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International Lateral Moves

You might expect Biglaw firms to be reluctant to hire associates from one country for roles in a different country. Cross-border moves are inherently more complicated than hiring an associate from across the street. There are visa considerations, bar admission hurdles, even cultural challenges.

But in fact, despite the possible obstacles, the market for cross-border hiring is booming. In particular, Biglaw offices in the United States are increasingly open to bringing on foreign candidates. And lawyers from other common law countries are realizing the advantages of gaining experience in the American market. Building a professional network while working on the highest-value, most complex deals in the world pays dividends throughout one’s career, whether the lawyer stays in the United States permanently or moves back home. Lucrative American Biglaw salaries are also a plus (though you’ll need to tolerate high hours expectations in exchange).

If you are a well-credentialed attorney working in Canada, Australia, London, Asia, or the United States, now is a great time to consider an overseas move. And Lateral Link can help.

Growing demand for cross-border hires

International lateral hiring is not a new phenomenon. We have previously written about it in the context of moves between Canada and the United States. But relative to prior years, the level of interest among firms in hiring from overseas has escalated dramatically in 2021. Firms that have made these hires in the past are looking to bring in candidates in larger numbers. And firms that previously ruled out such hires are suddenly embracing the overseas model.

What explains firms’ growing openness to foreign lawyers? The biggest factor is that local candidates are in short supply. Many firms instituted hiring freezes or layoffs last spring, only to see unexpectedly strong demand for their services in the second half of 2020. All at once, firms have found themselves playing catch-up in a highly competitive market.

The talent squeeze is especially acute in the most expensive cities, such as New York and San Francisco. As with professionals more generally, the pandemic has caused many lawyers to reevaluate their circumstances and in some cases make major life changes. One of the most common has been to move away from high-priced urban centers. That has left firms with slots to fill in the largest markets facing a reduced talent pool. As a result, many are exploring creative solutions like hiring from abroad.

Another important factor is that cross-border hiring is working well for the early adopters. Firms have seen their peers succeed with this model, and that has given them confidence to jump on the bandwagon. The trend is catching on broadly: Lateral Link has worked with dozens of firms this year on international lateral searches.

There are some caveats to keep in mind. First, even in this tight market, firms still expect solid academic credentials, as well as strong and relevant substantive experience. Second, visa restrictions can be an obstacle. On the visa front, Canadians and Australians looking to move to the United States have an advantage. Canadians are eligible for the automatic 3-year TN visa issued at the port of entry; Australians can obtain an automatic E-3 visa prior to traveling to the United States. Candidates moving to the United States from other countries require employer sponsorship, which can be more challenging.

But for candidates who can surmount those hurdles, opportunities abound. There is demand for lawyers at various seniority levels, ranging from second-year associates up to senior associates and counsel. Firms are especially eager to hire in transactional practices such as M&A and finance. Capital markets demand is also growing. Tax and litigation opportunities are more limited, as these practices don’t cross borders as easily. Local bar admission is not necessarily a prerequisite, though of course candidates who already have it are especially desirable.

Lateral Link has specialized capabilities for cross-border lateral moves

If the prospect of a cross-border move is intriguing to you, please note that Lateral Link has a team of experienced recruiters specializing in international lateral hiring. Our primary markets are Canada, Australia, London, Asia and the United States. We work with candidates moving between any of these geographies. Firms specifically reach out to Lateral Link asking for candidates from these markets because they know our team has local expertise. We are constantly sitting down with partners to learn more about their hiring needs.

I lead our international group and bring particular knowledge of the Canadian and Australian markets. I have specialized in international moves for the past six years, and as a result, I’ve gained a strong understanding of which firms and practice groups are open to foreign candidates. I strongly advise candidates considering an international move to seek out recruiters who understand both the origin and destination markets. Real knowledge of both markets is critical to finding the right fit and ensuring a smooth transition. Lateral Link brings the necessary depth of expertise to navigate these moves successfully.

Canada

Firms considering a hire from the Canadian market frequently call me even if I am not working with the candidate because they trust my assessment of Canadian legal backgrounds. Lateral Link primarily places Canadians into the United States or London. We also place American associates into the Canadian market. Candidates interested in moving to or from Canada should contact me or my colleagues, Elizabeth Soderberg or Andrew Clyne.

Australia

As with Canada, we mainly place Australians into the United States or London. We also assist Australians with moves to Asian markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Australian candidates should contact me or Zach Sandberg.

London

In the London market, we mainly assist U.S.-qualified associates with moves to London and UK-qualified associates with moves to Asia. We sometimes place UK nationals into the United States, but this is more challenging due to the need for visa sponsorship. Our experts on the London market are Abby Gordon and Andrew Clyne.

Asia

The majority of our Asia work involves placements of Americans into Hong Kong or Singapore. One notable feature of Asian markets is that lateral opportunities are available for litigators who have local language skills. For transactional associates, language skills are highly valued, but they are not an absolute requirement. As with London, placements of Asian nationals into the United States are less common, due to visa requirements. Candidates interested in Asia moves should contact Justin Flowers or Andrew Ng.

Biglaw Partners Should Think Like Franchise Owners

It’s a common refrain even from highly successful lawyers: “I wish I were on the business side.”

There can be more than one motivation underlying that sentiment. The chance to earn more money tends to be part of the appeal, particularly if the lawyer is treating an especially successful client as the reference point. But beyond money, attorneys who yearn for a business role are often drawn to the notion of managing a P&L. In other words, they like the idea of being in charge of a business and controlling their destiny.

The thing is, if you are a Biglaw partner, you’re already running a business: your practice. It might not feel that way. Maybe you view your firm’s managing partner as the person who is running the business, and relative to that leader, you feel like you don’t have much management autonomy. If that is your view, it may be worth considering that most of the clients on the “business side” are constrained by decisions made higher up the pyramid. Not all of them are CEOs. Many are leaders of divisions within a broader corporate structure, managing a P&L that is just one component of a larger whole.

But the best analogy for law firm partners isn’t to a corporate division. It’s to a franchise. A law firm partner is effectively a franchise owner. At first glance, running a capital markets practice looks vastly different from running a fast food restaurant. But if you set aside the surface differences, there are some fundamental similarities.

In a franchise model, the franchisor determines many details of the franchisee’s operation. The franchisor defines the brand in the public imagination through marketing campaigns. It controls the menu of products sold at the franchises. It supervises the design and construction of stores to maintain a common look and feel across the brand’s outlets. And it provides instructions and training to ensure a consistent customer experience.

But although the broad strategic and design choices are primarily the domain of the franchisor, the franchisee controls the actual operation of the business and ultimately determines whether it succeeds. The franchisee’s responsibilities include hiring employees and supervising their work, building the reputation of the franchise in the community it serves, and carefully tracking the performance of the franchise relative to industry benchmarks to identify opportunities for improvement.

A law firm’s management, like a franchisor, is the primary steward of the brand under which the firm’s partners offer their services. The managing partner or management committee determines which practice areas the firm will compete in, selects the partners who will lead service delivery in those practice areas, and sets the broad policies and cultural norms by which the firm operates.

To be sure, those are all important decisions. But the success of the firm’s business is ultimately contingent on client satisfaction, and that depends on the management skills of the individual partners. As a partner, your job is to bring in matters and execute on them such that the client’s expectations are met or exceeded.

Like a franchise owner, you are responsible for your practice, and it will grow primarily through your direct efforts. It’s on you to get out there and interact with influential members of the community, and it’s on you to ensure that the team of associates working under your direction is motivated and equipped to deliver on your promises to clients. Like a diligent franchise owner, you should be monitoring the performance of your practice relative to others, taking stock of its relative strengths and weaknesses, and gleaning insights that can be leveraged to drive continuous improvement. You don’t need to shift to the “business side.” You’re already on it.


A Deep Dive Into The 2021 Am Law 100 Rankings

Last year was a difficult year for so many industries but a shockingly good one for Biglaw, at least in terms of metrics like gross revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per partner.

“Lawyers are terrible businesspeople.” You’ve surely heard this before. But is it true?

If lawyers are so bad at business, then why did the Am Law 100, the nation’s 100 largest law firms ranked by revenue, have such a banner year in 2020? In the midst of a global pandemic and economic downturn — one that hammered so many industries, from airlines to hospitality to commercial real estate– Biglaw firms flourished.

Last week, the American Lawyer issued its eagerly anticipated Am Law 100 rankings for 2021. As a group, here’s how the Am Law 100 fared in 2020 (as noted by Dan Packel in his excellent analysis of the data):

  • Total revenue: $111 billion, up by 6.6 percent.
  • Average revenue per lawyer: $1.05 million, up by 5 percent.
  • Profits per equity partner: $2.23 million, up by 13.4 percent.

Who are you calling a terrible businessperson now? These growth rates exceeded those posted by the Am Law 100 in the far more normal year of 2019 (which were 5 percent, 3 percent, and 5 percent, respectively, for total revenue, RPL, and PPEP).

What drove the dramatic increase in profitability? Yes, cost-cutting did play a role; firms used the pandemic as an opportunity to make themselves more efficient, eliminating or reducing various expenses that they were already planning to cut (e.g., certain administrative roles, real estate costs, etc.).

But, at least collectively, the Am Law 100 didn’t juice their profits by slashing lawyer or even equity-partner headcount. Total attorney headcount actually grew slightly, rising by 1.7 percent to 105,718, and the number of equity partners remained flat (down by just 12 partners, to a new total of 21,258).

Let’s now take a closer look at the three key metrics — gross revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per partner — and the top 10 firms in each category.

Gross Revenue

Here are the top 10 firms in the 2021 Am Law 100 rankings, ranked by their gross revenue in 2020. You can access the full list here.

Kudos to Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins, once again the two top-grossing firms, which both grew their total revenue by double digits. All of the other top-ten firms also increased their revenue, except for Baker McKenzie, which saw a slight dip (perhaps due to the global nature of the firm; the U.S. legal market generally performed better than overseas markets last year).

As you can see, there wasn’t much change in terms of the rank order of the firms. Everyone kept their 2020 spots except for White & Case and Hogan Lovells, who swapped places; now White & Case is #8 and Hogan Lovells is #9.

In 2020, 42 firms enjoyed gross revenue in excess of $1 billion, one more than the 41 firms in 2019. Almost three-quarters of the Am Law 100 — 74 firms, to be precise — grew their gross revenue. On the strength of its capital markets practice, Davis Polk had the biggest gain, a whopping 22.6 percent. (For more on how Davis Polk pulled off such a great financial performance, see this Bloomberg Law piece by Roy Strom.)

Revenue Per Lawyer

Here are the top 10 firms in the 2021 Am Law rankings based on revenue per lawyer. You can access the full list here.

As you can see, revenue per lawyer grew quite nicely among the top ten, with four firms posting double-digit growth. Once again, Wachtell Lipton and Sullivan & Cromwell took the top two spots — but Davis Polk zoomed up from #10 to #3. Two other firms known for strong capital markets practices, Cahill Gordon and Debevoise & Plimpton, also posted strong gains, breaking into the top 10.

Profits Per Equity Partner

And now, everyone’s favorite ranking: the top 10 firms by profits per equity partner. You can access the full list here.

As usual, Wachtell Lipton took the #1 spot, with an incredible $7.5 million in PPEP. But Kirkland & Ellis, in recent years the #2 firm, got bumped out of second place by Davis Polk, with $6.35 million. If 2021 turns out to be like 2020, it’s conceivable that Davis Polk could displace Wachtell as #1 in next year’s rankings (but based on the strong year that M&A is having so far, I wouldn’t necessarily count on that). As for the rest of the top ten, there wasn’t that much movement, except for the ascension of Cahill and Debevoise (which the revenue per lawyer rankings hinted at).

Taken collectively, the Am Law 100 performed well in terms of profitability. As the American Lawyer reports, average PPEP increased by 13 percent in 2020, and 56 firms enjoyed growth rates of at least 10 percent, compared to just 23 in last year’s rankings. So congratulations to Biglaw on its big success in 2020 — a year that was, to put it mildly, extremely challenging for so many of us.

Moving on from the rankings, I’d like to close with a personal announcement. As mentioned in passing in this New York Times piece by media columnist Ben Smith, I’m returning to full-time writing as of next week. I’ve enjoyed recruiting, but one thing I’ve learned about myself over this crazy past year, including my near-death experience with Covid-19, is that writing is what I truly love.

Back in December, I launched a new publication about legal affairs called Original Jurisdiction. I started off doing it for fun on the side, but I’ve realized after five months or so that I want to do it full-time and try to make a living out of it.

Original Jurisdiction comes out as both a newsletter and a blog; please feel free to sign up if interested. Right now it’s free, as it has been for the past five months. Next week, I will add paid subscriptions — which is how writers on the Substack platform earn a living — but there will always be lots of free content.

I have greatly enjoyed my two years at Lateral Link, in large part because of my amazing colleagues, and I wouldn’t have wanted to work at any other recruiting firm. I don’t think there’s another legal search firm out there that has such talented recruiters and does such an excellent job of encouraging and incentivizing them to work together as a team.

If you’re interested in working with Lateral Link as either a law firm or a candidate, please feel free to reach out to me. Although I’m finishing up my work here, I’d be happy to connect you with an appropriate colleague.  Thank you, and please do stay in touch!


The Weight Of Blackness

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Monique Burt Williams is the CEO of Cadence Counsel, where she helps corporations and other organizations diversify their in-house legal divisions as they strive to reflect a global economy.

I was five years old when I first felt the weight of being black in this country.

I was at day care, playing happily with a group of children at a water table. If I close my eyes, I can still hear our screeches as we gleefully plunked toys into the pool. At some point, I mistakenly dropped a toy tugboat onto the ground. A boy glared at me, snatched up the tugboat, hurled it angrily back into the water and yelled, “You’re black!”

There was a venom in his tone that was foreign to me, and I stood there frozen, not quite understanding what his words or this interaction really meant. All that registered in that moment was the negativity that dripped from his accusatory description of me. I could tell that everyone else was contemplating a similar thought because they had all stopped playing to look at me, waiting for my reaction.

Another little girl jumped to my defense and screamed, “No, she’s not black! That’s probably just dirt. We can wash it off.” She proceeded to pat tiny handfuls of water onto my face in her innocent attempt to smear that troublesome melanin away from my skin. Her efforts were futile, and disappointment washed over the group. I remember exactly how it felt when I blinked and hot tears rushed down my cheeks and into the cool droplets of water from the girl’s failed science experiment.

The group’s silent, collective stare made me somehow feel responsible for the moment and therefore obligated to fix it. I felt like it was my responsibility to lighten the mood, or offer up some sort of excuse, or distraction, or smile, or explanation, or apology for my blackness, having interrupted and dispelled the lightness of the occasion.

Finally, mercifully, a teacher walked over to inform us that it was time for lunch, and everyone just dispersed. That was it. The moment had passed. The teacher never saw or acknowledged my tears, and everyone simply went on with their day.

Those same children would go on to play with me year after year, but I carried a soul-soaked heaviness from that day that would rear its familiar head, in some way or another, for the rest of my life. It was the first time that I had experienced the burden of “otherness” – a panicked, gloomy pit in my stomach, like the feeling you get when the phone rings in the middle of the night or that nauseating tug at your insides as you prepare to attend a funeral.

Another funeral.

After days of protests and riots following the senseless death of George Floyd, the nation has witnessed yet another funeral for an unarmed black man who was murdered at the hands of law enforcement officials. Once again, racism has wreaked utter and complete havoc on our already taxed emotional and societal sensibilities, forcing some of us into the recesses of our minds and others onto the pandemic-ridden streets of our cities in search of an answer to that singularly unifying question: what, if anything, can be done in the wake of this chaotic pattern of destruction?

If I close my eyes, I can call up that scene from when I was five years old. I exchange the water table for a conference room. I swap out the kids for co-workers. I turn the toys into projects, and I replace the burden of “otherness” with the opportunity to effectuate real change.

When someone’s differences are called out and used against them if they happen to drop the ball, the aggressor must be pulled aside and addressed accordingly. When someone genuinely tries to defend and stand with the oppressed, but fails to do or say the perfect thing at exactly the right moment, they should be quietly counseled as to what might be more helpful in the future, not openly criticized and alienated. When someone takes on the unwarranted responsibility of smiling through the struggle, discreetly offer them a tissue and the time they need in order to recharge.

The perception of “other” begins with those in positions of power. Those in positions of power are overwhelmingly the owners of privilege. And when the owners of privilege fail to use that power toward meaningful change, they waste an opportunity to increase the widespread perception of the value of others. That is what we are missing: respect for the value of “otherness.”

That is why it is so universally dangerous to neglect the prioritization of a diverse workforce by resting in the comfort of working with homogenous teams. It perpetuates the idea that if you are “other,” you are of lesser value. It matters who you hire. It matters that your leadership teams reflect the customers that you serve. It matters what messages you send to your employees and to their families and to the world about your values and the ways in which you value their lives.

I stand with those CEOs who have committed to reinforce their diversity and inclusion efforts. I stand with the families of those who have lost their lives to senseless acts of hatred and bigotry. I stand with those who seek equality for all. And I stand with every five-year-old at every water table who has ever felt the weight of being black in this country. We will do better by you. We will.