firms particularly dependent on the currently beleaguered tech sector.  Despite these developments, overall lateral attorney hiring levels are currently more reflective of pre-pandemic lateral attorney hiring than a full-fledged recession.

Certain practices and industry sectors have featured continued demand for mid- through senior-level associates, counsel, and partner-level attorneys.  As we enter 2023, depending on the length of the economic slowdown and whether inflationary pressures subside, we would ideally see a continuation of current lateral attorney hiring levels followed by an uptick later in the year, tracking a resurgence in business activity.

2022 Lateral Hiring Trends Compared to Previous Years

With 2021’s economic recovery spurring exorbitant deal-flow, associate hiring increased to historically high levels, especially in transactional practice areas.  In 2022, there was a 20% year-over-year decrease in lateral associate hiring by Am Law 200 firms, with 8,116 total hires compared to 10,179 hires in 2021.  In the second half of the year, as the economic slowdown became more evident, there was a 45% year-over-year decrease in Am Law 200 associate hiring versus 2021.

While the 2022 decrease in Am Law 200 law firm associate hiring was substantial compared to the aberrational hiring levels during the same time period in 2021, when putting these numbers into historical context, 2022 associate hiring levels were consistent with those in the years preceding the pandemic when the economy was relatively healthy.  Am Law 200 associate hiring in the second half of 2022 was 7% higher than the five-year average for the same period during the pre-pandemic years of 2015 through 2019.  Mirroring the resilience of the broader labor market, the lateral attorney hiring market endures, although practice area demand has adjusted due to distress in certain segments of the economy.

Corporate Transactions, Finance, and Real Estate

The economic challenges of 2022 have had the most impact on corporate transactional practice areas.  There was a precipitous decline in deal activity in 2022, including a fall in strategic M&A and capital markets offerings due to interest rate increases and market volatility.  2022 had the lowest Q4 global M&A deal volume in the last six years.  Even so, private equity-backed M&A remained steady, with PE leveraged buyouts notching their second-busiest year in a decade.  Deal activity was driven by PE firms holding record levels of committed capital (“dry powder”), attractive target company pricing, and private debt fund financing.

These market developments are reflected in 2022 lateral attorney hiring and in current demand.  We are seeing very few mid-level M&A associate openings in public company and strategic M&A-centric corporate practice groups.  However, we still see consistent openings for mid-level private equity M&A associates with corporate practice groups representing large-cap and upper middle market PE sponsors.

Associates experiencing a slowdown in non-PE M&A corporate practice groups may wish to explore such PE M&A associate positions, as strategic M&A primary and ancillary document drafting experience is directly transferable.  Capital markets and securities associate hiring has diminished substantially more than M&A, with very few openings nationally.  Due to rising interest rates, stock market volatility, and lending costs, the IPO and global debt offerings markets collapsed to historic lows in 2022.  While we have not yet seen many publicly acknowledged layoffs of corporate M&A or securities associates, there were reports of stealth layoffs during this past review season.

Tech and emerging companies and venture capital (ECVC) corporate practice groups were perhaps the most detrimentally impacted by the global economic downturn in 2022.  Rising interest rates and borrowing costs, lower stock prices, geopolitical tensions, and other factors have halted tech company expansion, spurred austerity measures, and caused VC funding to fall to pandemic period lows.  Over the past two quarters, the decrease in demand for tech company legal guidance has led to associate and staff layoffs in practice groups servicing tech companies and VC sponsors.  Associates affected by these layoffs may look to transition into other corporate practice areas in which their core corporate transactional experience would be transferable.

While on a smaller scale than in 2021, we are still seeing demand for mid- through senior-level commercial finance associates. As leveraged finance transactions by investment banks have retrenched, private equity firms have increasingly turned to the private credit market to finance acquisitions, thereby providing a steady deal-flow for certain commercial lending practice groups.  There have also been recent lateral associate structured finance and securitization openings, though demand has decreased significantly since 2021 due to slow growth and higher interest rates.

Investment funds groups are still hiring relatively actively, with openings for associates across all levels.  While private equity, venture capital, and other fundraising slowed significantly in 2022, certain sectors have remained busy.  Real estate fundraising slowed while investment in infrastructure and energy funds remained active relative to previous years.  Further, although private equity firms and other sponsors are taking longer to raise capital in the current environment, that does not substantially decrease the amount of legal structuring or regulatory guidance needed for active fund management. Because fewer associates have funds training, relative to other corporate specialties, many investment funds practice groups are short of talent.

In Real Estate, we are still seeing demand for mid- through senior-level lateral associates, with steady commercial deal activity and some high-performing asset classes.  For example, in Q3 2022, although commercial real estate deal activity was down compared to the same quarter in 2021, deal activity was 6% higher than in Q3 2019.  Transactions involving industrial property have been particularly active due to the continued growth of e-commerce and inventory surpluses from supply chain constraints.

Litigation

Litigation is less sensitive to recessions and decreased corporate activity, exhibiting reduced but stable demand for lateral associates this past year.  Litigation was the second-best performing practice area in 2022, with midsize firms seeing a slight uptick in litigation demand and many experts predicting an uptick in M&A disputes for 2023.  We are seeing litigation lateral associate positions fairly evenly divided between: (1) general commercial and tort litigation (breach of contract, products liability related class actions); and (2) white collar criminal (particularly False Claims Act-focused) and other securities and antitrust litigation.

Litigation practice leaders are anticipating increased government enforcement in 2023, with a quicker pace of proceedings following two years of the Biden administration adding personnel and instituting new policy directives.  Law firm practice leaders and plaintiffs’ attorneys are also anticipating increased consumer privacy class action activity, with large tech companies recently having agreed to substantial public consumer class action settlements.

IP

Intellectual property litigation has remained busy, and firms have significantly invested in partner and associate hiring, banking on IP as a practice that is less elastic to economic conditions.  Courts are seeing an influx of patent cases that built up during the pandemic.  In addition to litigation involving the more commonly disputed technologies, such as software, semiconductors, and electronic devices, new technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and battery technologies are emerging in patent disputes.

Given the scarcity of IP associates with the requisite engineering backgrounds, we have seen continued patent prosecution lateral associate positions, though in much lower volume than IP litigation openings.  Global patent filings have seen a significant decrease over the past year due to the economic slowdown, with companies seeking to avoid patent filing costs and maintenance fees.

With respect to life science patents, we are seeing associate openings in both prosecution and litigation.  Biotech, pharmaceutical, and healthcare companies have continued filing patents and were bolstered by some pandemic-derived technologies, including developments in vaccines, immunology, and telemedicine.

Countercyclical Practice Areas: Restructuring and Labor & Employment

While we have seen an uptick in restructuring associate positions, openings have not risen to the level we typically see during major economic downturns.  There were a significant number of corporate bankruptcy filings in 2022, but Chapter 11 filings have remained slow since 2021.  Prior to 2022, government stimulus programs, low borrowing rates, and high debt forbearance contributed to the corporate bankruptcy filing slowdown by assisting distressed companies.  As these protections dissipate, law firms are fielding more inquiries from clients of over-leveraged companies.  Crypto, life sciences, and healthcare are primary sectors currently driving restructuring.

Labor and employment is another hallmark countercyclical practice area, as layoffs and other workforce changes can drive increased employment litigation.  There is particularly strong demand for associates experienced in wage and hour class and collective actions as well as discrimination cases.

While the lateral attorney job market is broadly experiencing a slowdown, certain practice areas have persistent need for top associate talent.  Should the economy achieve a soft landing, we hope to see the reemergence of transactional practice area hiring in 2023.

Biglaw Partners: Are You Capturing a Fair Share of Your Revenue?

If you are a Biglaw partner, you may have heard this compensation rule of thumb: you should be taking home a third of the revenue you generate for the firm. The 33% rule has the advantage of being simple, and it makes for a reasonable starting point. But to really know whether you are capturing a fair share of the value you create, it’s important to consider some other factors.

Your hours vs. your team’s hours

The first distinction you’ll want to make is between the hours you bill and those billed by the people working for you, such as associates and service partners. The 33% rule is supposed to apply to all revenue for which you are responsible. But we can make things more precise by breaking that revenue into two segments.

As a general rule, you should make about 40% of revenue from hours you billed personally. As for the hours billed by members of your team, it depends how profitable those lawyers are for the firm. Associates at some firms are substantially more profitable than others. The more profitable your associates, and the more leverage your book has, the greater the share of your team’s revenue you can expect to take home.

RPL and leverage are the key metrics

To understand what share of team revenue should accrue to you, consider how your firm stacks up on two key metrics: revenue per lawyer (RPL) and leverage.

RPL is critical because it is so poorly correlated with associate salaries. You could imagine a different compensation model in which firms paid associates a standard share of the revenue they generated, either individually or on average across the firm. But as we know, that isn’t how this industry works. Instead, all top-tier firms pay associates more or less the same salaries based on class year. As a result, partners at firms with relatively high RPL get to divide a much larger profit pool than partners at “top” firms with low RPL.

Within the Am Law 100, the spread between high and low RPL is striking. Firms at the low end have RPL of around $500,000. For example, Lewis Brisbois is the lowest of the Am Law 100, at $448,000. Firms at the high end have RPL around 4X that of the low-end firms. Sullivan & Cromwell, for example, clocks in above $2.2 million. (Wachtell is in a league of its own, with RPL in excess of $3.8 million.) Granted, a Sullivan & Cromwell associate earns higher total compensation than a Lewis Brisbois lawyer in the same class year, but that multiple is nowhere near 4X.

Now, RPL isn’t everything. We also have to consider leverage. If a partner’s book can feed a relatively large number of associates, the proportion of the team’s revenue that should accrue to the rainmaking partner will be higher. And to be fair to Lewis Brisbois, their partnership is doing well on that dimension, with leverage of 9.99 (third-highest among the Am Law 100).

Let’s take a look at leverage for the top 10 firms by RPL:

FirmRPL ($ millions)Leverage
Wachtell3.8602.2
Sullivan & Cromwell2.2153.8
Cravath2.0354.1
Kirkland1.9975.2
Ropes & Gray1.9504.1
Davis Polk1.9235.4
Simpson Thacher1.9134.7
Quinn Emanuel1.8394.2
Skadden1.8384.1
Paul Weiss1.8365.0

We see that Kirkland and Davis Polk are outperforming on leverage, which is good news for their equity partners. And in fact this flows through to the profits per equity partner (PEP) ranking: although Sullivan & Cromwell outranks Kirkland and Davis Polk on RPL, it is behind those firms in profits per equity partner. (Wachtell is first in both categories.)

FirmPEP ($ millions)
Wachtell8.400
Kirkland7.388
Davis Polk7.010
Sullivan & Cromwell6.366

Ambitious associates who are aiming for partnership should be aware of the importance of leverage in modeling their future expected compensation. To take another example, Gibson Dunn is immediately ahead of Paul Hastings and Weil Gotshal on the RPL ranking. But Gibson’s leverage is on the low end: 3.4. Because Paul Hastings and Weil have better leverage, they comfortably beat Gibson in PEP.

FirmRPL ($ millions)LeveragePEP ($ millions)
Gibson Dunn1.6133.44.400
Paul Hastings1.6064.54.703
Weil Gotshal1.5735.55.181

How does your practice compare to the firm average?

Your firm’s overall RPL and leverage are important considerations, but unless the partnership has a pure lockstep compensation model, the performance of your practice relative to the firm average is also critical. A good starting point for thinking about this dimension is to compare the firm’s profit margin to the share of your revenue that you are taking home. For example, let’s say your firm’s profit margin is 45%. Are you being paid 45% of the revenue you are generating?

If not, consider how your practice may differ from others in the firm. Does it have lower leverage than the firm average? Are you personally billing fewer hours than your peers in the partnership? If the answer to both of these questions is no, then your compensation should reflect the firm profit margin. If it doesn’t, you are likely underpaid, and you may want to consider your options.

Making a Lateral Move Without a Recruiter? Beware of Conflicts

“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.

Lateral Partner Moves to Secondary Markets: An Unprecedented Opportunity

Growth in Biglaw partnerships follows a cyclical pattern. Firms expand their partner ranks rapidly in some years and not at all in others. 2022 was a year for lateral expansion — hardly a surprise considering that client demand remained strong in most practices. The unique feature of this recent expansion wave is where firms grew: 2022 will be remembered for unprecedented hiring of lateral partners outside of the largest cities.

COVID and remote working have upended traditional assumptions about where a partner must be based in order to maintain a Biglaw book of business. The pandemic shuffled the location preferences of many professionals, including both lawyers and their clients. Partners who would rather live outside of the traditional business centers now feel emboldened to voice that preference, and many firms are prepared to accommodate.

Firms see new opportunities for business development in cities that traditionally wouldn’t have supported top Biglaw billing rates: the recent growth of the finance sector in Miami (at the expense of New York and Chicago) offers a case in point. Additionally, clients today are more tolerant of their lawyers being based in a different state: a partner who moves from the Bay Area to Austin will likely have no problem continuing to serve California clients. Another factor firms are considering is the many associates and counsels who are eager to move to secondary markets: where partners are prepared to anchor a new office (or expand an existing one), it typically helps a firm’s non-partner recruiting efforts.

Perhaps no secondary market has drawn as much attention in this period as Miami. The city has not been shy about branding itself as the hot new tech and finance hub. Distinguishing between hype and reality hasn’t always been easy, but with important Biglaw clients like Citadel moving their headquarters to South Florida, firms are rightfully taking notice. Among the firms that have opened Miami offices since COVID are Kirkland & Ellis, Winston & Strawn, King & Spalding, Sidley Austin, and Quinn Emanuel.

Salt Lake City is another market worth highlighting. Though it maintains a lower profile than Miami, Salt Lake has enjoyed a fast-growing, tech-driven economy, attracting both larger companies (Adobe, Ebay, Overstock, Qualtrics) and many startups. Kirkland & Ellis, Wilson Sonsini, and Foley & Lardner have all opened Utah offices since the pandemic.

Although secondary market expansion may have been the defining story of 2022, we expect this trend to continue in 2023. The window remains open to partners making a lateral move to a secondary city.

If you’re a partner considering such a move, should you take the plunge? Obviously, circumstances vary depending on your practice and your proposed destination. A recruiter who specializes in partner moves and knows the specific markets in question will be best placed to advise you. But speaking generally, here are a few reasons you may wish to jump to a secondary market:

Better lifestyle! Many secondary cities are attractive places to live. Interested in a warmer climate? Easy access to skiing? A lower cost of living? Chances are there’s a secondary market that would suit your lifestyle preferences.

Big fish, smaller office! Partners entering from larger cities often enjoy the best of both worlds. They can establish themselves immediately as a top expert in their new, smaller market by virtue of the high-profile matters they handled in the prior market. At the same time, they can bring their current clients with them. For more junior partners, a move to a less crowded market can also be a fast-track to internal leadership opportunities.

Billing rate flexibility! In some cases, it is increasingly possible to charge national billing rates in smaller cities as companies used to paying those rates move in. But as a general matter, smaller markets usually require firms to adopt a more flexible approach. The ability to offer more flexibility on rates can be of great help to partners looking to expand their client base outside the big cities.

Talent retention! Many associates and counsels want to be based in lower-cost cities with more affordable real estate. For partners, the ability to accommodate that desire means they can retain their talent group for longer. Instead of leaving to join a smaller firm in a secondary market, associates and counsels can achieve the same cost-of-living benefit while staying in Biglaw.
Strategy, strategy, and more strategy! In the current market, lateral partners moving to secondary locations are a key part of many firms’ strategic growth model. If you join a new firm under these circumstances, firm leadership will be especially invested in your success. As a lateral partner, you want to ensure your new firm is committed to integrating you into the firm’s platform, and it is always advantageous to lateral into a situation where the firm feels some extra pressure to make the move work. Coming in as an anchor partner for an office that is a focus of firm growth should set you up nicely.

Minding the Gap, Finding the Bridge, and Taking the Longview

The Lateral Link team recently held our company retreat in Las Vegas, and it occurred to me that law firm life can sometimes feel a little like being stuck in a Vegas casino. You are in a place where you can make really big money, but it can require working around the clock, even to the point where you aren’t even sure what time of day it is.  The upside is really good, but after a while you may start to feel an overwhelming desire to find an exit, get outside, breathe some fresh air, and regain a sense of balance in your life.

During these times, it can feel tempting to just draft your dream resignation email and press send!  In these moments, all of the good advice you have heard to never give up and push through the pain flies out the window.  Adding fuel to the fire, you may be at the point in your career where you have some savings built up so economically you can afford a break. You hear a little voice inside saying, “How great would it be to just quit and have time to figure out my next move without the constant stream of responsibilities and due dates hanging over me?”

As a former Biglaw attorney, I can tell you, this thought most certainly crossed my mind.  But as a legal recruiter, I have a whole new appreciation for what I call “minding the gap.”  As tough as it may be, there is undoubtedly value in avoiding any unnecessary employment gaps in your resume.

There is, of course, a huge carve out for time off for mental and physical health issues.  I am a strong advocate for mental health awareness and am in no way suggesting that sticking it out is the answer in all cases as everyone has their own particular mental health and/or medical considerations.  But barring these and other such extenuating circumstances, the simple truth is — it is significantly easier to get hired if you are currently employed.

Being employed gives you leverage — mind the gap.

In an ideal world, one would like to think that firms give candidates the benefit of the doubt when it comes to employment gaps in evaluating interview invitations.  Sadly, though, that is not how the process usually works.  Like many large companies, law firms sort candidates based on the limited information in their resumes and inevitably make assumptions based on this information.  And gaps in your employment timeline can unfortunately raise questions of reliability, focus, and drive.

Of course, you can overcome this presumption by telling a compelling story about the reason for your gap.  But, given the high volume of applicants for any one role, a firm may pass on your resume before even hearing the explanation.

Conversely, if you can manage to stay in your current role, you are only increasing your chances of getting an interview and avoiding unfair judgment.  This will let you walk into your interviews with greater confidence knowing that you can focus on your relevant experience and how you will make a seamless transition into the practice group given this background. 

And even if you are switching careers entirely, the fact that you are currently working will be reassuring to any potential new employers. Bottom line – this strategy allows you to play your strongest possible hand.

What happens when you are handed a gap you can’t mind? Build a bridge.

You might be thinking as you are reading — that is all fine and dandy when you are in control of minding the gap, but what happens when the “gap” is handed to you on a layoff platter??  This is where the story of the candidate who can’t be in the room to tell his/her/their story can have a different ending.  Enter stage left – your trusted legal recruiter.  

I know when some attorneys think of recruiters they think of stereotypical cold calls and emails that interrupt the workday, but one of my favorite parts of recruiting is being my candidates’ advocate and a source of career support for them.  I love getting to know each of my candidates personally so I can present her/him/they to a firm in a compelling way that paints a detailed picture of why this candidate — gaps included — would be an asset to that firm.  A gap can be an unknown, but when it gains a story bridge, it can transform into a stepping-stone to the candidate’s next destination.

Take the longview – it’s all part of the career journey.

I realize that all of this may be easier said than done. When you are feeling overwhelmed – whether it be from unrelenting work, roadblocks to business development, endless roads to partnership, or gaps handed to you — it can be really hard to focus on the bigger picture.  I too have felt lost in the chaos of the moment, but I have also learned over the years how important it is to try to take the longview.  In these times, I turn to my trusted friends and family to help me re-center and remember that my career is a marathon not a sprint.

Another way to help maintain perspective is to discuss your situation with your trusted recruiter.   A recruiter can develop a strategy for you to find your next role and counsel you as you go on the path together to get there.  Another favorite part of my job is that I get to be a legal industry data nerd.  Everyday my colleagues and I read and share intel from trusted legal news sources as to what is happening in the market.  We are also meeting with firms regularly to understand their specific needs each quarter.  We witness the trends unfold in front of us in real time and have all of this information to share with you to help you figure out your longview.  

For example, we are seeing and hearing about an uptick in hiring in the secondary markets right now.  You might be staring down a layoff in New York City, but it has been your longtime dream to move to Denver. Now might be the time!  How does dawn patrol skiing and logging into Citrix by mid-morning sound?  Carpe diem!  Feeling like you are ready for warmer weather?  Try Austin, another booming secondary market.  Whatever your frustration is – it might just be the path to something better.  All you need to do is figure out what that bridge is for you and how to get there.  We work with firms in all of these markets and can help you figure out what would be the best fit for you given both your legal and lifestyle interests.  

Your recruiter will also be able to advise you on which firms might be a better platform/culture match for you and your practice. Maybe you need a firm with less hours or a more flexible schedule? Maybe you need more billing rate flexibility? Maybe you need a more international platform to grow your book of business?  Maybe your business would thrive better at a boutique?  These are all questions that can be a fork in the road that leads to a new and exciting career trajectory for you.  Your recruiter can advise you on how they have helped past candidates in similar situations who have found success on a new path. 

Hearing about other lawyers who have made a change and ended up thriving in their new geographic market, tripling their book of business at their new firm, making non-equity partner from a counsel role, or overcoming an unexpected gap may help you see the light at the end of the tunnel you are in and help give you courage to embark on that next phase of your career path.  Mind as well have some fun and embrace the possibilities of where the path might lead you next! 

Mandatory Retirement Policies: A Source of Vulnerability and Opportunity

King & Spalding scored two notable coups this year when it lured prominent litigators Randy Mastro and Mark Kirsch away from Gibson Dunn. The loss of Mastro in particular was a serious hit for Gibson: in more than two decades at the firm, Mastro had accumulated a multitude of lucrative and high-profile clients, ranging from Chevron to Chris Christie.

Mastro and Kirsch undoubtedly weighed many factors in deciding to move. Lately, there have been rumblings in the market about office politics involving leadership in Gibson’s litigation group, so it’s possible that played a role. The rising fortunes of King & Spalding presumably helped: thanks to 25% growth in profits per equity partner from 2020 to 2021, King & Spalding is now within $70,000 of Gibson’s PPEP figure. (Over the same period, Gibson grew PPEP by just 8%.)

But regardless of the exact motivations, the defections of Mastro and Kirsch cast a spotlight on an important difference between the two firms: whereas Gibson requires partners to step down from its executive committee at 65 and to give up equity status at 68, King & Spalding has no mandatory partner retirement age. Mastro and Kirsch left Gibson at ages 65 and 60, respectively. Mastro, a longtime member of the executive committee, was already confronting the effects of Gibson’s retirement policy, and Kirsch could have been vulnerable to forced retirement in the coming years.

The traditional retirement model is less relevant today

Roughly half of Am Law 200 firms have mandatory retirement, with most specifying ages in the range of 63 to 68. Protocols for handling the retirement process vary. Some firms will transition partners into counsel positions as an intermediate step, enabling them to continue practicing while transferring their clients and work to younger partner colleagues. Others broach the topic of the impending retirement a year or two in advance to ease the partner’s transition out of the firm. It must be noted that retirement policies are often applied selectively, even at firms that supposedly have an age threshold. For example, there appear to be at least 23 Gibson Dunn partners who are over the age of 68, notwithstanding the firm’s mandatory retirement rules.

Traditionally, mandatory retirement has played an important role in career development for mid-career partners. When senior partners depart, it opens leadership positions for the next generation and enables younger partners to inherit primary responsibility for lucrative clients. However, an important premise of this model was that senior partners would, at least grudgingly, agree to transfer their clients. In a world of substantially increased partner lateral movement, this is no longer a safe assumption. As Mastro and Kirsch illustrate, partners over 60 with a robust book of business have attractive alternative options, and they need not acquiesce to a retirement plan that doesn’t suit them.

The other important function that mandatory retirement historically played was to help firms cull partners whose declining productivity no longer merited their high compensation. Stepping down due to age enabled a more graceful departure than being pushed out explicitly in response to diminished revenue production. But in the current environment, with the decline of lockstep partner compensation and an accelerating shift towards a pay-for-performance model, firms are not waiting until age 65 to push out unproductive partners. As a result, partners who still have equity in their mid-60s are much more likely to be important revenue contributors than in the past.

Potential lateral destinations: an initial screen

So if you are a partner of a certain vintage confronting impending mandatory retirement and are not yet ready to step aside, where else might you consider? Naturally, this will depend on a number of factors specific to your practice and your book of business. But as an initial screen, it may be helpful to highlight firms that — purely by the numbers — have demonstrated a particular willingness to retain partners beyond the age of 65.

To that end, we analyzed the number of partners at each Am Law 200 firm who received their JD in 1981 or earlier. The logic for selecting 1981 is that, assuming each attorney was at least 25 years old in the year of JD graduation, all partners in this data set should now be older than 65. For each firm, we divided the partners in this set by the total number of partners, thereby estimating the proportion of the firm’s partnership comprising members age 65+. Firms with a higher proportion of these seniormost partners may be especially receptive to considering potential lateral partners who are approaching mandatory retirement at their current firm.

We estimate that there are 12 Am Law 200 firms with at least 5% of the partnership aged 65+:

Firm% of Partnership Aged 65+
Irell & Manella15%
Buckley11%
Patterson, Belknap8%
Stroock & Stroock & Lavan6%
Herrick, Feinstein6%
Boies Schiller5%
Cahill Gordon5%
Hughes Hubbard5%
Kasowitz Benson5%
Munger, Tolles5%
Sullivan & Worcester5%
Susman Godfrey5%

The pension factor

A frequent complicating factor in considering the viability of late-stage lateral moves is the potential loss of a pension. Partners may understandably view their pension as a set of golden handcuffs: having spent so many years accumulating pension credits, does it make sense to walk away now?

In some cases, the answer will indeed be no. But it’s important to recognize that the pension issue is surmountable, at least sometimes. Gibson Dunn is known for its generous pension package, but Mastro and Kirsch departed regardless. For a partner with a strong book of business, there is a good chance a competing firm will be prepared to offer a package that adequately compensates for loss of an accumulated pension.

***

Naturally, this is an area where consideration of individual circumstances is critical. At Lateral Link, we maintain an extensive proprietary knowledge base of firms’ mandatory retirement policies to assist our senior lateral candidates in targeting the most suitable destinations. If you feel you would benefit from an outside perspective on potential opportunities tailored to your specific situation, we welcome you to get in touch for a detailed discussion of your current firm’s policy and how it compares to the alternatives available in the broader market.

Navigating Your Performance Review

Bonus season is around the corner!  But first, associates need to make it through performance reviews.  Few people look forward to the review process.  Some find it stressful — after all, these can be complicated conversations.  Others may be tempted to dismiss it as pointless, considering that many firms award bonuses based primarily on class year and/or hours billed.  But even if you’re at a firm where performance reviews are not a critical compensation driver, you should treat the review process as a valuable opportunity to elicit helpful feedback.

Instead of viewing your performance review as something to be endured, take control of the process to the extent possible.  Put in the time to prepare fully, clarify the feedback you receive, and reflect on the implications for your broader career goals.

Prepare for the review conversation

It’s likely that your firm will ask you to do some form of self-evaluation ahead of the review process, but regardless of what is formally expected, preparation is critical to achieving a productive conversation.  Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Did you make your hours?
  • What sort of feedback have you gotten along the way?
  • Did you have a trend line this year of improvement, or did you have the same problems all year?
  • Did you successfully address the feedback you received in last year’s review?

Identify your weaknesses, and think about how to frame them constructively.  You want to go into the review conversation prepared to talk about what you learned and what you’ll do differently next time.  Demonstrating that you have a specific plan for future improvements helps your evaluator look past any bumps.

Ahead of the review, be sure to update your deal sheet or representative matters list!  In case you don’t already have a deal sheet, see how to make one here.  Updating your deal sheet will help you review your work and prepare to discuss both victories and setbacks.  It’s too easy and too common for a supervisor to forget about things you thought were really important, so don’t rely on your reviewer to generate a comprehensive list.  Having your deal sheet at your fingertips will make sure you’re prepared to advocate for yourself.

Listen carefully and seek clarification

During the review conversation, remember to take notes as best you can.  You can’t expect to remember it all, especially if you’re anxious or you get feedback that surprises you.  Detailed notes will be helpful if you need to follow up on something later.  

Ideally, the feedback you receive will be specific and actionable, but it’s possible it will be generic and unhelpful.  If so, it’s on you to ask granular questions to elicit more precisely what the reviewer is talking about.  This applies to either positive or negative feedback, but it’s especially critical in situations where the reviewer is expressing concern about your performance.  Valuable questions to ask include:

  • Am I on track for partnership?
  • What do I need to do this year to get there/stay there?
  • What specific skills would you like to see me acquire this year?
  • Are there any weaknesses I need to shore up?
  • Now that I’m a Xth year associate, how do you see my role on deals in the coming year?  In mentoring juniors on our team?  In business development?

Ask for clarification, especially about critiques, but don’t be defensive.  Remember: “curious, not furious.”  Achieving this balance can be really challenging for us over-achieving lawyers.  You may find it helpful to practice reacting to feedback in advance, ensuring you enter the review conversation with some default responses.  Ask A Manager has some great advice on this, as well as scripts for if you disagree with the criticism.  For example: “I’m glad you’re telling me this.  I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there.  But am I looking at this wrong?”

Keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a follow-up conversation!  You may find that you ask more effective questions after having had some time to gather your thoughts.  Ahead of the follow-up, draft a list of questions digging into the specifics of how the firm wants you to perform in the next year.

Reflect on your broader career trajectory

Although the review process is principally about your performance in your current role at your current firm, don’t forget to reflect on the bigger picture.  The end of the year is a great time to consider whether your firm remains the best setting to achieve your career goals.  Are you getting the work you want?  How do you feel about your professional development?  Have you found your people at this firm?  Are you content?

If not, keep in mind that other firms would be happy to have you.  I’d love to help you think through your options or connect you with one my colleagues in your area.

Good luck!

How to Survive an Economic Downturn

With talk of recession now impossible to avoid, many lawyers have started to wonder about their job security. It’s worth emphasizing that actual hiring data still looks healthy by historical standards. Nationwide, lateral moves in Q3 2022 were down more than 20% from the Q3 2021 level, but keep in mind that the 2021 market was unbelievably active. If we use Q3 2019 as a more normal base case, we find an almost 10% increase in lateral moves in Q3 2022. But even if widespread pain is not yet evident, there is much anecdotal discussion of so-called stealth layoffs. Additionally, at least one firm has deferred start dates for its incoming first-year associates, reviving an approach that was widespread in the Great Recession.

Making the conservative assumption that conditions will get worse before they get better, now is the time to assess your situation and take steps to position yourself to survive a downturn. Here are some things to consider.

1. Are you a restructuring lawyer? Can you become one?

There’s nothing like a countercyclical practice to help you ride out a recession. If you do happen to be a restructuring lawyer, you should be worried more about a coming deluge of work than about job security. But assuming you haven’t worked in bankruptcy, now may be the moment to wedge your way in. In the old days, corporate lawyers tended to have broader skill sets, with bankruptcy being one component of a more diversified transactional practice. Even though modern law firms tend to be all about specialization, this historical legacy can still serve as an inspiration. If you’re already in a corporate or finance practice, call up a restructuring partner and ask if the group needs help. With the next wave of restructurings presumably on the horizon, if you can get in the door now, you might find yourself in the enviable position of having plenty of work.

More broadly, you may want to think about retooling, if not to restructuring then to another more recession-resistant practice. This is especially worth considering if you are a junior corporate associate who never particularly liked your work. The best time to retool is when your group is not busy — a slowdown in deals might present an opportunity to escape.

2. Assess your firm: is it well-positioned for a downturn?

In thinking about your firm’s relative strength, it’s helpful to consider the past, present, and future. As the disclaimer goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But if your firm is known to have conducted stealth (or outright) layoffs in the last recession, that’s probably a relevant consideration.

The present is relatively easy to assess. Are you busy? Is your group busy? What about your friends in other groups?

The future is inevitably murkier, but you can still make some educated guesses. Is your firm unusually reliant on corporate M&A and capital markets work? Bad sign. Is it well-diversified, with strong offerings in litigation and restructuring? Good sign.

3. Consider your alternatives

Keenly observing conditions at your current firm is an important first step, but you also need to contextualize against the rest of the industry. Talking to friends at other firms is a good idea. But for deeper insights informed by data, having a relationship with a trusted legal recruiter can be invaluable. We spend all day talking to people at various firms, so we’re always informed about how the market is trending. And we have access to extensive proprietary data specific to individual markets and practices. We know which firms are growing and which are losing people to the competition. As stealth layoffs pick up, you can be sure that seasoned recruiters will be among the first to know the real story.

If you learn that your firm is underperforming relative to peers, or that it’s perceived to be at greater risk in a downturn scenario, you’d be well advised to investigate whether firms in a stronger position may be seeking someone with your skill set. Naturally, a trusted recruiter can help with that diligence as well.

4. Watch the partners

Even in a good economy, most partners are open to hearing offers from rival firms. But with conditions deteriorating, it’s especially safe to assume that your partner is taking calls. Many partners feel the ground shifting under their feet, and they are just as worried as associates about potentially being pushed out. To the extent there may be concerns about the health of the firm overall, partners will be especially eager to flee: nobody wants to be the last person on a sinking ship. If you notice an uptick of partner turnover at your firm, it could be a sign that you too should look elsewhere.

How to Help Recruiters Alert You to Relevant Opportunities on LinkedIn

It won’t come as a surprise to you that virtually every recruiter uses LinkedIn to source candidates. You’ve likely received at least a few unsolicited LinkedIn messages from recruiters. Chances are, some of those messages were for positions that do not align with your practice area. This can be a source of frustration, leading some lawyers to become pretty jaded about the general notion of recruiter outreach.

But here’s the thing. If your LinkedIn profile doesn’t clearly communicate your skills and specific experience, recruiters are left to guess. The best way you can improve the quality of recruiter outreach is to maintain an informative, up-to-date profile. This gives recruiters quick and valuable insight into your background, enabling us to contact you if there’s a strong match and, conversely, to move on if you’re obviously not the right candidate. I can’t promise that a more informative profile will entirely solve the problem of messages for irrelevant roles, but it will definitely help.  

Introduce yourself effectively

The “intro” portion of your LinkedIn profile (the top section) is in many ways the most important. This is your opportunity to communicate crisply who you are and what you offer. The best way to enable a recruiter to find your profile is by inserting informative keywords into the “headline” (the line immediately below your name). Describing yourself simply as an “Attorney” is a missed opportunity: instead, tell us what type of attorney you are. The more specific, the better. For example, “Litigation Attorney” is better than “Attorney.” But the best is  a headline like “Litigation Employment Attorney Specializing in Discrimination and Retaliation.”

Double check that your location is current. Many lawyers moved cities during the pandemic, and some have neglected to update their LinkedIn profiles accordingly. It only takes a moment! While you’re at it, consider selecting the “open to opportunities” setting that is only visible to recruiters. This will confidentially communicate to recruiters that you’re receptive to relevant outreach.

Photos are another critical element of an effective intro section. Adding a photo increases the likelihood that a potential contact will accept your connection request by 9x. In addition to uploading a professional profile photo, make sure to include a background photo. Your background is a visual representation of your personal brand and is one of the first things recruiters will see when they visit your profile.

Fill in the details

A basic rule: if it’s there, fill it in. The more complete your profile, the better. Obviously, you have to fill out Experience and Education. But beyond that, add some content to Skills (in case recruiters are filtering on those keywords) and your licenses & certifications (you’re a member of a bar, right?). Other optional sections can help give your profile a more personal touch. Are you bilingual? Fill out the Languages section!

Ensure that your Experience section is more informative than a simple list of titles. The nice thing about LinkedIn, in contrast to a resume, is you don’t have to worry about fitting all the content onto a printed page. So go ahead and include a couple of bullet points about each of your past positions to indicate specifically what you did and what you achieved. Naturally, this will change over time as you advance in your career and accomplish new things, so don’t just fill in the Experience section once and forget about it — be proactive about keeping the description of your current role up to date. As a matter of style, note that it’s perfectly appropriate to write in the first person on LinkedIn, in a way that would be uncommon on a resume. Using “I” statements helps to humanize you.

Education should be fairly straightforward, but do keep in mind that this is not the place to be modest. If you graduated with honors, say so. You may also wish to list your GPA and/or class rank, especially if you’re early in your career, with limited work experience.

Stay active

At a minimum, you should log into LinkedIn weekly to check your messages. If you aren’t in the habit of logging in regularly, you can also put your contact info (personal email and/or cell phone) on your profile, enabling recruiters to contact you through those alternative channels.

As an optional bonus, consider creating content on LinkedIn. This will boost your ranking in search results and can be a great way to get noticed — not just by recruiters, but maybe even by law firm partners directly. Being active on the platform builds credibility, demonstrating that you know your area of law and are comfortable speaking about it publicly. This is by no means required, but when you do it well, it certainly helps!

Check your search appearances 

Be sure that you are getting noticed by the right audience. To do this, go to your profile page, look under the Analytics heading, look for the magnifying glass icon, and click on “search appearances.” This lets you see how often you appear in search results. In addition to the number of search appearances, it also shows you the keywords you were found for. If these do not align with your current practice area or industry, consider adjusting your headline and intro section until you are appearing in more targeted searches. 

Have fun 

Finally, have fun. Networking and being open to new opportunities can be intimidating, but LinkedIn makes it relatively simple and stress-free. Treat it as a no-pressure environment for you to be yourself and engage with like-minded people.