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Laterals Must Take a Proactive Role in Their Onboarding
By Valerie Fontaine –
Much is written about the lateral lawyer onboarding process from the employer’s point of view, but the newly hired lateral must play an equal or greater role in the process. Most large law firms have an established protocol yet, once everyone gets busy, it’s not always followed or completed. As a lateral lawyer, you have as much—if not more—at stake in ensuring the move is a success. Therefore, you should take proactive steps for getting off to a good start in your new work environment. The process begins during the interviewing and negotiation phases of the search and continues throughout your first several months, or more, on the job.
Unmet expectations on the part of either the attorney or the hiring firm, or both, lead to many lateral failures. Therefore, expectations must be explored and clarified during interviews and offer negotiations. Thoroughly discuss issues such as skills, job description, compensation and benefits, performance reviews, support, client responsibility and origination credit, title, years to partnership consideration (if appropriate), lines of reporting, hours requirements, and so forth. Senior attorneys also must agree upon a business development plan and marketing budget. Memorialize the details in writing.
Complete all administrative paperwork and set up your workspace before your start date or expeditiously upon your arrival at the new firm. Get your office organized and make sure you have all the resources you need, or know where to find them. Seek training as soon as possible on the firm’s technology and timekeeping system. Understand the phone system and introduce yourself to the receptionists. Get to know the firm’s resource people such as technical support, librarians, and facilities managers, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Cooperate with the marketing folks to get your photo and bio on the firm’s website right away and your announcements sent out. Take responsibility for handling the logistics quickly and efficiently so you can get to work and your clients can find you.
Each firm has its own way of doing things down to dress code and office décor. Likewise, there are favored methods of communication and writing style, particular clients with preferences in the way their work is handled, and the like. Check the firm’s form files so you can conform your work as quickly as possible. While it’s not necessary to become a clone, you want to accommodate your new firm’s preferences within your own style.
Refrain from saying, “We did it this way at my old firm” until you are well settled and think you know a better way of doing something and that it will be appreciated by your new firm. Even then, suggest the alternative without attributing it to your former firm.
You are an unknown quantity and must prove yourself to your new colleagues. For associates, your first few assignments may be either more or less sophisticated than you handled at your former firm. Do them cheerfully, efficiently, and well. Once you demonstrate that you produce excellent work consistently and in a timely manner, partners will be comfortable assigning you more challenging work, or continuing to do so. Likewise, even senior lawyers may expect to see your work edited more at first, until you adapt to your new firm’s style.
Be a good “firm citizen” and present yourself as part of the team. Get on all appropriate e-mail and distribution lists so you learn of relevant committee, department, practice group, or firm meetings, and make sure you attend. Participate in training sessions and social events. Be available to work with as many partners as possible and volunteer for firm committees, write for the newsletter, or contribute to client or in-house seminars, so others get to know you and your work. Join in the firm’s pro-bono and charitable projects and sports teams. If you are partner level, handle your share of administrative duties. However, don’t overcommit yourself, keeping in mind that your primary objective is billing many hours of excellent work, regardless of your seniority.
Work hard, but get out of your office and meet as many of your new colleagues as you can as soon as you can. Greet everyone you meet in the hallways. Introduce yourself and ask their names and what they do. Then, check your firm website for further information.
If you joined the firm as part of a larger group, reach beyond those familiar faces. In addition to those in your practice group, connect with the lawyers who interviewed you, and fellow alumni from your law school and undergraduate institutions, as they are a built-in start to your network of colleagues. Research the firm’s website to identify lawyers you affirmatively wish to meet, and seek them out.
Invite your new colleagues for lunch or coffee, and accept their invitations. If your new firm has many locations, make sure you reach out to lawyers in other offices, as well. Volunteer to work on matters that are staffed across offices, or choose lawyers from other locations work on your matters.
Go out of your way to meet the non-lawyers, too. Be nice to everyone, especially the support staff, as they are essential to your success. Some long-time staffers can give you the inside scoop on how the firm is run and how various attorneys work.
Choose mentors wisely
The firm might assign you a mentor ease your transition. If not, or in addition, reach out to other laterals at or above your seniority level and ask them about their experiences and to share their wisdom. They can help you avoid missteps along the way.
Every firm has its politics. Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut until you figure out the true lay of the land. Look for unwritten rules, power structure, alliances, conflicts, social or political “in-groups” and outcasts. Determine which partners, practice areas, and clients are most valued at the firm, and where the backwaters lie. Read internal and external communications and note who and what is in the spotlight. Respect any formal or informal hierarchies within the firm. Once you have an idea of where the power lies, begin building your mentoring network among the established ranks of the firm.
Integrate your practice
Especially for senior or partner-level laterals, remember that there may be some territoriality or resentment about your place in the pecking order. Be sensitive to those feelings and share work as soon and often as possible. Take the first step in sharing your knowledge, contacts, and assignments so that your new colleagues will be comfortable sharing business with you. Let your new colleagues know your expertise and clients, and explore cross-selling opportunities for the lawyers in your new firm. Help them with client pitches and invite them to your client meetings and marketing calls.
Respect your new partners’ relationships with their clients. When a colleague refers business to you, copy the originating partner on your work. Learn how new business is brought into the firm, new matters opened, and work assigned, and follow those procedures.
Build your book
Ask to meet with the firm’s marketing staff as part of the interviewing process or soon after joining, so you can start marketing the new firm to your clients right away. Go over your business development plan and devise a strategy to leverage your contacts and expertise with those of your new colleagues. A successful lateral move for both the lateral lawyer and the hiring firm is one in which two plus two equals much more than four.
Expect things to be different in your new work environment. That’s why you made the move—right? Not everything will go as smoothly or quickly as you might like, but if you take responsibility for integrating yourself into your new firm, you will greatly enhance your chances of a successful career move.
Valerie Fontaine is a partner in Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, a legal search firm based in Los Angeles (www.sfbsearch.com). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 842-6985. The second edition of her book, “The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers,” was published in 2013 by NALP.