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How Much Business Do You Need to Make a Lateral Move?

Vivia Chen

February 7, 2020

Business-3716552_1280Lateral partners are hot, hot. Firms want rainmakers, and anyone with business or potential for business seem to be for sale. And even if you’re content at your current firm or the hopelessly faithful type, most lawyers want to think that they can go elsewhere if they choose.

So what’s the deal? Can you move? Or are you stuck?

In the last few years I’ve heard two persistent rumors about the lateral partner market:

  1. Major firms won’t give you the time of day unless you come to the door with $5 million or so in business.
  2. Female and diverse partners are in high demand, and firms will pull out all the stops to get them.

First, let’s talk about the book of business you need. For a long time, $1 million was the magic number. But in the past few years, the word on the street is that you need $4 million or $5 million to start a conversation with a prospective firm—and if you have less than that amount, you might as well stay put and crawl back into your hole.

Before I go further, let’s give respect and love to those who try to develop business—of any amount. As anyone who’s made the effort will tell you, reaching $100,000 in originations isn’t easy, and hitting the $1 million mark is a huge deal.

The good news is that $1 million in business isn’t as shabby as you might have been led to believe. Although firms would like to give the impression that they’re too elite to consider lateral partners with a mere $1 million or $2 million of business, reality tells a different story.

What jumped out at me about the 2020 Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa is how modest the book of business is for most lateral partners. In fact, of the 1,367 lateral partner respondents in Major Lindsey’s survey, 52.7% reported projected level of originations of less than $1 million in their first full year, followed by 27% who projected $1 million to $1.99 million.

And how many in that coveted $3 million to $4.99 million category? Just 6%. As you’d expect, those with originations in higher ranges are extremely rare: 3% for the $5 million to $7.99 million group, and 1% in the uber-elite $10 million or more group.

So why the jacked-up numbers on how much business laterals need? “If it’s a highly profitable firm—where the average partner is making $2 million or more—you need a substantial practice,” says Jon Lindsey, a founder of Major Lindsey and the author of the lateral survey, explaining the origins of the $4 million to $5 million figure.

One reason so many lateral partners reported business with less than $1 million, adds Lindsey, is that “30% of the respondents are from outside of 15 largest markets.” Moreover, some moved as part of a group or through mergers, so “inevitably there are service partners in the mix.”

That said, there are cases where the book of business is irrelevant. Lindsey cites elite government lawyers like Jeannie Rhee, who worked for special prosecutor Robert Mueller, leading the team that investigated Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election. Lindsey, who placed Rhee into Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, calls her “brilliant.”

But even those less pedigreed than Rhee can break through the lateral door without much business—maybe.

“In areas like private equity and fund formation, which are about relationships, firms might take a bet,” says Patty Morrissy, a managing director of search firm Mlegal. “Sometimes no book is required if a firm needs a certain skill set to meet client demand,” though she says $1 million is generally regarded as the floor to open discussions.

And what about the hype surrounding women and diverse lawyers—are firms willing to make exceptions about their books of business to lure them over?

Not really.

“Yes, women lawyers are in very high demand, but book requirements are equal,” says Morrissy. “They all want women and will do whatever they can on the fringes, like a thumb on the scale when it comes to compensation or bonus.” She says she’s doing two searches now where the mandate is to find female partners. “It’s a good time for women,” she says.

Sometimes firms will make the extra effort to hire women or diverse candidates, then pull back. “Some years ago, I worked with a firm that had bad press on diversity, and I presented a diverse lawyer who had an eminent practice and a decent book of business, but the response from the firm was: ‘His law school grades [are] not very good.’”

I can make a guess about the identity of the firm, but I’ll stop myself for now.

Most firms probably will not even look at a partner candidate’s grades, but they will scrutinize the business potential of the lateral very closely. “When push comes to shove, firms are worried about their profits being diluted,” says Lindsey. “Often at very end, firms will come back and say, ‘We can’t make this hire work with our numbers.’”

The upshot: Keep working on your book of business, but don’t expect any favors because you’re a female or diverse lawyer—no matter what firms tell you about their tireless efforts to promote gender equality and diversity.

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter: @lawcareerist

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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