Identifying and recruiting firm leadership

Recruiting executive-level leadership is, alternately, an exciting and worrisome task. Unlike the traditional application process, candidates are not simply being asked to fit into a predefined role. In hiring top management, companies offer candidates the opportunity not simply to perform a task, but often to shape the culture, mission and objectives of an entire organization.

A quick survey of even some of our nation’s top executive positions in 2018 shows the scope and variety that can characterize a potential managerial talent pool: A CEO of an oil company, a film producer and hedge fund manager, a U.S. senator, a billionaire philanthropist, a Marine Corps general, a Navy SEAL, a neurosurgeon, and some former state governors. For better or worse, even the position of President of the United States has been held over the last three decades by two governors, a senator, a movie actor and a real estate tycoon.

Law firm leadership is not quite as flexible (thanks to Rule 5.4 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct) as other companies that are not in the business of providing legal advice. Nevertheless, the diversity of background, expertise and management methods of those in the legal profession are every bit as abundant as the people we serve and represent. Therefore, our approach in searching for executive leadership in this profession can benefit from similar principles.

The Four Types of Executive Recruit

Of course, search firms for management-level talent vary in their method and mindset when identifying candidates for their client companies. Depending on the position of your firm, the culture of its employees, the competitive environment of the local profession and direction identified by ownership, entirely different candidate pools may be suggested for your firm’s opening. Broadly speaking, however, candidates for these positions typically will fall into one of four general categories.

The Lateral Hire

The “lateral hire,” or recruiting your new partner or executive from a sitting position with a similar environment at another firm, is the easiest and often the least-risky type of selection for an organizational head. The lateral hire knows the business well and has the experience of leading a law firm not dissimilar from your own. For what it is worth to you, they have already proven themselves to some extent by rising through the ranks of leadership elsewhere. Their track record, good or bad, will be readily available for you and other partners or directors to examine, question, and rely upon. These candidates will often require little oversight or guidance and provide confidence that the job will get done.

On the other hand, lateral hiring can come with some admonition. For one thing, because they are established, lateral hires are likely to demand a higher level of compensation than other types of hires. Also, while lateral hires are often the safest option for a leader, they are often consequently the least-bold choice—not ideal for the firm with a ‘growth’ mindset, to market to new clients or to provide new or different services to existing clients. Additionally, interviewers are cautioned to investigate the circumstances around the candidate leaving their prior position—will things similarly not ‘work out’ with your firm as well?

The Emerging Leader

The “emerging leader” has proven herself at second-level management and is primed for a promotion to bigger and better responsibilities. Whether developed internally, or coming from another firm, this person has mastered their existing workspace. They may not be knowledgeable in all aspects of the available position, but their work product in their current position is proof that they have the capability to develop the skill and proficiency to get the job done. The emerging leader will have an excellent understanding of the law in their current position, a talent for working with teams of people, and prior supervisory experience.

The emerging leader is a subtle combination of experience and fresh perspective. Firms should be cautioned that this person will require some guidance, and maybe even require some on-the-job training. Like the lateral hire, the emerging leader can require higher compensation proportionate to their new responsibilities and expectations.

The Rising Star

The “rising star” is also looking for a promotion, but they will not have the track record of either the emerging leader or the lateral hire. Undoubtedly, the rising star will be someone who shows promise outside traditional norms of expectations for prior experience. Think of Theo Epstein and his rise to the position of general manager of the Boston Red Sox at the age of 28. Like any gamble, the rising star is often an enormous risk but has the potential for serious upside.

The hesitations for hiring a rising star are obvious. This person will need to do an awful lot of on-the-job training, and so must show interviewers that they possess an incredible capacity to learn new things and a durability to weather the more difficult aspects of the job. If this is the right option for your firm, with the right cultivation, the rising star will be an excellent attorney, an obvious leader, a dedicated worker, an amiable personality and a personnel investment that could pay dividends for many years to come.

The Non-Traditional Hire

The fourth and potentially most uncertain option for executive leadership (depending on how impressed you are by your rising star options) is the “non-traditional hire.” This is the oil executive CEO that becomes Secretary of State, or the neurosurgeon who becomes Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Obviously, these candidates will not have the track record of their colleagues, but clever interviewers can identify qualities in these people that would be a good fit for the position nevertheless. Non-traditional hires can be an intriguing option for firms looking to upset the status quo.

In the practice of law (where we are limited to hiring licensed attorneys for attorney positions), non-traditional hires could mean identifying candidates who have worked in completely different areas of law, solo or small practitioners looking for a different platform, corporate attorneys, or even candidates who have been away from practice for a time but maintained their license while working in a different profession. Like the rising star, non-traditional candidates can be a lucrative personnel investment, but they require attentive and inquiring interviewers, intelligent on-the-job assessment and probably (at least initially) a fair amount of guidance from the firm’s existing ownership.

Law Firm Soul-Searching

“If you really want to be at the top of your form, know who you are,” Maya Angelou famously stated in 2002 to a group of cadets and officers at the US Coast Guard Academy. It would be impossible to find the right candidate for top-tier leadership without knowing the direction that the owners, or board of a company, wishes for the firm to go. It is impossible to identify the direction to go without knowing where you are, as a firm.

Whether by hosting a firm retreat or by surveying the firm’s stakeholders—employees, clients, partners, etc.—the process of identifying the firm’s intentions for the immediate and long-term future are critical prior to selecting its future leadership. While a rising star or non-traditional hire may be intriguing, your firm may require the steady hand of an established leader.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of your firm? What challenges and opportunities are on the horizon? What are your one-, five- and 10-year goals? Once you have identified the ship’s destination, then it is time to begin your search for a captain.

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March 2018Volume 39Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)