What a Firm is Looking For: A Book of Business and a Firm Believer
When a firm takes on an extra associate, it is adding a worker bee. When a firm takes on a partner, it is adding a queen bee. Because adding a queen bee to a hive that already houses a queen bee is generally not a good idea, the main reason a law firm takes on a new partner is to make an entirely new place for him/her. In other words, a law firm adding a partner is seeking either to expand the hive or to replace the queen bee that flew away.
Law firms that are seeking expansion tend to want established partners with business to temper the risks involved. Partners come in all different shapes and sizes, especially when it comes to the business that they handle. Of paramount importance in trying to place a partner in a new firm is finding out if the portable business that he/she is planning on taking to a new firm fits the mold that firm wants. Because the majority of junior associates have little to no business that they are directly responsible for, this is not an issue with them, but it almost always comes up when trying to place a partner.
When it comes to the book of business that firms are looking for, firms do not restrict themselves to million-dollar players. Obviously, the more business that a partner is going to be bringing to a firm, the more sought after he/she will be. It is not difficult to explain to a firm that you are going to be bringing in someone who can increase your revenue by five million dollars. In some cases, that is the only way to get him/her in the door. In order for the firm to pay a partner a hefty salary, that partner had better be writing his/her own checks. Other firms, however, are so swamped with the work that they are already getting that they cannot handle enough and would take someone with a minimal book of business, or perhaps none at all, to take some of the load off the current partners. Researching books of business on behalf of firms is very time-consuming, as it is not something a firm will usually publicize. While senior partners at top firms are likely to have a long roster of clients, limiting yourself to these candidates eliminates young rainmakers that may make more of a future in a new firm. Finding out who can have an instant effect on a firm is some of the most important research done in the recruiting process and requires recruiters to take notice when and how big deals happen for a firm because an attorney is always behind it.
Knowing which firms are willing to take partners with smaller books of business is not always easy. Firms will always try to put a shiny coat of paint on anything to try to make it look good. So unless the walls are caving in, it can be difficult to tell what is going on inside a firm. Intense market research is required. Who the firm's clients are, the kind of workload that is piling up at the firm, the recent hires, and the recent cutbacks are all facts that can be dug up with a little ingenuity and will go a long way to finding out if a firm would be willing to take on a partner with a less than impressive book of business. Going to a firm with financial troubles and presenting anything but a rainmaker will make a recruiter look ridiculous, so it is important to be aware of its current financial outlook.
A constant issue when moving a book of business is whether an attorney's clients will be willing to travel to a new firm. Will the new firm's name ring as well in the ears of the clients? Many of the top companies would not like their business to be brought to a less-prestigious firm, especially one that notoriously does not put out as good a work product as the previous firm. Perhaps more important to the client will be the rates at which a potential firm would like to bill its new partner out. Paying a much higher bill for the same attorney just because he/she has new letterhead may not sit very well with a client. Because it is considered unseemly to go right out and ask a client whether or not he/she will be following the partner to a new firm, a good recruiter will research its likelihood by weighing the changes that a new firm will impose on the partner's clients.
Beyond business, a firm is looking for someone who will mesh with its way of doing things. The existing partners are going to be the decision makers with respect to any partner who is trying to join their club, so having researched the ins and outs of the kinds of partners at a firm will give you a pretty good idea of the type of partner they would hire. Of course, you can never really know someone unless you have talked to him/her, but getting a good sense of the academic background and the work history of a partner can tell a lot about the type of partner they would accept. For example, a firm that counts only top-10 law school graduates among its ranks is most likely going to reject a partner that went to a second-tier law school.
Similarly, a firm that rates certain values as more important than others will look for the same in its partners. A uniform goal among the higher-ups in a firm, while not always present, is something that every law firm should strive to achieve. A good recruiter, therefore, should have properly researched the firm's partners to know whether or not the partner he/she is trying to place fits the mold. As previously mentioned, the chances are small that a partner who has earned the respect of one firm is going to want to have to prove that he/she is going to fit in with this new firm. A recruiter's job is to make sure that this will happen.
What a Partner is Looking For: Change
When a partner with a work history that has proven steady enough to achieve the highest possible goal in a single firm is willing to move, he/she is generally looking for one thing: a better environment. A partner may be willing to search for the brass ring in a pile of mud, but when he/she finds it, first instincts may tell him/her to run away to greener pastures to enjoy it. This has proven the case time and again, as attorneys suddenly realize that after years of living under the same rule, they would really prefer a change of pace.
What exactly each partner is looking to change varies, of course. One partner who has worked a particularly brutal work schedule for a dozen years may be looking for some more free time, while another who works at a firm with a dried up practice may be seeking more hours. Administration changes, client moves, the inability to generate business under his/her current firm's banner-these are all issues that have been voiced to us as reasons for moving. Willingness to stick around until you have made partner no longer means a willingness to stick around permanently, as options for top partners are more open than ever before.
Because a partner hopes to solve these problems by moving to a new firm, he/she has to be able to expect not to see them again when he/she shows up for work there. Because there is a plethora of literature put out by publications like American Lawyer and companies like WestLaw Group, which details insider knowledge of how a firm functions, any recruiter who is ignorant of this type of information is not putting forth the proper amount of effort for his/her candidates. Every firm is different in at least some ways, so finding a firm that lacks the qualities that drove a partner away from his/her old firm is just a matter of researching the vast amounts of sources currently available and deciphering what's true and what's bitter employee talk.
Finding a firm with a different feel to it usually means finding a firm that is larger or smaller. A firm that operates on the same level (in terms of size and prestige) as another firm within the same practice areas generally runs the same way, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions, however, are where the best recruiters are looking to place their clients. It would be easy to place a quality partner candidate at a less prestigious firm that incorporates the kinds of changes he/she wants, but few partners are going to want to take a step down to achieve these objectives. Finding a firm that is just as prestigious and yet different from the firm the partner is leaving is tough, but it is necessary in order to place a partner candidate in an environment where he/she can thrive and produce the way that a law firm expects its partners to. Knowing how a firm operates on the inside is part of the equation, but knowing how the law firm is perceived on the outside is important too; otherwise, you may be suggesting a partner go to a firm that he/she should never consider.
The Difference Between Placing Partners and Associates
Placing a partner and placing an associate both boil down to the same idea: bringing together an attorney and a law firm that will mutually benefit from each other. However, the methods of finding a partner or finding a law firm for a partner differ from associate recruiting, as does the research involved. The research must be much more detailed and involved and extend into the actual practice of the partner. While it is obviously important to know what type of work an associate does, a recruiter has to have a comprehensive understanding of the clients that the partner can bring. Additionally, partners are much less willing to adapt to the change of a new law firm environment, and it is much more of an issue to find the exact type of firm that will fit their personalities and work habits best, without unnecessarily lowering their standards. After all, the most important aspect of partner recruiting is finding a situation where a partner can thrive. Without doing that, a recruiter really has not done anything.