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There’s a new kind of lateral hiring going on

May 28, 2015

Sometimes a lateral move is intra-firm, rather than inter-firm.

A number of partners are moving to new roles as law firms begin to emulate their corporate clients. C-suite jobs like chief talent officer and chief innovation officer are popping up, filled by partners asked to try something new.

Partners have long segued into general counsel positions within their firms, focusing on legal issues like client conflicts, employment matters and, of course, mergers, to name just a few.

But lawyers and firm management are recognizing that it makes sense to have partners with long-standing experience move into mirror roles, says Jeff Schwarz, the chief operating officer of Polsinelli P.C., who was once a health care partner, and then chief information officer, at McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

“You’re going to have a better perspective if you’ve worked with clients no matter what the role,” he said.

Changing roles suited Schwarz well.

“I’m systems-oriented, and I like melding technology to the practice of law,” he said. The work is particularly challenging because he oversees the operations of the fast-growing firm.

At Bryan Cave LLP, Kathryn DeBord, a litigation partner, in April became the firm’s chief innovation officer, a newly created position. She had already served on the firm’s innovation committee, but Terry Pritchard, the new chair of Bryan Cave, needed someone to oversee innovation full-time.

“She and I talked about how clients have chief innovation officers because they recognize that innovation has to occur at every level,” DeBord said. “We needed someone to head it and centralize the command of it.”

Still, the offer surprised her, DeBord said. She had to “think about it,” she said, since it meant giving up her litigation practice.

“To have the psychic bandwidth to do this job, I couldn’t continue to split my time with litigation, since litigation is governed by the tyranny of the urgent.”

In her new role, DeBord said hopes to create a “culture of innovation where people feel comfortable talking about ideas.” More importantly, she hopes to foster better connections between the firm and its clients.

Siobhan Handley also hopes to bring her knowledge of clients into her role as the new chief talent officer of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, so that the lawyers can evolve into what in-house counsel want.

Handley is in part tasked with overseeing the training and development of both partners and associates.

“To understand what it takes to succeed as an attorney, there’s a benefit to having been a partner,” she said.

After five months in her new role, Handley, a former litigation partner at the firm, acknowledged that she does miss her work a bit. But she knows she made the right choice, she said: “I didn’t leave practicing because I hated it. I changed because on balance there’s more fulfillment in the talent role.”

Handley said she was integrally involved in Orrick’s expansion of its family caregiver leave policy to 22 weeks of paid leave, with the option of an additional nine months of unpaid leave, considered to be among the most generous offered by firms. “It was very rewarding to hear from so many attorneys” who appreciated the enhanced leave, she said.

One trade-off for these lawyers moving to executive roles is that they typically give up their partnerships -- and their partnership income.

“I’m compensated like a COO,” Schwarz said. “And that’s fine with me. I also don’t have any billable-hour requirements.”

What these partners relinquish in income, they may gain in more predictable, although not necessarily fewer, hours. They don’t suddenly have a 40-hour week. Instead, they have a greater ability to manage their time than they would as a transactional lawyer or a litigator.

In fact, the work often remains as frenzied.

“My hours are not nine to five,” Handley said. “With the intensity of this position, I’m working harder than I had worked in a while. It’s ironic -- I’m working harder and I’m happier.”

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