Should you use a personal contact instead of a legal recruiter when considering a lateral partner move? The short answer is “maybe.” This question comes up often and making the right decision requires consideration of numerous factors, including:
What position does your contact have at the firm and is he/she held in high regard? This is perhaps the most important consideration. It is only human nature to view a referral and/or a reference as an extension of that personal contact’s internal reputation. You may benefit or be penalized accordingly (even if subconsciously) by the other partners who have input on the decision.
Does your contact know the nuances of your practice and the reasons for making a move, and can he/she present them effectively? In a perfect world, your contact should understand your practice in order to provide context for your interest in the firm. For example, why are you considering a move? Why does your practice fit? Who are your clients and what’s the likelihood that your clients will port?
Is the contact potentially threatened by you or could view you as competition? The typical person wants to be helpful to his/her friends and contacts, and is happy to forward a resume and help someone get a foot in the door. It’s a win/win if your affiliation with the new firm can benefit your referring contact’s career at the firm. But there’s a flip side. What if your addition to the firm creates more competition for your personal contact? Perhaps you may have relationships with the same contacts and potential clients, which could duplicate your contact’s business development plans. You can see how this may turn out if you are viewed as a threat. Your referring contact may be in a position to exercise a heightened level of internal control over your candidacy, for better or worse.
Will the contact have a vested interest in your joining the firm and advocate for you? Like any process with numerous moving pieces and people, things can slow down or come to a halt for any number of reasons. Sometimes the process stalls because the key decision makers are simply too busy to focus on the hire, or they may have some reservations about your suitability. Regardless of the reason, your internal contact should have a vested interest in your joining and, just as importantly, be positioned to provide the appropriate types of nudges (which can be handled in a variety of ways) if and when things get bottlenecked.
How much guidance would you like during the process? If you have significant experience with the lateral process, you may feel comfortable with a “do it yourself” approach because you know what to expect. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who appreciates others’ expertise, having a consultant provides perspective and market norms on the hiring process. A recruiter will also make the process less administratively burdensome. Sending in your biography is similar to the first mile in a marathon.
Are you comfortable negotiating compensation on your own behalf? One of the more awkward aspects of the lateral process is negotiating with a future partner. There’s a fine line between advocating for yourself and obtaining your full market value versus pushing a bit too hard and turning off your future colleagues. Sometimes negotiations get heated and there are threats to end discussions. If you are a good negotiator (including for yourself ) and can “leave it on the field” when it’s done, you will be fine so long as you are knowledgeable about your market value and know when enough is enough. But if negotiating regarding your own compensation makes you a bit uneasy—or you feel you might undervalue or over-value yourself—let your recruiter serve as the skilled intermediary.
Metaphor: The lateral partner process is like a marathon. Simply contacting a friend and having an introductory conversation with a recruiter to express your interest is the equivalent of mile 1 of 26.
IMPORTANT POINT ABOUT YOUR POSTURING AT THE OUTSET
Law firms place a premium on partners who are perceived as being “poached” versus “looking for a job.” When a partner is being poached, law firms tend to be in sell mode and focus more on how they can provide a platform that increases the profitability or other important aspects of your practice. The burden is on the new firm and their competitive nature often tends to kick in. On the other hand, when a partner is perceived as “on the market,” there may be a bit more scrutiny on your candidacy. The employer needs to first clarify questions such as, “Why is this person looking for a job?” or “Is there something we’re missing?” This certainly does not mean that partners who are looking for a job are branded as less qualified, but it’s a subtle difference in positioning and distinguishing yourself at the outset, thus affecting the tone and direction of discussions. A good recruiter is able to posture you accurately and appropriately, and in a way that maximizes your marketability.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
Most partners know people at other firms. From a personal standpoint, when a partner knows somebody but also wants to gain the advantages of using a recruiter to navigate the process, the recruiter can present you but also reference your personal contact in the recruiter’s cover letter. Oftentimes, when there is a pre-existing relationship between candidates and partners at the firm, the recruiter may work with the firm to provide a discounted placement fee, which is also a win/win/win.