Laterals As ImmigrantsMuch has been written recently about the need for law firms to integrate laterals more effectively. One need only search “law firm lateral integration” to find myriad resources providing tips for more successful integration, often accompanied by the cautionary tales of serial laterals and disastrous failed integrations. It is suggested that if only firms became more swift, efficient, disciplined, and robust at setting up the meetings, providing a mentor/buddy, developing the talking points, and sticking to a timeline, the lateral would be assimilated into the collective quickly, successfully, and without issue.

I don’t disagree that it is altogether vital and urgent work for any firm that has invested so much in identifying and landing a key addition to the firm. But I wonder whether we are missing a critical component in our rush to complete our checklists and whirlwind series of meetings. How many of us are taking a moment to consider the opportunity to incubate the “different” that the lateral offers, rather than assuming that their resistance to assimilation, however subtle, is futile?

In the January 15th Wall Street Journal article “The Secret of Immigrant Genius, “ author Eric Weiner, citing evidence from recent psychological studies, posited that the very act of moving from one culture to another can spark creativity. The confrontation of the new language, sights, not-quite-yet routines, opportunities and dangers provide the brain with “schema violations”—people and events that challenge our sense of “normal”—and can increase the level of “cognitive flexibility,” or creativity, of those observers. Critics of Weiner’s article have suggested that the causation is reversed; that being an immigrant does not make one bold and creative, but that instead, people who are bold and creative are more likely to take the risk of packing up their lives for better opportunities. As organizational psychologist Małgorzata A. Gocłowska observed in a 2014 study, “The extent to which people prefer structure and predictability determine whether social schema violations facilitate or hamper creativity.”

Although the very act of lateraling may indicate the lateral is predisposed to think “different,” lawyers lateral for a variety of reasons and therefore cannot be placed simply into discrete categories. Irrespective of where a lateral falls on this spectrum, law firms would do well to take notice that they have an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider some of their own habits and systems. The lateral has not only the unique advantage of experiencing the firm culture for the first time, but also a brain that may be in a period of intense creativity, distress, or both. The research also suggests that those around the person in this heightened state can also experience an increase of creativity, if they identify with the person. Thus, the lateral is ripe to help the firm improve beyond simply augmenting the legal offerings to clients, if the firm makes it clear that such input is welcome and encouraged.

After reading the WSJ article, I thought about my own integration, having recently moved to my new home at Bernero & Press, adjusting to all the things that are so significantly different, and reminding myself that even the most anticipated and sought-after moves will have their moments of anxiety and bewilderment. Why do they do it this way? How much should I say about it, or should I just try it “their way” for a while? Was my brain turned on by all this change? Was I looking for more structure? Once I was invited to provide feedback, I did so—proving that in my own case, I needed the encouragement and the invitation.

I recalled all the times I had personally run out of patience with a lateral who asked why the firm ran practice meetings “this way,” or whether we could change the format of the biography, or why couldn’t they have their own marketing person? How many times did I really consider whether it made sense to rethink a particular process? Or did I assume that simply because there were hundreds of partners who agreed upon (or more likely stopped thinking about) a particular process, this new partner wasn’t going to get in the way of posting that announcement in a timely fashion.

And then I remembered observing a senior partner very early in my career working in law firms.  It was 1985 (gasp!), I was a paralegal manager, and the firm had just brought on a lateral (whom I will refer to as Jones, for ease of reference). From his very first days, Jones was constantly questioning everything about the firm’s systems, processes, people, and choices.  Other partners were incredibly disappointed, given Jones’s substantial and impressive credentials and his flawless interviewing skills. Everyone thought he would just “fit in.” I was asked to help pay attention to Jones. (Looking back at that point in the evolution of law firms, paralegals seemed to be thrown at any administrative problem.) The senior partner, two other partners, and I were meeting to discuss the issues. One of the other partners suggested that the firm had erred in hiring Jones—that this was beyond the normal acclimation behavior and that Jones was becoming a divisive force in the firm. This partner clearly wanted the senior partner to “have the talk” with Jones.

The senior partner listened intently and then made an interesting suggestion. He would ask Jones to follow firm procedures and protocols for one month, while simultaneously keeping a diary documenting all the questions, possible improvements and concerns he wished to discuss. The senior partner offered to have me act as the diary scribe, if the lateral so wished. If Jones felt something had to be addressed immediately, he could ask me to help. Otherwise, it went in the diary. After a month, the senior partner, Jones, and I reviewed the diary and discussed the questions, concerns, and suggestions for new protocols.

Not surprisingly, some of Jones’s earlier concerns and questions had less importance to him after a month, but some led to excellent recommendations for meaningful quality improvements to the operations of the firm. The diary review discussion also provided the senior partner with an opportunity to reinforce those firm values that were nonnegotiable (e.g., expecting associates to call into an answering machine on a Saturday night to check for assignments was unacceptable, but partners most certainly could call associates at home if a client emergency arose).

Not every lateral is the type to question every procedure or verbalize every concern, but every lateral’s challenged brain may provide fresh insight into needed improvements. Every lateral, by definition, brings something to the firm that the firm couldn’t produce organically; it is unlikely that the only ingredient missing was the particular intellectual talent. It is often a collection of decisions, historical precedent, or unconscious behavior that a lateral may be able to recognize more easily. And every law firm can benefit from the creativity boost, if they are open to it.

The best of the mentors/buddies assigned to laterals are predisposed to understand this concept and instinctively try to facilitate the transition. Yet the weighting tips much more on the side of making sure the lateral is comfortable and successful, rather than changing the firm for the better. While it doesn’t make business sense to realign a firm every time a lateral comes on board, and it is critical for the firm to adhere to and reinforce its nonnegotiable values, it may be well worth incorporating the firm’s cultural equivalent to the “diary exercise” into the lateral integration checklist.

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