In his lead article, Moray McLaren asks, “What is the perfect partner?” relying on data from law firm lawyers across the International Bar Association. There are plenty of good reasons to go directly to the lawyers who ultimately choose their future partners. Clients also have important views on what makes an exceptional lawyer, as Lisa Hart Shepherd outlines in “Dissecting Client Choice”—views that do not always align with the law firm partners who serve them.
If firms and clients represent the two critical cogs in the market, it raises the question: How does the market define the perfect partner? And for that, legal recruitment has invaluable insight.
The past three years have seen historic increases in the lateral hiring market. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), an uptick in legal work produced a competitive landscape for the best lawyers, leading to a 111 percent increase in lateral hiring (partners and associates) in 2021 over 2020. In 2022, partner lateral hiring, specifically, increased by another 5.5 percent, with a concentration of movement happening across smaller firms (250 or fewer lawyers), leading the NALP to call it a “year in flux.” Such flux has led to increased due diligence on the part of firms, as reported by Law.com, with firms interested in double-checking what clients lawyers might actually be able to bring with them.
The market demands lawyers who span the Atlantic; partnership is no longer necessarily about close-knit, city-held familial networks.
To understand this complex market and what firms are looking for when searching to add partners to their ranks, or what candidates are looking for when they make the move, we spoke to two recruiters: Joe Macrae, chairman and founder of Macrae, and Merle Vaughn, managing partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa (MLA).
Recruiting the recruiters
Joe Macrae was an early career associate at a large global law firm working in London and Hong Kong when he saw an ad on the subway that changed the trajectory of his career. “Bored? Frustrated as a lawyer? Want to try something more entrepreneurial?” it said. Macrae joined a new recruitment company—“three people in a small, unimpressive basement office in a not very nice part of London”—feeling that he was “never going to be exceptional as a lawyer,” but could excel as a legal recruiter.
Merle Vaughn also took a nontraditional path. After some time in corporate law and as a general counsel, she ran her own business for almost a decade. She found her way back into law when she called a recruiter who told her, “You sound like a salesperson. Have you considered being a recruiter?” It’s been over two decades and four different firms, but Vaughn found the career that suited her. Now, she is the national law firm diversity practice leader of MLA’s Law Firm Practice Group, the managing partner of the Southern California offices, and a member of the Partner Practices group.
Both Vaughn and Macrae have seen the market change in those decades in the business.
Macrae entered the business at the right time in the late 1980s. Lateral moves were just beginning to pick up steam. While partners at that time often stayed where they were until retirement, associates and in-house movement were beginning to tick up. When, in 1990, Macrae founded his own recruitment shop, Margaret Thatcher had just reformed the laws governing foreign practices: “American law firms were suddenly permitted to hire English lawyers, rather than just refer work back and forth. And that was what transformed the London legal market, because suddenly you had American money and might applied to what historically had been a market without obvious competition for partner talent,” Macrae explains. Today, he runs Macrae, a transatlantic legal recruiting firm, which he started from Palo Alto, California. The firm now has offices in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and London. That in and of itself is revealing: the market demands lawyers who span the Atlantic; partnership is no longer necessarily about close-knit, city-held familial networks.
In almost all cases, the firms are asking, Is this individual naturally skilled with people?Joe Macrae, Macrae
Vaughn says that the market has always been cyclical, with recessions and other economic or global events affecting legal hiring. It’s almost never down across the board, she says. Instead, certain sectors pick up as others wane. For instance, in 2008, she says, no one was hiring corporate transaction lawyers, but litigation needs were high. “If corporate goes down or real estate goes down, well then, bankruptcy might be up or reorganizations are up,” she says. During the pandemic, transactional and employment work was up, as well, she says. The market therefore is a significant force in determining what types of partners law firms are looking for—but the market always demands a legal industry.
For Macrae, the tools of recruiting itself have changed—from Rolodexes to computers—but the basic process of understanding clients and the motivations of partners seeking to move remains in place. “We’ve moved from two boxes of cards—one with ‘jobs’ and one with ‘candidates’—to using a data lake—a centralized online storage tool driven by rapidly changing AI. But the underlying basics of the business remains the same,” he says. Much of it is about trust. “You have to be able to go and see a law firm and win the trust and confidence of the team there that you’re going to be the right ambassador for the firm in the marketplace,” Macrae says. On the candidate side, the top partners are always fielding calls. Vaughn compares being a recruiter to being a talent agent.
What candidates and firms are looking for
When lawyers go looking for a new home or firms search for new expertise, what are they looking for? And how often do the two match up? Vaughn says the global law firms, even when they’re not actively putting out a call, are opportunistic. “They’re always open to considering a partner,” she says, especially if that partner is able to bring business to the firm. Sometimes they are looking for a particular expertise, for instance, when an already existing client asks if a firm can help with different legal needs that require other practice areas or would otherwise require them to refer elsewhere. “Those are opportunities that are ripe for placing diverse and women lawyers, because sometimes such lawyers have not had the support to build a big book of business, and expertise is more important than money,” she says.
Macrae says that “the top firms have always been driven by finding people who are highly skilled at whatever area of law they’re specializing in and can be showcased to clients as leaders in the field.” But, he says, as the marketplace has become more crowded and competitive, “being a great lawyer is no longer enough.” He says:
In almost all cases, the firms are asking, Is this individual naturally skilled with people? Are they going to be able to either join our firm and bring clients so that they’re growing the pie, or if they’re in an area where one doesn’t naturally bring clients, are they somebody whom we can put in front of our most important institutional client and they’re going to feel that they are not just technically good, but interpersonally impressive and inspiring confidence?
Macrae’s comments highlight three critical points about the market and the ideal partner. First, firms are looking for subject-area experts with deep technical expertise. Second, people skills are key, primarily vis-à-vis relationships with clients. And, while the combination of these factors drives to the heart of firm profitability, the starting point is not primarily raw dollars and cents.
Of course, what firms are looking for and what candidates want do not always match up. On the candidate side, Vaughn says lawyers looking for the perfect firm are often looking for appreciation. “How are they being treated? Are they being paid fairly? Do they feel like there’s equity in the system?” she asks. In this sense, partners are looking for a place where they will be valued—and that is fair. Vaughn says,
Some partners feel like their practices are not fully supported. The firm is no longer interested in the type of work they’re doing, or they feel like they don’t have the associate support that they need in order to be able to leverage their practice and leverage their time so that they can go out and find new business. Then there are partners who just feel like they’re not being supported within the firm, as in they’re not getting introduced to institutional clients. But obviously, as they look for new firms, it doesn’t hurt to have a big book of business as a playing card.
As the market adjusts and the pandemic boom of legal work levels off, pandemic changes remain. For instance, Vaughn says, work-from-home debates are still stirring the market, meaning partners are moving and firm ranks are changing as lawyers decide whether or not they’re willing to go back into the office or move back to a hub for their job, or if they can find something else with a firm that’s more flexible or more centrally located for where they want to live.
Merle Vaughn tries to understand the root cause of why firms are interested in diversity. Do they have a largely diverse class of associates but are having trouble with retention?
Beyond culture, business comes into play in other ways—for instance, conflicts. A lawyer may have landed a client the firm cannot support because of an existing client, and thus they decide to move so that they can take on that client. In certain scenarios, Vaughn says, a lawyer may look to move to a smaller firm if they cannot sustain their client base at the higher rates of a global law firm. Usually, however, candidates are looking to move up the Am Law 100, she says.
A diversity-focused market
Both Macrae and Vaughn say diversity has become a bigger issue with both firms and candidates. Vaughn says that she follows a client’s lead, but if a candidate or firm chooses to work with her, it’s often “because they’re intentional or they have an interest or commitment to diversity within their firm.”
Among the changes in the past few decades, Macrae says, is that law firms are being transparent or up-front about one of the key drivers in their quest to hire more-diverse lawyers. “Firms tell us they are under extreme pressure from their clients about the composition of the teams pitching and managing their business,” he says. “And so quite apart from anything else, if your client’s saying to you, unless you produce a more diverse team on the next pitch, you won’t be on it, that is about as compelling a message as they’re going to hear to change the demographic of their law firm.”
The firms that see the value—morally and ethically—are still going to invest in diversity.Merle Vaughn, Major, Lindsey & Africa
Vaughn tries to understand the root cause of why firms are interested in diversity. Do they have a largely diverse class of associates but are having trouble with retention? “If that’s why they’re coming to me,” she says, “I’ll ask, ‘What are you willing to do differently to get a different result?’” She explains, “It’s not usually because they haven’t thought about it or they don’t care or they haven’t tried. It’s because they’re using the same process or tools they’ve always used, and it has worked for the demographic they have but not for diversity across the cohorts.”
As the political situation evolves, and anti-affirmative action litigation has been directed at universities, businesses, and law firms, Vaughn has been watching the situation carefully. “I’ve actually seen firms doubling down on diversity. It seemed like some companies were backing away from DEI, but I’ve noticed that many law firms are still looking to add DEI professionals.” And further, Vaughn says, “the firms that see the value—morally and ethically—are still going to invest in diversity.”
With hefty price tags attached to groups of lawyers in the past year, one question remains: Is the perfect partner actually a group of partners? In September 2023 Paul Weiss hired three lawyers from Kirkland for a high-value package that may allow each individual to earn up to $20 million over time. In 2022, Paul Hastings lifted 43 lawyers from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, including almost its entire restructuring practice—Stroock announced it was filing for bankruptcy in late 2023, a move many predict was foretold by such partner exits. Also in 2022, Gide Loyrette Nouel recruited a seven-lawyer team from Shearman & Sterling. Macrae says it was much less common to see such large lateral moves years ago. It could occur, he notes, if rumors portend a law firm failure causing a flurry of departures (see “Why Law Firms Collapse”), but increasingly, lateral moves are becoming more frequent and often include a group.
How do you carve out time to do all of that and be a good mentor when you’ve also got the pressure of billing 2,000 hours plus, bringing in $X million of business, and satisfying the demands of the client?Joe Macrae
“If you are trying to identify how likely it is that that partner will be able to bring business and consolidate it at the new firm, if the partner is able to bring a colleague who works on the same business, plus their associates, then it’s more of a plug-and-play situation,” Macrae says. In other words, if four people make the move who all handle one account at law firm X and they move to law firm Y, “the client knows there’ll be no one left at law firm X who can do the work.”
Vaughn says that midmarket firms also look to groups to become bigger. It has a reinforcing component, as well, she says, as it can help morale and inclusion at the new firm. “If you bring someone with you,” she says, “you don’t feel so alone from day one.”
Mentorship and motivation
It’s a dynamic time to be watching the profession, says Macrae, with the sheer volume of moves in recent years and new compensation heights reached in the “war for talent.” How firms manage all of this while maintaining culture and developing homegrown talent is part of the challenge. Particularly coming out of Covid-19 there is renewed focus on the importance of mentorship. “At its core, the law firm partner’s job is in part to train more-junior lawyers so that they can grow their skills and join the partnership,” he says. “I think that ability not just to deploy good people skills, to go out and get clients and retain clients, but also to motivate and train and bring on more-junior lawyers in the law firm is super important.”
What’s hard, he goes on, is finding time. “How do you carve out time to do all of that and be a good mentor when you’ve also got the pressure of billing 2,000 hours plus, bringing in $X million of business, and satisfying the demands of the client?” Macrae says.
Lawyers may be earning larger and larger compensation packages, but at what cost? Is the perfect partner even possible? When Vaughn talks to lawyers about leaving their positions in search of another home, she asks them, “What would you be looking for that you don’t have?” She says, “Partners will usually tell you that it’s not all about compensation, but in the end, that’s one of the major, major factors.”