How to Lateral Without a Book of Business

Many attorneys are laboring under the misconception that without a $750,000 book of business, they don’t have the option to move laterally to another firm. Fortunately, there is no absolute bar to making that kind of transition with a smaller or even non-existent book of business. Below, we outline the real relationship between your book of business and your chances of lateralling as a partner. And we explain how you can strengthen your pitch to compensate for what you may be missing.


  1. Legal recruiters should and do care a lot about the size of your book of business. They have to. They get paid on a percentage basis and want to maximize their chances of success. So, they prefer safer bets in the people they choose to work with. In this world, “safe” means a degree from a prestigious law school, a career with well-known national firms, and a sizable book of business.
  2. All things being equal, a larger book of business does open up more doors. If another candidate has everything you have to offer plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to bring to a firm, you’ll be at a disadvantage on that front. But that doesn’t mean you have no chance.
  3. There are a number of great reasons for lacking this kind of portfolio. You may have been working in-house or in a government role, or you may still be relatively early in your career. People without these justifications hold their own advantage in the marketplace: they’re more affordable.
  4. The reality that a recruiter won’t work with you doesn’t mean there’s no market for lawyers with smaller books of business. Firms may want a partner who brings a large book of business, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to pay what it takes to hire and keep someone like that. Hiring an attorney with a smaller book of business poses less of a financial risk.
  5. An indispensable part of your pitch is the presentation of a compelling business plan. Your most promising strategy in trying to lateral without a substantial book of business is to demonstrate how you can grow your practice given the new platform. You should create a written business plan that specifically identifies the clients you want to attract, the referral resources you will cultivate, and the revenues you can expect to generate over a one-to-three-year period. Your business plan should explain what assistance you will need from the firm in terms of resources and support and otherwise make clear that, if given the opportunity, you will ultimately build the book of business they’re seeking.


The legal services market as a whole doesn’t subscribe to the same strict rules recruiters do, so don’t color the lack of a sizable book of business as an insurmountable obstacle. As consultants to lawyers and laws firm, we’ve seen firsthand how solid business plans have overcome sub-par books of business.

Networking Up: Attracting a Law Firm Mentor

You might be harboring contradictory sentiments about how a more junior attorney should interact with the most experienced or influential partners. One the one hand, your internal dialogue might criticize senior associates who you view as “kiss ups” or “ass kissers.”  But at the same time you know that you need a mentor.

So how do you cultivate a mentor in a way that doesn’t make you feel queasy?  The short answer is that it’s very typical to feel awkward when you consciously try to impress someone more senior.  In my experience coaching lawyers, I’ve seen that most attorneys are most comfortable networking with their peers. For example, associates hang out with associates and stay in touch with their college and law school classmates. These are examples of networking sideways or laterally.

One of the most successful lawyers I know had this said about him:  “His best skill is making a good impression.” In a workplace setting such as a law firm, people rarely think about going out of their way to make a good impression on the newest secretary or staff person.  To advance your career, there are some people who are more important to impress than others. So that statement is a quintessential compliment for someone who has mastered the art of networking up.  Up, in this context, broadly refers to the organizational chart.

There are ways to network up and minimize the potential fallout that comes from being seen as a “kiss up.”  One is to give appropriate credit to others.  People who hog all the credit for themselves tend to lose support among their peers.  It’s the wrong thing to do, and can also be damaging to their standing within the office.

But please don’t make the opposite mistake of not taking enough credit. This is often a particular problem for people who have socialized to fit in, be a team player, or who have been taught that they should not stand out.  In our society this attitude is more prevalent among women than men.

It’s critical to realize that advancing professionally requires making a good impression on certain individuals.  That’s how junior associates get better assignments; how senior associates become junior partners; how lawyers at all levels of seniority become rainmakers. You can and should do it ethically.

But do it—learn to excel at networking up.