FOR a legal partner, pulling off a big move to another firm is full of risks and rewards.

More pay, better work conditions, increased prestige and career progression all these things can come into play.

But the risks are that clients may not follow the partner to the new firm. And will the team come along? Or will the managing partners get word of the upcoming defection and make an aggressive response?

Greg Williams (pictured), barrister and managing director of recruitment firm One Practice, has worked with many partners considering, or in the process of, changing firms.

His insight into the process is second to none, and he recently talked to Brisbane Legal about what he has learned. 

How do partners mentally prepare themselves to change firms?

The partner should be looking closely at the reasons why he or she is considering a move. They should get a piece of paper with a line down the centre and put reasons to stay in one column and reasons to leave in the other this may sound a little trite but it does help to crystallise thinking.

Reasons to stay may include comfort, remuneration, and prospects of promotion. Perhaps workplace culture comes into play, or the desire to move to a bigger firm. If they are going to a national or international firm, it can open all sorts of possibilities in that area. On the other hand, perhaps the remuneration is not as good as it could be, maybe the market has changed, maybe the practice is being held back.

Some partners are putting in extraordinary hours and have a family that they rarely see, so there's another reason there that they need to sit back and have a look at how their life is going. The question might be whether they want to stay on the treadmill and continue making a lot of money, or whether they want to have a better balance with the family. But that's very much an individual choice.

Are there any other factors that should be considered?

There are also external market factors that a partner doesn't have control over. If the market they're practicing in is expanding, then they may find themselves disadvantaged by staying where they are. Conversely, if their practice is contracting or going backwards, relative to the other practices within the firm, then it might be prompt to move to another firm.

What is the biggest challenge a lawyer will face when moving to a new firm?

The biggest challenge that partners convey to me, as they become more senior in the legal profession, is confidentiality. If a partner is looking to move somewhere else, the last thing they need is for somebody to whisper into the managing partner's ear that they are on the move - it can make life very difficult.

Another challenge is the decision on whether the team will follow the partner to the new firm, and the risks that has in terms of keeping the move under wraps.

What can the partner do to size up the new firm?

The partner would most likely know the firm, so they can make their own enquiries. If the consultant is good at what they do there should be some reliance on that.

Partners can fall into a trap by judging a firm on something that happened 10-15 years ago. The firm can evolve very rapidly and senior people change all the time. What they should do is go in there with an open mind, and where they feel comfortable, rely on the advice they get from a consultant.

Is there anything partners might be in danger of overlooking when they go to a new firm?

Once they've cut a deal with a new firm, there are a few things the partner should worry about.

The first is whether they have any restrictions. They can be quite onerous. For example, often the partner will not be able to take their clients to the new firm. That is a difficult one to manage.

If the partners are taking their clients to the new firm, how do they know which ones will go with them?

I categorise clients into three categories:

  • A - The clients know the partner is on the move and have said 'I will stick with you'.
  • B - The clients don't know the partner is leaving but there's a reasonable expectation that they will move with them.
  • C - Those unlikely to move.

The new firm will want to have a good look at the lawyer's client base. If the clients have been categorised into A, B, or C, before they move, then there are no bad feelings later. There will be no, 'I thought you were going to bring BHP Billiton with you' conversations.

The first thing the firm will do when a partner leaves is to contact the clients to tell them about the staff changes, then send out another partner to meet with them and attempt to keep the business with the firm. That is the risk the leaving partner will face if the firm goes aggressive to retain the clients.

Several firms are now asking for partners to prepare a business plan. I try and encourage partners to do that - a short three-page business plan can help sell your job to the new firm.

Finally, it's a bad look if a partner signs the deal then asks for extra benefits such as a club membership, sponsorship, or some other additional thing. It's a bad look when the deal is done and they come back and look for more. Don't rush the process, make sure you have everything the first time.

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