Big-hitters bring big problems

Nick Hood reports on why big-hitters don’t always suit smaller firms

How often do we read about a big-hitter from a major law firm stepping down to join a smaller one? Too frequently the superstar arrives with a bang and exits with a whimper, having failed miserably to bring in prestige clients and boost fee income as anticipated. Not only this, they can also disturb the delicate professional culture of their new firm.

There are real lessons to be learnt by ambitious smaller firms about why the arrival of a big-hitter can do more harm than good.

One main stumbling block is expectations. The partners often overestimate the selling power of the bigger firm’s brand. While the new recruit may have enjoyed a productive career working there, sadly a glowing list of achievements is no guarantee of individual excellence or personal contribution to the previous firm’s success.

Did the smaller firm do enough due diligence before making the job offer? For example, did it discover whether its target was a real star or just a figurehead with a talent for self-publicity? Were the hitter’s achievements really the work of more talented colleagues, any one of whom might have been a better hire?
Beware the ‘one-case wonder’, whose entire reputation was built on a single high-profile matter. It might not be enough to guarantee they will be a big work winner at your firm.

However, distinguishing between the real achiever and the myth is never easy. In the strange world of professional partnerships, normal HR practices are a rare commodity. Interviewing is often done on a social, rather than a proper, business basis, and it can be badly hampered by the awe and respect in which the recruiting firm holds the individual. Worst of all, sometimes the key decision-maker trained with the incomer’s big firm and has an ingrained subservient relationship from those days.

Therefore, it is vital that references are taken not just from current colleagues. The most informative answers will come from the lawyers who have acted regularly on the other side. Where possible, talking to the hitter’s clients will reveal a whole range of key data, such as their level of direct involvement in casework and the way they run client relationships.

But the success of your recruit is more about how they are going to fit in to your practice than how they fitted in to their old firm.

Inevitably, large firms breed specialists, while smaller ones need partners to be much more rounded. There is huge dependence on support structures with a multitude of junior colleagues to do research and a huge knowledge bank to draw from. If your big-hitter demands a secretary or PA, what effect will this have on existing partners who do their own paperwork, administration and marketing? Feather-bedding is likely to create bitterness and can be seriously counterproductive.

So, your due diligence reveals your target as a pragmatist willing to swap perks and status for the thrill of a genuine challenge. Are you home and dry? Not at all.

Big-hitters can be surprisingly naive. Coming from such a protected professional environment, they fail to appreciate how difficult it will be to adapt. Getting casework done without those large-firm resources can be seriously frustrating. Before long, they become dispirited, realising their previously loyal clients are no longer calling because, inevitably, they cannot provide that big firm service. Their performance dwindles.

Hiring a big-hitter comes with plenty of risks. Good on paper, it usually disappoints in reality. The moral is: if in doubt, don’t. That way your firm does not have to lose face by dispensing with the fallen star who failed to light up the professional sky for you.

Nick Hood is senior partner at corporate rescue specialist Begbies Traynor