Three critical success factors for profitable lateral hiring

By Ian H. Turvill, Freeborn & Peters LLP

Across the globe, professional services firms are striving for growth. They employ many strategies to realise their objectives, but among the most common (certainly among law firms) is to hire partners from rival entities – so-called “lateral hiring.” Sadly, these hiring decisions often fail to live up to the heightened expectations associated with them. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Instead, there are three factors that distinguish the firms that engage in successful lateral recruitment and integration, and those that do not.

  • First, successful firms develop a strategy and a plan for lateral hiring as a whole, and then in regard to each and every new partner they bring on board.
  • Second, successful firms recognise that profitable lateral integration starts way before a candidate receives an offer, and it extends far past the hire date.
  • Third, successful firms close scrutiny to performance versus plan and make appropriate course corrections.

This article explains each of these factors in turn, providing a constructive and systematic means of assuring client growth through their lateral hiring practices.

Critical success factor #1: develop and communicate an explicit strategy for lateral hires.

As the senior marketer at a medium-sized U.S. law firm, I spend a lot of time coaching attorneys. To simplify my message and to provide a framework for our discussions, I use an acronym based on four words: “Goals”, “Relationships”, “Originations”, and “Work” – in short, GROW. The GROW Method  – as I call it – is a powerful tool for planning and tracking successful business development efforts among individual lawyers. This method is also readily extensible to the opportunity and challenge involved in integrating a lateral hire successfully into a firm.

For an individual lawyer, the four components of “GROW” allow them to plan an approach which will inevitably lead to growth in their book of business. In its simplest form, GROW means:

  • Goals: know and commit to what you want to achieve in your legal career
  • Relationships: work diligently to build and develop relevant connections
  • Originations : demonstrate the capabilities necessary to address a client’s issues – and then be ready to “make the ask”
  • Work: deliver high-quality services (not just work product) that encourage client retention

There is great power in this approach: attorneys quickly understand and appreciate how the four component parts must be developed and then applied in concert.

“GROW” can also help firm leaders plan the activities necessary to make lateral hiring a success. In this context, GROW means:

  • Goals: understand and describe explicitly how a lateral hire will contribute to the realisation of the firm’s strategy
  • Relationships: exploit the relationships that the lateral hire brings to the firm and vice versa
  • Originations: support the hire’s every effort in attracting new business
  • Work: monitor and measure the quality of the lateral hire’s work to ensure the firm’s reputation is enhanced, not harmed

There are many activities that underpin each of these four component parts. However, these are best understood – and best explained – in the context of the second critical success factor.

Critical Success Factor #2: recognise that successful integration begins long before and extends far after the hire date

Successful lateral hiring that contributes to growth should involve five key phases:

  • Phase 1 – Targeting and filtering: scanning for high-potential lateral hire candidates
  • Phase 2 – Recruiting and attracting: assessing fit and performance of possible new hires
  • Phase 3 – Onboarding: helping a lateral hire quickly become an effective contributor
  • Phase 4 – Planning and execution: developing and implementing a plan that drives success
  • Phase 5 – Tracking and accountability: measuring progress against the plan and applying incentives to maximise performance

An appropriate way to understand these phases better is to apply the questions suggested by the components of GROW, as shown in the table below.

Turvill Table 1

Critical success factor #3: apply close scrutiny to performance versus plan and make course corrections over time

Successful firms do not wait to see if the new partner’s efforts bear fruit. The partner should be documenting their business development activities: how much outreach work have they undertaken, for example through phone calls, email, or seminars? How many client visits have been made? How many pitches have they made to prospective clients?

If the new partner cannot demonstrate that they are completing the necessary business development activities then this may be reason for concern.

Coupled with regular reports of activity, there should also be frequent (at least quarterly) face-to-face meetings to review performance. If the partner is falling short, then the purpose of such meetings is not necessarily to drag them over the coals, but instead, there should be a frank reciprocal discussion of what is working and what is not.

The great challenge exists in choosing an appropriate response to a partner’s shortfall.

If a firm’s response is too harsh, then the partner may be demotivated or even tempted to jump ship. However, if a firm’s response is too soft, then the partner may continue to bumble along without making much progress.

The key then is to have a range of responses that correspond to the scale of the gap between expectations and reality. The path taken should be tuned to the firm’s culture, to the leader’s assessment of the circumstances and the firm’s financial position.

Responses may include:

  • pairing the partner with another member of the firm who can help her stay accountable;
  • recalibrating the strategy to take into account the lessons learned so far;
  • changing expectations of the partner’s role, including placing greater emphasis on hours billed than on matters originated;
  • revising goals downward, and changing compensation to suit; and
  • indicating that the time has come to part ways, and providing some period over which the partner can seek new employment and depart gracefully.

Of course, there is a flipside to this: it is entirely conceivable that the partner is “hitting the ball out of the park” and handily achieving beyond the goals that have been set. In this case, the firm should take steps to give the partner more resources and to take fullest advantage of this potential goldmine.


Ian Turvill

Ian Turvill

Freeborn & Peters LLP; Chicago, IL, United States
T: +1 312 360 60 00
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Ian Turvill is Chief Marketing Officer at Freeborn & Peters LLP and oversees the company’s marketing functions, including marketing strategy, communications, public relations and corporate events. Before joining Freeborn, he worked in the marketing of professional services and technology. He has dual citizenship of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Freeborn & Peters LLP is a full-service law firm, headquartered in Chicago, with international capabilities. Freeborn supports its clients in the following legal disciplines: Litigation; Corporate Law; Real Estate and Land Use; Bankruptcy, Restructuring and Creditors’ Rights; and Government and Regulatory Law. While the company serves clients across a broad range of sectors, it has also pioneered an interdisciplinary approach that meets the specific needs of targeted industries, such as food; transportation, including railroads, trucking, and logistics and insurance and reinsurance.

Published: March 2016 l Photo: yanlev -


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