Notice And Comment: Lateral Partner Movement

Here's why it's a good thing—and not just for legal recruiters.

Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at davidlat@substack.com, and you can subscribe by clicking on the button below.

Like so many things in Biglaw right now, lateral partner movement is booming. As my former Lateral Link colleague Zach Sandberg mentioned on a recent episode of Movers, Shakers, and Rainmakers, our new podcast about Biglaw, lateral partner movement in the first nine months of 2021 was up by around 36 percent compared to the same period in 2020.1

Is all this movement a good thing? Conventional wisdom says no. This view blames lateral partner movement for a whole host of ills afflicting Biglaw, including a more mercenary mindset among partners, a reduction in collegiality, a game of musical chairs that nobody wins (except legal recruiters), and the destabilization of firms—which sometimes ends in collapse, a la Dewey & LeBoeuf (which went on a lateral partner hiring spree before imploding in spectacular fashion).

I view lateral partner movement in a more positive light. Here’s what I wrote in Above the Law, when I announced my transition into recruiting back in 2019:

[M]ovement is actually a good thing. As labor economists will tell you, a fluid and dynamic talent market is a positive, allocating human capital more efficiently — and in the business of law, human capital is the most important capital there is. It’s worth noting that the past few years, marked by record lateral movement, have also seen Biglaw revenue and profitability reach record highs.

In less abstract and more personal terms, legal recruiters help lawyers become… happy! Or at least less unhappy.

As persuasive as some recruiters can be, partners are the ones who make the final decision to move. And they move because they believe they’ll be happier somewhere else, for any number of reasons—not just compensation, whose role in lateral moves is often exaggerated, but for factors ranging from culture to client conflicts to fit (or lack thereof).

Like people in a long marriage, partners and firms can grow apart as time passes, so that a match that was once a very good one no longer makes sense. Just as divorce is sometimes the right move for a married couple, a partner’s departure is sometimes the right move as well—for both the partner and the firm.

Think of a litigator who grows up at a firm that over the years evolves into much more of an M&A shop—not necessarily a bad thing, but not what that partner wants. Or imagine a partner who likes smaller environments, who sees her boutique get swallowed up by a Biglaw behemoth—again, not a bad thing per se, but no longer a good fit for that particular partner. These partners should consider lateral moves—not because they or their firm did anything wrong, but because the fit is no longer there.

In other industries, from journalism to finance to professional sports, people move with regularity, and it’s not seen as a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s often the way that individuals climb the ladder within their industry—e.g., from small-town newspaper to regional newspaper to the New York Times. So why should law be any different? Why do we still hold on to an antiquated mindset that expects a lawyer to stay at the same firm for decades?

One statistic you often hear in critiques of lateral hiring is that almost half of lateral partners don’t make it to the five-year mark at their new firms. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Again, in other industries—e.g., journalism—star performers often move more frequently than every five years, lured away by successively bigger and better offers. Lateral movement is bad if you expect people to spend their entire careers at the first firm they summered at, or the first firm they joined after law school. But what are the chances that the firm you picked as a 2L or baby lawyer is the best firm for you for the entirety of your legal career? Low, it seems to me—which is why it’s actually surprising that so few partners make lateral moves.

But I’m far from objective on this subject, having worked as a legal recruiter for two years before returning to full-time writing this past May. What do all of you think? Is lateral partner movement a good or bad thing? Please sound off, in the comments.


Thanks for reading Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at davidlat@substack.com, and you can share this post or subscribe to Original Jurisdiction using the buttons below.

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1

This is based on data from Leopard Solutions, which is like a Westlaw for recruiters. It has a vast database of lawyer profiles, and you can run all sorts of searches to find lawyers of a specific seniority level, in a particular practice area, or with certain credentials. As a recruiter, I spent hours on Leopard each week, putting together lists of lawyers who would be good fits for particular opportunities.