The stakes—time, money, or firm-wide resources—are always high when you embark on a search for a lateral hire. And these costs often have nothing to do with due diligence or questions of fit and synergy. Instead, it's a matter of sheer economics. Because some headhunters' fees now run in the six-figure range, managing such relationships on the front-end can be crucial.
Nonetheless, there's plenty you can do to ensure that you and your search firm see eye-to-eye on partner searches. Outlined below are five suggestions for ensuring that lateral partner searches run smoothly:
1. Offer specific and detailed information. BCG Attorney Search reminds that it is key to set parameters for the deal. "We do have firms that call up and say 'I want three partners with more than $1 million of business and it doesn't matter what area.' Those are searches we do not usually work on. We like to do our work with a scalpel and not a club," most firms say. The preferred method is simple. Both sides need to sit down and share as much information as possible in advance of the deal. What she expects from a firm: why you need the partner; where or how he or she is going to fit into your firm; what kind of person and practice would represent a conflict situation; and the like. This kind of thing where you say 'I need someone with $ 1 million worth of business' is not defining the search very cleanly.
2. Provide access to the firm's decision makers. Shifting levels of information can crater a deal. In other words, law firms that subtly change what they're thinking about in terms of a hire are more apt to lose out on lateral partners. "We need to be able to pick up the phone and say how about this, what do you think, and get the information to the candidate as quickly as possible."
3. Set up a contractual agreement. This is a must on partner searches. And, of course, the percentage of first-year compensation that you'll pay as a fee for retained partner searches varies greatly. Work out in advance how much the firm is willing to pay and be clear about your expectations. There are law firms that say, "On a search like this we will go no higher than X%," which is usually 25% of the first-year compensation, according to one BCG Attorney Search recruiter. But remember, such rigidity can make a difficult process even more tenuous because partners tend to move very quickly.
4. Define expectations. Your headhunter should have some clear indication of how much time is available for the search and be given details on the qualities that make for a good fit in your firm. "Our law firm clients tend to be much more concerned about the list of clients the amount of revenue, and the number of hours billed. Often, that's about the only information they want to see other than the resume and basically what we think of this person. In any event, again, it's important to get clarification at the front end to give the candidate the opportunity to prepare in a thoughtful way. Some law firms have requirements and questions that resemble an inquisition. But most search firms can oblige by pulling files that include information on matters that partner-candidates have worked on over the past five years, their annual number of billable hours, their number of associates, and the amount of revenue derived.
5. Go slowly on unsolicited searches. If your firm is interested in the prospect, call the headhunter immediately and ask to swap contracts before you proceed. The key is to look at areas where you lack agreement; talk about those areas and try to resolve any problems.
You should also find out how many other firms that partner's resume has gone out to. It could be that the headhunter only sent his or her resume to one other firm or no other firms. In that instance, you need to discover the sticking points. And if you come up to a deal-killer, you should cut the deal right then and there.
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