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Smart Growth Part 5: Lateral Partner Onboarding and Integration

10.30.19 | Susan Duncan

Our last post, Smart Growth Part 4: Lateral Partner Hiring discussed the statistics of lateral recruiting, the level of activity, the failure rates and the cost of failures. Improving your process by aligning strategy to hiring, laying out the business case and criteria for lateral hires and comprehensively vetting candidates will go a long way to improving your recruitment success. But still that is only half the equation.

Firms too often assume that already successful rainmakers don’t need support or formal integration structure and might resist any efforts to do so.  As a result, many laterals are shown an office, given some initial operational orientation, and left to port their practice to their new firm.  This exacerbates and puts at greater risk of failure the substantial investment the firm has made in time and dollars. There are several steps and a framework firms should implement in order to achieve successful integration.

Assign Responsibility and Accountability

The Lateral Partner Sponsor. During the final stages of the recruitment process and negotiations, a Lateral Partner Sponsor must be identified. This individual most often is the Practice Group Leader or other leading partner in the firm who strongly and actively advocated on the lateral’s behalf during the recruitment process.  This must be a partner who has access to management, the credibility and the political leverage to ensure that others do their part in making the lateral a success.

The Lateral Integration Manager. At most large firms, there now is a team of lateral integration professionals assigned to work with the lateral and others in the firm to help facilitate quick and smooth transitions. These individuals often work with the laterals to build out their business plans (see below).  In the absence of a dedicated professional, this individual might be someone from the firm’s recruitment, professional development or marketing team.

The Firm Buddy. This often is a partner in the firm, ideally not in the lateral’s practice group, who is “homegrown,” has deep knowledge of and history with the firm, understands the politics and the players and is enthusiastic about helping the lateral succeed. It also is someone with whom the lateral is likely to connect on a personal level either because of shared interests, background or personality styles.  The Firm Buddy will help with introductions and serve as a sounding board for questions or concerns.

The Business Development Coach.  Even lateral partners with a track record of successful business development can benefit tremendously from a dedicated coach. The coach provides strategic input into how the lateral can best take advantage of their new firm’s platform and help develop specific goals and milestones and a detailed plan for bringing on former clients, outreach to prospects and referral sources, internal integration and external positioning opportunities as a partner in the new firm. Coaches are helpful for all lateral partners to expedite their integration and their business development efforts and can be especially helpful to those from senior government or in-house positions.

The three internal designees together with the managing partner, or management level partner responsible for strategic growth and lateral hiring, comprise the lateral’s integration team. The external coach can serve as a liaison, an objective sounding board, and a resource to ensure the lateral executes on the plan and transitions smoothly into the firm.


Laying Crucial Groundwork in Advance of Lateral Arrival

Even before a lateral partner arrives, the integration team should be focused on building internal support and paving the way for a smooth transition.  This will entail meeting with other partners in the firm and the practice group (although many will have been involved in the recruiting process) to reinforce the strategic intent and to seek input and buy-in.  Any potential personality conflicts or turf struggles should be anticipated and worked through beforehand.  Being proactive in communicating the positive message should generate interest and enthusiasm internally.  Additional considerations include:

  • Think carefully about where the lateral partner’s office will be—proximity to key partners who are team players and others in the lateral’s practice or industry group who will enhance success. Conversely, the wrong office placement can be a significant factor in failure.
  • Determine whether staff members will be following the partner or group such as secretaries or paralegals. Often lateral staff acquisitions are ignored until the last minute when suddenly an issue arises—generally regarding pay parity or seniority within the new firm’s staffing equation.  Staff managers should be tasked with meeting with each of these individuals personally to learn more about them and help them transition smoothly.  Topics to explore include expectations regarding job responsibilities, evaluation procedures, pay and bonus structures and timing, benefits and training opportunities, and questions that the lateral staff person has about working in the new firm.
  • Share firm values and special traits or quirks with the lateral and provide advance guidance on politics and important firm players (including those not on committees but who carry great weight in decisions and business development opportunities.) Begin inputting the lateral’s contacts into the firm’s contact data base.
  • The integration team should define the “value-add” message to be used internally and externally and discuss this with the marketing team. Avoid surprising your partners – make sure you announce a lateral hire before the media gets hold of it. Hopefully, partners who are members of the lateral’s practice group will have been communicated with and even involved in the lateral hiring process.   Unfortunately, too many partners and employees are finding out about new laterals from the media, not from their own leaders. Draft an internal announcement to be circulated to attorneys and staff the week before the lateral arrives and begin working on an external announcement to be distributed to clients and other important contacts of the firm as soon as the lateral arrives.  Also, draft a press release to be distributed as soon as it is ethically permissible and the week before the lateral’s arrival (or even earlier if ethically appropriate).  It is a nice touch to invite the lateral’s spouse or partner to tour the firm or have dinner with firm leaders to help orient him/her to the lawyer’s new home.
  • The Lateral Partner Sponsor should identify and begin brainstorming with other firm leaders and business developers a list of potential partners and clients that the lateral should be introduced to early on. This will form the skeleton of a portion of the 12-Month Plan (see below).

Perhaps the most important factor in success for laterals is how much the law firm culture welcomes and supports laterals into its culture.  Does every partner take responsibility for reaching out and welcoming new laterals?  Is there a collaborative and entrepreneurial approach to building new business and growing deeper client relationships for the firm? Does the comp system support cross-selling and efforts to contribute to the firm’s success?  Does the firm work hard to make a new lateral and even his/her spouse feel welcome and a part of the family?


As Soon As Lateral Arrives

Ideally, the lateral will be ready to begin an active integration and outreach effort upon arrival at the firm.  Be sure the internal announcement has been distributed before the lateral actually arrives, then the press release.  Alert receptionists and support staff responsible for directing calls and helping the lateral with initial activities.  You do not want a client calling looking for the lateral on his/her first day and hearing that he/she does not exist on the firm’s roster.

The first few days and weeks should include several orientation sessions about and with clients, practice groups, specialties, and office capabilities, technology and information resources, and marketing resources.  Give the lateral several tours of the office and provide personal introductions to as many people as is practical.  Make sure they meet those with whom they will interact from the outset: lawyers and staff on the floor, management committee members, management, administrative and operations staff, receptionists, etc.  Within the first month, hold a reception for all in the firm/office to be introduced. If you are a multi-office firm, the lateral should be encouraged (and supported financially) to visit key offices in the firm, with a priority on those that supplement or complement the lateral’s practice and client opportunities, and in which key partners practice.

Developing a 12-Month Plan

The first few weeks at the firm will be spent getting oriented, contacting former clients and contacts and beginning a rigorous internal marketing effort.  After two or three weeks, however, these efforts should be converted to a more formal action plan for the year.  This plan should be designed around the goals the firm has agreed upon with the lateral during the recruiting and negotiation process together with priorities set by the lateral’s practice group and office.

Similar to an annual business plan that all partners should be developing and following, the lateral’s business plan will have additional focus on internal marketing and integration activities.  At the top of the plan should be a goal summary of the opportunities presented and to be capitalized on.  Additional concrete goals will include metrics around:

  • Expected revenue from lateral’s existing clients to be ported
  • Estimated revenue from target prospective clients
  • Additional revenue from cross-selling firm’s existing clients
  • Lateral’s own working hours
  • Hours to be contributed to business development, growth and management of team, firm activities and initiatives, pro bono and outside activities

The goals will be followed by a concrete plan for pursuing them.  The action step portion of the business plan will include specific sections with names of:

  • Lateral’s existing clients with steps focused on (1) the lateral’s efforts to transition the business and (2) introduction of lateral’s clients to other key partners and practices in the firm for cross-selling and solidifying new firm relationships
  • Lateral’s prospective clients with specific steps
  • Lateral’s key referral sources with specific steps
  • Firm clients and the responsible/billing partners who lateral should be introduced to
  • Internal marketing and networks with a focus on practice groups, industry groups and other rainmakers; this will include visits to other offices on a routine basis
  • Firm initiatives/task forces/committees in which lateral can quickly become assimilated into firm fabric, culture and opportunities
  • External leadership and reputation-building activities – this may include industry or professional associations the lateral already has a role in and can introduce others in the firm to, or it may be other associations in which the firm has a strong presence


Provide Support from Client Intake, Business Development and Marketing Professionals

If your marketing and business development professionals are not already formally part of the lateral’s integration team, they need to become involved in supporting, directing and monitoring a lateral’s business plan, client outreach activities, prospecting and external reputation-building activities as well as providing guidance internally on communications strategies.

Lateral’s Client Contacts. As soon as the lateral arrives, he/she should begin opening new files for clients who have indicated an interest in following the lateral to your firm.  This process can be cumbersome to both the lateral and the clients so develop as seamless an approach as you can to expedite this process comfortably.  All former clients and other important contacts should receive a phone call from the lateral, followed by an e-mail and a personal note with some information about firm.  There may also be circumstances in which a call from the new firm’s accounting/billing professionals will be helpful to orient the clients to the firm’s tracking and billing practices.  You may want to link clients with the information technology professionals as well to ensure consistency with access and communications.

Once the lateral’s contacts have been entered into the firm’s CRM system, the lateral should review the list and identify 30-50 individuals he/she will write personal notes to with an announcement card. (Despite the trend toward all digital communication, we strongly recommend the personal touch on this.) The announcement card should be sent by mail and e-mail with the lateral’s v-card.  After a few months, the firm should hold some receptions for clients and other friends of the firm.

Client intake, clearing conflicts and aligning clients billing processes with the firms protocols will take some special attention from your client intake and billing personnel.

Public Relations and Publicity.  The news media is inundated with announcements and press releases about new laterals joining firms.  It only becomes newsworthy when a firm demonstrates consistent and substantial lateral growth, acquires another firm or on the flip side, if a firm begins to suffer from repeated defections of partners.  When a lateral joins the firm, you should still send out a press release to ensure that it is listed in the announcement section of your business and legal papers, and perhaps even community or alumni publications.  Ideally, make a connection between your hiring of the lateral and an external business or market trend, showcasing the firm’s strategic plan.  The more visible or prominent the individuals joining the firm, the more attention you will garner.

The primary objective of a publicity strategy for a new lateral is to quickly and effectively connect the lateral’s name and expertise with your firm so people will be able to locate the lateral and will begin associating the individual and the expertise or added depth with the firm.  Since internal marketing is essential for lateral success, the marketing department should circulate and/or publicize internally all ads, media mentions, press releases, articles and other publicity outcomes to all attorneys in the firm to build recognition for the lateral (and for some, to defray skepticism about lateral’s value) and to encourage awareness of lateral’s expertise and value.


Monitor and Evaluate Progress


Successful integration and retention require a longer-term commitment than many firms devote to their new laterals.  For the first 18-24 months, the firm should institute a process to monitor progress and provide support.

  1. The Lateral Integration Team should meet once a month for the first six months, and then quarterly for another 18 months to determine how things are going, where the lateral is experiencing roadblocks and how the firm could provide necessary support, e.g., additional staffing, a business development coach, training on firm systems or policies, etc.
  2. The Lateral Partner Sponsor should check in with the lateral on a bi-weekly basis for the first three months and the lateral’s Firm Buddy should be engaging with the lateral on at least a monthly basis. The Practice Group Leader and/or Management Committee should also require a report from the Sponsor on progress, any problem areas, whether milestones are being reached as anticipated and what is being done to expedite success.
  3. If an external business development coach is engaged, the coach should meet with the lateral having bi-weekly meetings or calls for the first six months and on a monthly basis thereafter, to review the business plan, advise on ongoing outreach and conversion efforts, discuss prospect outreach and sales, and detect impediments or opportunities in order to steer the lateral to other partners who could be helpful.
  4. The lateral should provide a brief quarterly update to the Practice Group Leader and should be asked to have review meetings every six months for the first two years.  Since many laterals join a firm with a contractual agreement of some sort, it is advisable that the lateral prepare an annual summary of a review of the first year’s goals and achievements and an outline of the coming year’s goals. In many firms, this will be encompassed in the annual performance/comp review process.

It takes 18-24 months for a lateral partner to begin to get traction and start feeling integrated.  Provide laterals with direction and support during this time and resist the temptation to judge success too early, especially using origination as a primary metric.  Unless you are strategic, committed to following a process and plan, and backing up your recruiting process with a well-structured and administered integration process, you are more likely to experience a high lateral turnover rate and the revolving door syndrome.

RainMaking Oasis provides consulting, training and coaching services to law firms and lawyers in the areas of business development and growth strategy, innovation, client retention and expansion, succession planning and leadership and personal effectiveness skills. Please contact Susan Duncan at [email protected].