Monday, June 9, 2014

How to Predict Client Portability

The most difficult aspect of lateral recruiting is predicting which clients will likely come over to the new firm. Apparently, firms haven’t cracked the code. A recent survey[1] found that only 28% of firms report that their lateral hiring efforts have resulted in ‘satisfactory returns’. In other words, 70% of laterals provide unsatisfactory returns.

Clearly, the industry needs better methods for predicting how much business will move with an attorney.

As obvious as this is, we sometimes forget that it is the client’s decision whether or not to move to a new firm. It’s a hassle to change law firms. Assuming the new firm meets the basic criteria clients have for selecting a law firm (i.e. the new firm has the right platform, is affordable, has the experience, reputation, etc.) there must be a compelling reason to move.

Studies on motivation show that the fear of losing something is a much more powerful motivation than the prospect of gaining something. As attractive as a firm may be, clients follow attorneys based on the fear of losing their trusted advisor. One key to predicting whether a client will move with the attorney therefore rests in the firm’s ability to gauge the level of trust their clients have in them.

Most people think of trust as a binary issue: you either trust someone or you don’t. In fact, there are various degrees of trust. The levels range from trust based on reputation (I have heard about this person and she has a good reputation) to trust based on competence (I have worked with this person and she is a competent practitioner) to trust based on intellectual candor (she is intellectually sharp and gives me objective advice) to the highest order of trust, trust based on an emotional connection (she demonstrates that she truly cares about me and my success). Clients can easily find other competent attorneys. But as the level of trust rises, the likelihood of the company moving their work with the attorney also rises. Therefore, the intensity of that trust is best indicator of whether the client will head to the new firm.

Assessing the intensity of trust in the relationship requires a deeper, more exhaustive dive into that attorney’s relationships with their clients. In my experience many recruiting attorneys are uncomfortable prying too deeply or appearing to question the integrity of the candidate’s claims. More simply don’t delve into the nature of the client relationships.

That’s a mistake.

Determining the nature of the client relationship from a distance is difficult. There are no hard and fast rules and certainly, no sure bets. But a line of questioning can help you paint a picture of the depth of the relationships prospective laterals have with their clients. The questions should reveal evidence of the durability and depth of the relationships to determine which level of trust exists between the attorney and each of their key clients. For instance, in your discussions, you should ask how each key client relationship started and how long ago. A law school class mate is better evidence of portability than working on a matter for another attorney. The first demonstrates shared experiences and a relationship that has stood the test of time. The latter may be a relationship based solely on the convenience of the candidate’s expertise- not a very sticky quality.

In determining the presence of a trusted advisor relationship, ask what the attorney knows about each client’s business and the other people in that company. Trusted advisors are often introduced to others in the company, are knowledgeable about areas beyond the legal department and often know the company’s key executives. Often attorneys are asked for their non-legal area advice on the company’s challenges and issues. Ask about the nature of the advice that the attorney gives to each company. It sheds light on the trust present in the relationship. Additionally, ask about the non-work related activities or interests of the contacts at the company. Relationships that are emotionally connected often evolve to include sharing mutual interests and social activities and introductions to family members- very sticky qualities indeed.

The more evidence revealed of a trusting relationship, the better. A single instance of attending a ball game together is not sufficiently compelling evidence. A pattern of social activities is much better. The same is true when investigating the instances in which the attorney’s advice was sought by the client. Was this legal advice or business advice? More deep trusting relationships often expand beyond the original areas of expertise and non-legal advice is often sought relatively frequently.

Law firms are well advised to use the services of an objective third party to perform the due diligence on partner candidates. Analysis performed by ‘legal placement support services’ such as Group Dewey Consulting are more objective and, as such, carry greater credibility than the same due diligence process performed by recruiting firms or even the in-house recruiting committee. Lateral due diligence reports are valuable tools to inform compensation discussions, partnership votes and the marketing and integration plans for new lateral partners.  

Interested in a better methodology for assessing the moveable business of a prospective Partner candidate? Contact Eric at

[1] Major Lindsey & Africa, 2013 Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey

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