Legal Law

On Lateral Strikes: The Lawyer Will get Paid Extra, And The Consumer Will get Screwed

You’ve got a big case going. The case is keeping four lawyers busy at the firm you’ve retained. The relationship partner is good on his feet; he makes all the court appearances. A second partner is the subject matter expert. He knows the case. Behind the scenes, he really matters. And two associates are pulling on the laboring oar.

You’re talking to the relationship partner about the case.

“By the way,” he says, “I’m probably moving to another firm on Friday.  Obviously, we can service your business at either firm, and I’ll be happy to put you in good hands either way.”

That was pretty clean, you think. Maybe he jumped the gun a little bit on the announcement, but it was less gross than the mess that many lawyers make when they switch firms. Of course, one thing really matters.

“Are the other three lawyers going with you?”

“The partner is not. One of the associates will probably be moving.”

Does anyone really think that clients are pleased by this nonsense? I understand that it’s a free world, and all that, but you’re moving to get paid more money, and it’s likely to cost your client a bundle.

As a client, if I go with the new firm, I’m screwed. I’ll lose the guy who actually knows the case, and I’ll lose one knowledgeable associate.

If I stay with the old firm, I’m screwed. I’ll lose the guy who does the court appearances, and I’ll lose a knowledgeable associate.

If I retain both firms, to keep the team together, I’m screwed. Because two plus two never equals four in these situations: Two hours plus two hours somehow equals five hours, and clients end up paying for the extra hour.  People inevitably waste time as new lawyers come up to speed and two different firms try to coordinate with each other.

I know that recruiters love seeing lawyers change firms. It’s how recruiters make money.

And I know that some lawyers love switching firms. They oversell their book of business and get overpaid for a little while. (Hey! Don’t accuse me of being cynical. Look at the facts.)

I know that legal publications love big lateral moves. Between lateral moves and Trump, a magazine can fill a whole issue.

But does anyone ever look at this from the client’s perspective? It is an uncommon move that thrills clients; the typical move causes disruption and increases costs, while providing no benefits. Maybe people should pause to think before changing firms, or maybe firms should offer discounts as lawyers who have switched firms spend more time than necessary to handle the business.

Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at [email protected]

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