Lateral recruiting: what works now

When everyone is offering laterals extraordinary financial incentives, what will set your firm apart? 

Competing for lateral talent is more expensive than ever, with firms providing greater compensation and new incentives to attract their ideal candidates. When money only goes so far to distinguish you from competitors, how can you best showcase what else your firm has to offer?

It starts with knowing what your target market cares about and how they consume information. At Right Hat, we frequently interview associates and partners who’ve made lateral moves, along with recruiting directors and search firms, to find out what works in telling your story. We’ve found that lateral partners and lateral associates have different needs and interests, so attracting them requires different tactics and messaging.

Connecting with Lateral Associates

Associate recruiting is the new gold rush. In the first three quarters of 2021, lateral associate hiring increased by 51% over the previous four-year average, according to legal data company Decipher. As remote working has made training recent law school grads more challenging, firms are turning to associates with a few years of experience under their belts. The race is on to lure the best young talent away from their starter firms.

What will make a lateral associate jump ship or, more specifically, jump to your ship? One is opportunity. At this stage of their careers, associates have stronger opinions about the kind of law they want to practice than when they began. They are looking for quality work that will help build specific skill sets. Practice-focused recruiting tools that talk about actual clients, resources and associate assignments can show your firm’s strength in their areas of interest.

Associates concerned about partnership chances want to know how you will help them grow, both technically and in business development. Be specific about training and show the path to partnership as transparently and concretely as possible. Statistics on associate-to-counsel-to-partner promotions and firm management assignments for associates can serve as important proof points. And, if your firm offers hybrid or work-from-home options, let associates know how you make sure remote workers are not overlooked for plum assignments and mentoring opportunities.

Savvy associates know that pro bono work is often their first and best chance to play a leading role early in their careers, providing both experience and visibility. In addition, this generation is genuinely engaged in and concerned for the wellbeing of the world around them and wants to know that their firm shares their values. A well-told story about your pro bono opportunities, including descriptions of real pro bono matters and associate involvement, will help attract lateral associates. 

Finally, consider how you are sharing your culture — what it is really like to work at the firm. While culture often has to be experienced to be understood, you can drop some breadcrumbs that lead lateral associates to the right conclusion. Robust diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program descriptions and testimonials, as well as those on firm wellness, work-life balance and flexibility, are all indicators of a place that values people as much as productivity. 

Connecting with Lateral Partners

Most law firm recruiting content doesn’t focus on lateral partners. That’s unfortunate, considering these partners’ strategic importance to your firm. If your lateral partner careers page is simply a list of job openings, you may be losing a valuable opportunity to communicate.

For lateral partners, recruiting starts with your platform. They have specific needs for serving their clients and growing their practices — and they want to be sure your firm can deliver. Practice or industry service sheets can convey at a glance your firm’s depth and experience in key areas, backed by more in-depth information as discussions progress.

Your integration approach is also critical for getting promising lateral partners to walk away from what they’ve built elsewhere. Show how you walk the integration talk with tangible information about the process, including timelines, activities and resources. To prove that you value laterals beyond their portables, incorporate facts and figures on lateral retention rates and participation in management roles.

Lateral partners care about your culture, but they’ve been around long enough to know that ubiquitous claims like “collaborative,” “entrepreneurial” and “flexible” don't mean much without proof. A brochure or website video featuring a lateral at your firm explaining how their new partners pulled together to help one of their clients or gave them early at-bats in pitch situations is a more compelling way to tell your culture story.

Speaking to lateral partners also means making sure their clients will be satisfied, so think beyond traditional recruiting content. Since many businesses now require robust DEI programs, make sure your DEI communications are up to par. Similarly, as more and more companies must meet environmental, social and governance standards for disclosure and activities, they are looking for the same from their law firms. Don’t wait to be asked for this material — make sure it is readily available to potential lateral partners.

The Pillars of Lateral Recruiting

A successful lateral recruiting program should consider these four pillars:

1. The spreadsheet and the soul

Changing firms is a high-stakes decision that rides on a complex matrix of emotional triggers and objective facts. Would-be laterals need messaging that speaks to them personally and includes concrete evidence (they are lawyers, after all!) to help them rationalize leaving their comfort zone. Your lateral campaign should include both individual, me-to-you stories they can connect to as well as objective proof points to assure them the decision they want to make is the right one.

One way to meet both needs is through an interactive digital brochure. These media-rich tools are growing in popularity due to their dynamic design options and ability to combine different types of messaging in a single place — and to let the user's interests drive their experience. A single digital brochure can efficiently and attractively serve up long-form storytelling, first-person videos, scannable statistics, benefits information and more, and can even offer deeper dives into key practices for those who are interested.

2. Meeting them where they are

While your website is a central component of your lateral marketing communications, it is by no means the only one. Lateral partners and lateral associates have different recruiting pathways and use different channels to learn and communicate. Associates tend to be more engaged online, so be sure you are getting your messages out on key social media platforms. For partners, their social media experience is often limited to LinkedIn, so consider advertising or sponsored content there.

Partner recruiting often starts with a personal contact; maybe one of your lawyers knows someone from law school or met them at a conference. Equip partners with key talking points about the firm in the form of a single sheet they can email, text or pass across the table in an initial conversation.

Search firms are crucial gatekeepers to lateral partners and associates, and this is one place you can’t afford a communication misfire. If you do not give search firms scannable, memorable, engaging information about your firm, they will substitute their own ideas about who you are. Make their lives easy by providing talking points, infographics or anything that gives a quick and scannable snapshot of your key points. If you have a lateral recruiting brochure or are generating content for laterals, make sure it goes to these firms as well. Keep it updated, and don’t assume that your messages will stay top of mind or top of desktop for recruiters very long. Similarly, law school career services offices remain a resource for would-be laterals well past graduation and into their careers. Neglect them at your peril.

 3. Pacing the journey

When it comes to recruiting, one size does not fit all moments. Having diverse materials at the ready is crucial to guiding your prospects along the recruiting journey, from first impressions through courtship to commitment. The trick is to pace the materials so you can give out just enough to entice prospects to move to the next step. Targeted digital advertising, a one-sheeter on diversity statistics, an impact report on corporate citizenship, a compendium of associate project descriptions, a visual representation of the path to partnership — these are all examples of tools that can fill different roles in your lateral recruiting campaign.

 4. A big idea you can share

Recruiting works best when everyone in the firm tells a consistent story. We’re not talking about scripted dialogue but about coalescing around a key message that sets your firm apart. Each person involved in recruiting can support this message with their own lived examples. Your people are your most effective ambassadors to prospective laterals, so make sure they are singing in harmony. Lateral recruiting is more than a competition for top candidates. It’s a way to protect your investment. Telling a clear, accurate story not only helps you get the best talent but also ensures that you don’t spend time and money onboarding laterals only to have them leave a year later because “the fit wasn't right.”

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