Successful integration of a lateral into a law firm can be measured by new originations. But the number of new clients only tells part of the story. The success of the recruiting process can also be measured by how quickly the lateral assimilate into the culture of the firm and the speed and scope of the marketing and business development issues that were successfully handled. These 'soft' variables depend on a thorough integration plan and diligent execution.
The risk of poorly executed integration is also pronounced. Studies show that thirty percent of laterals leave after three years and nearly one-half leave after five years. With as much as $1 million of investment in each large law firm lateral hire and only about 30% bringing their entire client roster to the new firm, there is a lot of reason to pay special attention to this process.
Get Started Early
The sooner the firm begins planning for the lateral's arrival, the better. There is a lot to do and time is needed to plan accordingly. It's important to the Firm's brand that marketing materials, website and bio information for the attorney are updated before the announcement is made. Don't wait until a day or two before the announcement to involve marketing. Set up a meeting with the marketing folks and the lateral early on to enable marketing the time to put a thoughtful plan together. This also ensures that the lateral has the time to collect the materials that marketing will need to update the website and marketing materials.
Set Realistic Expectations and Communicate Often
Most firms rely on their hiring agreement and the HR manual to convey expectations to the lateral. But those are typically economic expectations and policy mumbo-jumbo that the busy onboarding lateral is not likely to read. Left out of the equation too often are critical socio-cultural expectations that make up a firm’s culture and that can make or break a lateral’s success. Some firms assign a mentor to the lateral in the hopes that the institutional ‘know how’ is passed along. But regular conversations which probe the real challenges a lateral is having in a safe and non-judgmental forum can do wonders for ensuring laterals know the guardrails of their new firm and successfully navigate the darker waters of firm life.
A lateral integration plan is actually several distinct plans. A well developed 'master' plan includes a public relations plan, an internal communications plan, a marketing plan, a client development plan and a plan for 'on-boarding' the new partner including the human resource, operations, training, conflicts, and technology issues that need to be addressed. Firms active in lateral recruiting should have a robust template and process in place that can be quickly updated for a new lateral candidate.
The PR plan should identify the media channels and any 'exclusivities' which the firm will grant in exchange for prominent coverage. The plan should identify the publications and reporter contact information to whom press releases will be sent along with the main 'talking points' or specific reasons that clients will benefit from the combination. The PR plan should identify and determine responses to any potentially negative information which might arise from media coverage of the move.
Lastly, don't forget to notify and monitor coverage of the move among the main social media channels, blogs, and discussion groups that follow developments in the lateral's practice area.
The marketing and promotional plan should include a list of the marketing materials that need to be updated, the authored publications coming with the attorney and the updates needed to the attorney's bio. It should itemize the directory listings, social media sites, award publications and professional associations in which the attorney's profile will need to be updated. The plan should also outline the advertising which will be placed to announce the attorney's move as well as any events or client receptions held in her honor. Lastly, the plan should describe how the clients of the firm will be notified of the new attorney's arrival and who will handle the notification.
The internal communications plan should include how the firm will notify people inside the firm of the lateral's arrival and who will sign the notification. It should also detail the meetings that the new partner will be asked to attend as well as outline important firm event dates and the role the new attorney may be asked to play in each event. If appropriate, a plan to inform the firm's network of referral sources (bankers, accountants, referral networks, etc.) along with any strategic alliances or consulting groups should also be outlined in this section of the plan.
Most importantly, the master integration plan should include a client development and cross-servicing plan. The plan should outline the new attorney's clients likely to port over to the firm, the firm's clients with expansion potential and prospective clients who may be attracted to the firm as a result of the combination. Each key client and prospect should have a plan of action with specific strategies for how the introduction will be made.
Don’t be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish
Integration takes time but it also requires money. Laterals will want to visit their clients, bring them swag, dine them, wine them, and hopefully sign them. That doesn’t always happen immediately and sometimes requires multiple client visits, client incentives, travel time and the participation of other partners. Make sure you’ve allocated enough business development resources to the lateral so they can do what they need to do to get their clients in the door. Make resources available but also manage the time and the firm’s expectations. Laterals distracted by administrative work, who are given work to keep their billings up while waiting for their client or who must finish up outstanding matters can get distracted and lose the momentum of early integration success. Bringing clients overtakes months to accomplish, sometimes years. Increase budgets, extend the time available and lower expectations will help the lateral integrate more successfully.
Adopt Realistic Client Portage Expectations
All honeymoons are rose-colored. It’s only after the initial surge of good feelings that reality sets in and firms find that clients aren’t all rushing to the new firm’s doors. There are a host of reasons why clients don’t move. Law firms that conduct client book due diligence before the lateral’s move can get a big jump on client transitions (as well as use that information to make better hiring decisions). Most firms simply don’t do a good job of assessing which clients are most likely to move and setting expectations in the firm according to a rational analysis. They take the laterals word for the likelihood that their client will move with them. Rather than have the uncomfortable conversation to question which clients will move and why firms opt instead to lower the guarantee and offer performance tiers that protect the firm from its lack of client book due diligence. In most moves, the risk of client entropy falls squarely and solely on the lateral’s shoulders.
If you sense clients are moving, sit down with the lateral and look at each client’s situation and motivations to move. Look at the full scope of factors that influence the company’s decision to change providers: which competitive firms work with the company; the relationships the lateral has within the company and her institutional knowledge of the company; the strategic importance of the work to the client; and the objective rewards and risks the client faces in making a move. Then craft a plan for each of the most important clients that you want to move. Just because you have one lawyer with a relationship and work history, doesn’t mean the client won’t need a push. So, take some time to make a plan for how you are going to nudge that client into the firm.
Bring Value to Your Existing Clients
The lateral formula typically has both an import component (bringing new clients to the firm) and a cross-servicing component (serving more of the needs of existing clients). In most cases, those clients aren't waiting with bated breath to meet the new partner. A meeting solely to introduce a partner is often seen by clients as unnecessary. So, plan meetings to include other agenda items that provide value to clients. To make a change, clients need a compelling reason to switch providers. That means your introduction of the new partner should be accompanied with a summary of how they have helped similar companies, how they can solve a unique problem for the client or ways in which they can generate greater efficiencies or cost reductions. Finding a. ‘added value’ angle requires research, planning and a heavy dose of objectivity. But the result will be appreciated by clients.
Plan Support for the Long Run.
The integration of a lateral's clients can take several months to complete, if not years. So integration plans should pay special attention to the period of time after the initial enthusiasm and energy have waned. In particular, create check-in or progress reporting deadlines and have two to three people assigned to mentor, guide, coach and troubleshoot for the lateral throughout the plan period. The team could include a senior partner with influence in the firm to troubleshoot problems, a partner to act as a mentor and a dedicated marketing support person. Consider using an outside coach trained in business development and experienced in lateral integrations.
Planning for the integration of a new partner is a series of distinct activities and plans which all must be implemented quickly and seamlessly. But in all of these plans, strong and consistent communication is the key to the successful integration of lateral partners.