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Balancing lateral law firm hires with internal promotion

Posted by: Laurence Simons 04/09/15

Recent analysis in the report ‘Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession’ written by Tennessee University law professor Benjamin Barton, has suggested that over a four year period, lateral hiring in law firms went up whilst promotions went down.

In the report, Barton cites Dewey & LeBoeuf as a specific practice which suffered demonstrably at the hands of an unsuccessful hiring strategy, whereby its abundance of lateral hires put off its other employees who became frustrated at the lack of career progression they were experiencing. Indeed, as a general rule, whilst lateral hires went up across the board by 10% over four years, promotions of associates to partnership went down a drastic 21%.

Two further dangers Barton discusses are overpaying lateral hires and diluting the culture of the firms by bringing in too much outside talent at partner level. But it is undeniable that focusing solely on those already working within the firm can lead to stagnation and a lack of innovation – and a company can’t grow if it remains the same size.

So how best to find the balance between developing the talent you have already and recruiting from outside? It’s tough, but it’s important to engage in strategic workforce planning, whereby an analysis of potential future vacancies can give you an insight of who you need to be hiring and what skills you should be looking to develop. If you take this approach and utilise the talent you already have, as well as making select lateral hires, you can reinforce a strong firm culture. Not only this, but boasting a fair promotion system can also be an attraction to your practice for outside talent. So it works both ways; choose lateral hiring and failure to promote as a policy and you could end up sabotaging yourself. And why risk missing out on the top talent?