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7 January 2014
Partners in commercial law firms have never been more mobile and hiring a whole team is now common practice. Even 10 years ago, it was almost unthinkable for a partner to leave an established City practice, let alone to leave for a practice in its infancy. Now, hardly a week goes by without news of well-known lawyers joining another law practice - whether a UK or US firm, or the associated law firm of one of the big five accountants. However, it takes more than a number of bought-in heavyweights to create the "dream-team" law firm.
One of the most pronounced problems inherent in hiring a whole team stems from the nature of the building blocks used. Despite the instant credibility and critical mass that the arrival of a team brings, its very strength can undermine the eventual long-term success of the firm. The ready-made practice group has its own working practices and sub-culture, which may not fit in with those of the new firm. Its old habits will die hard. It is already bonded - it does not need other team members or complementary groups to establish itself - and, at worst, it can become a firm within a firm. The biggest risk in financial and credibility terms is that, as a self-sufficient unit, it may be unbolted as easily as it was first bolted on.
How then does one ensure against buying in a dynasty rather than a group of individuals which will enhance and grow with the firm's practice? The answer lies in planned integration. It is unrealistic to expect a team of lawyers to arrive in a new environment, simply pick up where they left off, be profitable and generate new work, and become an integrated part of a new firm, without some considerable work on the part of the firm, its existing lawyers and the new team. The integration process must be managed strategically and some of the issues need to be looked at as part of the recruitment process itself.
The starting point is to look at why a team is being offered in the first place. Is it because specific clients feel comfortable with this team, and a group move makes it more likely that those clients will follow, or is it simply that the team leader is used to working with them and needs the security blanket of this familiarity? In other words, is the team really necessary? Except in the most exceptional of client-driven cases (and even then, there will be restrictive covenant issues), every team member should be interviewed on their own merits.
As soon as it is known that a team is coming, the integration process must begin. Start with the team leader: if they integrate successfully, then the team members will tend to follow. The incoming team should not swamp or dominate the practice group and the team members should be encouraged, before arrival, to have an open mindset. Nothing is more poorly received than a frequent refrain of, "This is the way we used to do it at [previous firm]".
The geographical location of associates will make a difference. If they share offices with, or are adjacent to, "outsiders", the integration process will be easier. Also, unless there are strong client-driven reasons not to do so, the associates working with the team's clients should be a mix of old and new.
Socialising of the new, expanded group should be encouraged (and arranged, if necessary). And the mentoring of the team members should be done by a partner from outside the team.
In the US, where team moves are more common than in the UK, firms have become quite skillful at managing integration. Those methods are now being imported into the UK. The old adage of a "partner for life" no longer holds true in a much more mobile legal recruitment market, but one of the biggest fears for partners who are tempted to move is the uncertainty of how they and their practice will integrate into the new firm, and one of the biggest challenges for the new firm is to demonstrate how smooth and effective this can be.
John Reynolds is managing partner at McDermott Will & Emery's London office.