Team moves are the Holy Grail of law firm recruitment, but, as with any quest for semi-mythical treasure, you will occasionally run into the odd tribe of natives with poisonous darts, or have to run the gauntlet of crushing forces beyond your control…
There are more chunky teams exploring market right now because firms are undergoing structural changes as the market consolidates and re-patterns in response to a number of different factors driving change. Many firms are in complete flux while others are facing existential challenges. So, the opportunity to pick up a great team may seem greater, but all that glisters is not gold.
A team hire has a manifest logic to it that we don’t need to go into here, but implicit in its main perceived boon – hiring a coherent, functioning business that can hit the ground running – is its main potential downside: that of importing an entirely foreign culture into your own.
This can have a number of deleterious effects. First off, it can make integration more problematic. Second, if a functioning team bolts on and is not properly integrated, it can just as easily bolt off again. And third, it can infect your own culture, or displace a functioning team of your own or causing others in the practice to feel discomfort at your hiring practices.
These are not all imagined scenarios. I have seen each of them occur more than once. Here are a few suggestions as to how to ensure your firm doesn’t become your very own Temple of Doom.
1. Hire strategically.
This is, like, such an obvious point that I shouldn’t even have to be making it, but all too often this is the real missing piece of the puzzle. Are you expanding into a growing market? Does your team really give you all the enhanced market share you are looking for? How does this team hire affect your existing resource and how does it fit with the rest of the firm? Are they the right clients/expanded services for you anyway? Have you done the strategic thinking, involving the right individuals within your business, to make this hire succeed?
2. Diligence properly.
I don’t mean “pay a recruiter to ask a bunch of anonymous people they know to stick the knife in the people you’re hiring (this happens more often than you know)”. I mean find out the working patterns of your new partner(s)/team, how they bill, when they bill, what collections are like, what their discounting pattern is etc. This kind of thing is what can crash the bus; the most desirable situation is if their work patterns and yours are entirely aligned. The degree of divergence between the two will govern the difficulty of aligning culture and process.
3. Don’t cherry-pick.
If you are hiring a team because it works as a unit, don’t start cherry-picking the people you like or think are good if that doesn’t align with the wishes of the team leader(s). You will only store up problems down the track, and it doesn’t send good signals to your new senior hires if they don’t get chance to determine their own team.
4. Integrate carefully.
Just because the team is an integrated unit and will hit the ground running doesn’t mean you don’t need to integrate it. In fact it’s all the more important, because a team which is busy from the word ‘go’ won’t have the time to learn about your culture and processes if they’re flat-out. That will increase the chances of ‘bolt-off’. You need to make sure the team sticks together and gets infused with your culture. Don’t split them up into your departments; people have become used to working together; splitting them up will reduce efficiency and annoy them – they’re not stupid, they know perfectly well why you’re doing it. Equally, don’t leave them entirely hermetically-sealed. That won’t integrate them into your culture. Best bet is to move someone from your existing team into the new team, to be supervised by the new team leader(s). Don’t put someone in who sits immediately above a vital senior associate, for instance, as that will cause great annoyance and look like interference. Equally, while you can easily put more junior people in, they won’t be able to infuse the new team with the firm’s culture and behaviours.
5. Keep a careful eye.
Don’t micro-manage the new team, but don’t just leave them to get on with it either. Make sure your culture is taking among the new people, and be proactive about integrating them. Make sure they meet all the people they need to in the firm, and be insistent about your legacy partners getting to know and using the team. The more connections you have, the better the chance the team won’t just get hacked off and move somewhere else. You can go too far with cuddly integration though. I know of one firm which used to have seven – yes seven – mentors for every new hire/team, including one for the office, another for culture, another for work processes and so on. This just makes you look insecure. A light, confident touch is by far the best approach, in my view.
Last of all, remember that they are people, first and foremost. Hire the right people, treat them right and make sure they get where you’re coming from, and chances are, your team hire will work out for the best.