My latest missive in The Lawyer about doing your sums before deciding to hire partners laterally seems to have exercised a few commentators who accuse me of not knowing what the hell I’m talking about.
Being the kind of guy I am I can’t just leave that one alone; do they have a point? I immediately pored over the copy again to see where I might have gone wrong.
I think my mistake was choosing too subtle an example to make my point, and then not explaining clearly enough what I meant. In case you can’t be bothered to read the article – you’re busy people! – my overall point is that firms often take on people who don’t add a great deal in the scheme of things and often underperform on expectations, what one managing partner mate of mine calls ‘drizzlemakers’.
Given the often highly disruptive nature of lateral hires, I worry that firms don’t think carefully enough, and holistically enough, before taking on someone who isn’t going to add materially to the business. In so doing, they may end up denying partnership to perfectly good associates or even force incumbent partners to cede territory or, in extremis, to leave the firm entirely. I have seen both scenarios happen more times than I care to think about.
I will say, though, that taking on perfectly ok lawyers who seem to do “good business” but don’t add materially to the shape, extent or profitability of the business may be just fine if that’s the way you’re running your firm. What my friend, the US management guru Bruce McEwen calls ‘hotels for lawyers’ do just that, providing a brand umbrella for scads of perfectly decent practitioners.
My experience of those kind of firms is that they don’t have much of a strategy beyond “adding (profitable) turnover” – I use parentheses advisedly, because in some cases turnover seems to be all they care about – and therefore practice development is just a numbers game.
Nonetheless, the article has provided an important lesson for me in terms of making sure I’m making my point with sufficient clarity, and in primary colours if necessary. Or in other words, if you’re going to go poking a hornet’s nest, make sure you have a big enough net with you.