In January 2014, the annual Georgetown/Peer Monitor “Report on the State of the Legal Market” urged law firm leaders to shun a “growth for growth’s sake” strategy. The year 2013 had been a record-setter in law firm mergers; lateral partner acquisitions were the centerpiece of what many big law firm leaders passed off as a “strategic plan.”
The Report offered this damning observation:
“In our view, much of the growth that has characterized the legal market in recent years… masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important for their long-term success than the number of lawyers or offices they may have.”
Since then, the situation has deteriorated.
The Destabilizing Lateral Hiring Frenzy Continues
In 2015, there were more lateral moves in big law firms than at any time since 2009. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius’s mass hiring of 300 former Bingham Mccutcheon partners contributed significantly to the total, but the continuing lateral frenzy is evident. Was the 2014 Georgetown/Peer Monitor wrong? Has aggressive inorganic growth become a winning strategy?
The answers are No and No.
Those answers are not news, but a recent ALM Legal Intelligence analysis suggests that they still are correct. As MP McQueen reports in the February issue of The American Lawyer, “[The] study of 50 National Law Journal 350 firms conducted with Group Dewey Consulting of Davis, California, and released in November found that 30 percent of lateral partner hires delivered less than half their promised book of business after a complete year.”
The co-author of the report notes that lateral hiring is “the top growth strategy for many firms today but there is an incredible lack of empirical evidence as to whether laterals are achieving their promise.”
It’s actually worse than that. The evidence suggests that most lateral hires are disappointments to the firms that acquire them.
The survey reported that 96 percent of respondents said that “hiring lateral lawyers with a client following” was “very important” or “moderately important” to their revenue growth strategy. In other words, virtually all firms continue to defy the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report’s 2014 admonition.
But the survey respondents also said that only 49 percent of lateral hires delivered at least 75 percent of expected client billings. The other 50 percent did worse. Almost one-third of laterals delivered less than half of what they’d promised. And remember, those are anonymous, unaudited responses from the leaders who brought those laterals into the firm. The reality is far worse than they admit.
Likewise, as I’ve written previously, managing partners responding to the Hildebrandt/Citi 2015 Client Advisory’s confidential survey admitted that only about half of their lateral partners were break-even at best. As the Client Advisory reported:
“For all the popularity of growth through laterals, the success rate of a firm’s lateral strategy can be quite low. For the past few years, we have asked leaders of large firms to quantify the rate of success of the laterals they hired over the past five years. Each year, the proportion of laterals who they would describe as being above ‘break even’, by their own definition, has fallen. In 2014, the number was just 54 percent of laterals who had joined their firms during 2009-2013.” (Emphasis supplied)
That’s down from two years ago when managing partners self-reported to Citi/Hildebrandt a self-defined break-even or better rate of 60 percent. At alarming speed, most big law leaders are running their firms backwards.
The cultural impact of aggressive inorganic growth is not susceptible to measurement, so it gets ignored in the prevailing law-firm-as-a-business model. But there are plenty of recent examples of the potentially catastrophic costs. Just look at Howrey, Dewey, and Bingham McCutchen — three recent collapses on the heels of stunning lateral growth spurts.
“Nonsense,” big law leaders are telling themselves. “We’re not like those failed firms. They had unique problems. We’re special.” Sure you are. Things look great until it becomes apparent only too late that current partner profits are the only glue holding partners together. If money lured laterals into your firm, someone else’s more reliable money can lure them away.
But even in the not-so-long run, top-line growth through misguided lateral hiring produces bottom-line shrinkage. Laterals are expensive on the front end. On the back end, it can take years for the failure of financial expectations to become apparent. The ALI study estimates that lateral hiring misfires can reduce law firm profit margins by as much as 3 percent and profits per equity partner by 6 percent.
If lateral hiring is bad, why are so many firms committed to it as a growth strategy. One answer is that it’s not always bad. Some of my best friends are laterals. Their moves benefitted them and their new firms. In every one of those cases, culture was at least as important as money to the partners’ decisions to relocate and their new firms’ desire to recruit them.
But that doesn’t account for firms that continue to pursue aggressive inorganic growth as an unrestrained strategic policy. When the odds of success are no greater than the flip of a coin, confirmation bias displaces judgment that should be a key attribute of true leadership.
That leads to another explanation for the continuing lateral hiring frenzy: The opposite of leadership. Most managing partners relish the creation of ever-expanding empires over which they can preside. Having made more than enough money to feed their families for generations, now they’re feeding their egos.
Unfortunately, those appetites can be insatiable.