Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Partner recruitment – better but still a case of buyer beware

If the oxymoronic notion of partner recruitment didn’t exist who would invent it? On one level, of course, its emergence in the legal profession was inevitable given wider changes in careers and attitudes to work. Without some form of partner mobility law firms would become inflexibly segmented and partners effectively bound to a single employer.

But, as has been noted with increasing frequency in recent years, the returns on partner recruitment can be wildly uneven and often deliver only moderate or poor benefits. The emergence over the last 15 years of a sideways recruitment market for so-so partners moving between similar law firms – as opposed to a start-up or better platform – is also a challenge for law firms in retaining their own partners. No wonder one prominent legal consultant recently wrote of the lateral ‘arms race’ – denoting a contest fraught with difficulty and danger that parties still feel they have no choice but to enter.

But, as our strategic recruitment special reflects, the issues are not that clear cut. For one, by consensus, law firms have become more rigorous, sophisticated and effective at partner recruitment in the UK in recent years, at least in relative terms. It has clearly become harder to move serial jumpers, spiky personalities and service partners since the market reset of 2008. And that shift has been managed even amid what is still a busy lateral market – our research shows that it is now pretty standard for top 50 UK firms to collectively hire more than 500 partners globally in a single year.

This more disciplined recruitment has been apparent at UK firms but is even more notable at US players in London. The awkward truth for City practices is that the days when they could rely on US rivals to consistently hire the wrong person for the wrong reason at the wrong place are largely gone. It’s not apparent that this shift has entirely sunk in.

And while partner recruitment can disappoint, it’s clear some firms make it work spectacularly well – with Latham & Watkins being arguably the standout example. Identifying the positive impact of recruitment on key financial metrics is still difficult – though RPC and Clyde & Co on the face of it appear to have turned slick recruitment into bottom-line performance. But set against that a number of aggressive partner hires have been poor performers over the last five years. Even with some data you still have the problem of separating correlation and causation, but it is almost certainly true that lateral recruitment acts like an accelerant for law firms already on an upward track – firms perceived to be going places find it easier to recruit good people, who then help further aid the rise.

Still, even if there have been improvements in hiring practices, in some regards it’s surprising there haven’t been more developments in terms of law firms studying the process of effective recruitment and working out how specialist skill-sets, improved data and better (which doesn’t mean more lengthy) procedures can improve returns on partner recruitment. Given the huge competitive edge law firms would gain, that really would be something worth inventing.

For further in-depth analysis of partner recruitment see Strategic Recruitment: The Product