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Law firm lateral hiring: How better hiring and onboarding processes can help your firm improve retention and ROI

Because acquiring novel talent and expertise is a critical component of any firm expansion strategy, many law firms have built robust lateral hiring programs to recruit experienced talent for highly specialized roles. Typically, this practice is part of a broader strategic plan to increase reach into certain market segments, including new industries, geographies, areas of expertise, and specializations.

Although the lawyer lateral hiring process shares some common elements with standard staff hiring practices, there are key differences: Because a lawyer lateral hire is likely an associate or staff lawyer who ultimately could become a partner after meeting defined thresholds — or because they might be a business-bearing lateral partner — lateral hiring decisions are hugely consequential.

With 48% of laterals leaving within 5 years, 62% failing to bring their promised book of business, and 35% failing to fit in at the new firm, a robust vetting process is crucial. Creating checklists and building workflows for review and approval — with support from both people and robust software — are critical to ensuring the efficiency and success of your program.

Identifying the right lateral-hire candidates

In today’s intensely competitive hiring market, law firm lateral hiring has reached a fever pitch — and top lateral candidates are in the driver’s seat right now when it comes to both compensation and lifestyle demands. To keep pace with competitors, and to fill key roles with candidates who will thrive and contribute to the firm’s culture, your firm needs a clearly defined process to assess fit; ensure that your candidates’ experience, expertise, skills, and resources align with your firm’s strategic objectives; and implement a solid integration program.

As a first step in the lateral hiring process, your firm should define its expectations for assets that your new hire will be expected to bring with them, such as a book of business or a team of associates to service the business you’re looking to acquire. Initial screenings should then home in on the specific areas of expertise your firm is looking to acquire. Your next step is to assess skill sets — including familiarity with, or at least receptiveness to, core technologies like your legal CRM, to ensure familiarity with technology now recommended by the ABA.

Conducting thorough background checks during the lateral hiring process

Although performing lateral hire due diligence may be time-consuming and expensive, failure to conduct a pre-hire investigative risk assessment — and subsequently hiring a compromised person — could result in allegations of malpractice and serious damage to your firm’s reputation.

For many firms, the scenario is unpleasantly familiar: You go through an arduous lateral hiring process, then make an offer to an excellent candidate — only to discover that your new hire is the subject of an internal investigation for illegal activity or inappropriate workplace conduct. To protect your firm from this fate, shoring up your law firm lateral hiring procedures is a good start.

To make informed decisions during the lateral hiring process, start with publicly available information, including commercial and government records at the federal, state, and local levels. Review social media accounts to ensure there are no troubling discrepancies with how any of your candidates presented themselves during the interview process. Take a close look at any past conduct that raises red flags, even if it wasn’t formally reported to employers or public authorities. Then, cast a wide net to include vendor relationships, litigation adversaries, former employees, and business partners. After this thorough review, you can confidently move forward with the lateral hiring process.

Streamlining risk and compliance requirements

Once a lateral hire passes the finance and background checks, your firm should initiate conflicts clearing and lawyer intake processes right away. Your risk and compliance team should promptly address requirements — securing waivers, creating information barriers to prevent knowledge imputation, identifying clients, and procuring client transfer and management — before the lateral hire’s first day. This advance work on risk and compliance requirements supports a seamless transition, helping ensure that your new lateral hire can dive into active matters on day one.

Laying the groundwork for success with lateral onboarding

Optimal lateral onboarding for law firms extends well beyond lawyer intake, conflicts clearing, and other compliance requirements. Creating the systems that set a lateral hire up to succeed include accountability for targets and expectations, support for processes and resources, and performance measurement.

The building blocks of a warm welcome start with a proper introduction. Associate lateral hires will appreciate having their bios on your firm’s website and their names on marketing materials  and letterhead when they arrive. Posting an announcement via a firmwide email — highlighting the reasons why the lateral hire is a great addition to the firm — invites colleagues to engage directly, which can spark opportunities to build relationships and collaborate.

Your firm should also offer structured training that gives lateral hires access and training on core firm technologies and platforms, including legal CRM and other marketing and business development resources. Lateral hires will also benefit from a welcome meeting with marketing and business development colleagues, so the team can explain its services and encourage new hires to follow best practices, such as keeping the department in the loop on any upcoming marketing and business development needs, and consistently entering their contacts into your firm’s legal CRM.

Offering structured, ongoing support for lateral-hire success and retention

To help your lateral hires adjust to their new environment, your firm should plan to provide continued support. For example, you can connect your lateral hires with a designated resource who can answer questions about how the firm operates, how to access reference materials, and how to use the firm’s legal CRM and other technologies. A designated senior associate or fellow partner who provides guidance and insight into firm culture and mechanisms can also be extremely valuable.

Expect that it may take up to a year for a lateral hire to fully acclimate to your firm culture. Team meals are a great way to help the process along, as are offerings like sports leagues and group volunteer activities.

Harnessing technology to deliver a better law firm lateral hiring experience

With the help of advanced, purpose-built technology to support your processes, your firm can lay the groundwork for a successful lateral hire transition into your firm. Using the lateral hire features in a dedicated risk management solution like Intapp Risk & Compliance, your risk team can move quickly to address lawyer intakeconflicts clearing, and for business-bearing partner laterals, new client and matter setup in advance of your lateral hire’s start date — streamlining a complicated administrative process and setting up your lateral hire for a successful start.

Once lateral hires are officially on board, familiarizing them with the firm’s relationship-management solution gets them off on the right foot. Using a solution like DealCloud, new hires can access Intapp CRM to leverage the power of 360-degree intelligence to identify new opportunities. Intapp CRM integrates with Intapp Experience, which applies AI to interpolate data within your firm’s collective experience to improve win rates, work allocation, knowledge management, and talent management.

A winning strategy for lateral-hire selection and onboarding, coupled with technology that supports success, puts you in a strong position to grow and succeed with law firm lateral hiring.

To learn more, watch the video and read the blog post.