On Friday I was giving an overview of how marketing and business development in law firms evolved from the Bates v. State Bar of Arizona decision to today. At some point our conversation turned to the phenomenon of the growth and acceptance of lateral partner movement.

When I started in legal marketing in 1998, it was still rare for a partner, let alone a rainmaker, to leave their firm for greener pastures. And who can blame them? As we have seen over the past few months, especially since the mass layoffs have begun, law firms are a business where everyone is expected to carry their own weight.

This article discusses in detail what they are calling the Flight to Quality syndrome of the rainmakers.

“Flight to quality,” a term used in the investment world, refers to investors moving their money from riskier to more stable investments. This usually occurs during times of fear and uncertainty. And given that “fear and uncertainty” sum up the sentiment of many law firms, and that many are bracing for a less stable year, major revenue-generating partners may well launch their own flight to quality this year.

When defining a “partner,” Merriam-Webster includes: a person with whom one shares an intimate relationship.

As law firms have grown from local to mid-sized, from big to mega, and now global, I have seen attorneys lose touch with the intimate aspects of what it means to be a partner in a law firm. For many today, these “partnerships” are just a piece of paper.

When I was at big-law, the partners on one coast did not have personal relationships with those on the other, or Europe, or Asia. With nearly 1000 lawyers and hundreds of partners, how could they? The partners had personal relationships with those down the hall, in their same practice, or maybe across the state. And let’s not go into what happens, or doesn’t happen, when a mega firm gobbles up another.

Which is why I so enjoyed working with industry groups and client teams, as they brought together attorneys from across the firm, and across multiple practices, who had a common focus and interest. With an Outlook distribution group and a little bit of communication, we were able to uncover, cultivate and develop those relationships between our partners.

Law firms too often focus only on “cross-selling” as a way of protecting and insulating the firm’s relationship with a client.

I would like to offer that another way to protect the firm’s relationship with a client is to encourage personal relationships and better communication between its partners.

How many firms have cancelled their partner retreats to save money? How many encourage industry group, practice or client team meetings, or are these seen as a drain on billable hours? How many have cancelled their summer picnics and holiday parties, viewing this as part of their “cost saving” strategy??

If we do not start cultivating a level of “intimacy” amongst the partnership, I will go out on a limb and predict that in 2009 “flight to quality” for rainmakers will continue to build momentum, and will be the final blow to many a good law firm.