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Guide to Making a Lateral Move as a Legal Associate

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In the turbulent job market of the 1990s, lateral hiring has become a common phenomenon in law firm circles. Fast forward to the 21st century, "Cherry picking," or hiring experienced lawyers with a solid book of portable business away from the competition, once sneered upon by law firms, now happens every day. Associates, with little loyalty to firms that cannot or will not wave the carrot of partnership in front of their noses, now regularly move from firm to firm, looking for a kinder and gentler lifestyle, more interesting work, better chances of making partner, or more money. In fact, it is becoming increasingly rare for attorneys to spend their careers under the roof of one law firm. It's safer now to view your job as a long-term project, instead of anticipating spending your career in one place anymore.

But how do you know when the time is right to make a lateral move? And how often can you change firms in the current legal market without blemishing your record? What do firms look for when they hire lateral candidates? And what can you, as an associate or partner, do to improve your chances of finding a better position in the lateral job market?



FIRM EXPERIENCE OR THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS

As a general rule, if you weren't able to break into the law firm market as a student, chances are slim that you can do so as a lateral attorney, unless you have a large book of portable business or extremely influential connections that may be useful to law firms. Unfortunately, most of us do not possess these connections. Be extremely realistic about how valuable your work experience may be to law firms.

One firm, for example, hired the former general counsel from a very influential government agency. He had no previous law firm experience and no portable business, but his experience and connections were valuable to law firms and their clients. However, as a rule, large law firms almost always look for previous law firm experience in their lateral attorney candidates. As one experienced recruiting coordinator states, "99.9 percent of lateral candidates need prior law firm experience." Defying the odds is not impossible, but extremely difficult, even under the best circumstances.

COMMON MISTAKES LATERALS MAKE PRIOR TO CHANGING JOBS

There are some common recruiting-related mistakes that associates make that make it more difficult to change jobs as a lateral attorney. If you have some insight early in your career, you can avoid these pitfalls, making lateral changes later much easier.

Failure to Focus on a Specialty Early in Your Career

One of the most common mistakes associates make is their failure to focus on an area of practice or specialty early in their career. By the end of your third year in a firm, you should narrow your focus to one or two practice areas. Otherwise, you may limit your marketability to other law firms. Keep in mind that if a firm has to retrain you in an area from the ground up, it's often more economical to hire an entry-level associate and pay him $70,000 than to retrain you, a third-year who's already earning a much higher salary. Law firms also have their own way of doing things, and retraining is not always a welcome option. Retraining is often less attractive than hiring a "fresh" associate who hasn't been procedurally trained by another law firm. By the end of your third year in a law firm, you should be happy with your area of practice, or you should be willing to start closer to the bottom of the ladder in terms of salary and time credit in order to reinvent the wheel in another firm. In the current economic climate, clients have limited tolerance and pocketbooks for footing the bill for training associates. This is also why associates who have spent two years in a rotation program in a large firm, without specializing, sometimes have a tough time in the lateral job market unless their credentials are amazing.

If your specialty is administrative or regulatory in nature, you should have the beginnings of a sub-specialty by the end of your third year. As an example, you might decide to specialize in regulatory matters in areas such as trade, tax, communications, or finance. Specific legal or nonlegal experience at agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, or the Commodities Future Trading Commission is often useful to many law firms.

THE IDEAL TIME TO MAKE A MOVE

The ideal time for an associate to make a move is around the third year. This isn't set in stone, but this is the time frame commonly reported by experienced legal recruiting personnel. By this point, you aren't senior enough to create track-to-partnership problems, but you are senior enough to possess a solid foundation from which to work in another firm. By this time, you have skills that are useful to other law firms.

Don't Move Too Soon

While year three is an ideal time to change jobs, be careful not to make a lateral move too soon in your career. Firms may query when you move early on in your career. If you've only been with a firm for a year and want to move other than for reasons created by a second party (spouse relocation, for example) or for personal matters not related to your professional development, recruiting professionals may automatically question your judgment and performance in your current firm, regardless of your credentials. Firms want to know why you are moving after only months on the job. In these situations, recruiting coordinators often assume the negative until further investigation. The following sorts of questions may immediately surface, and the interviewing firm will want answers:
  • Did you fail to do enough due diligence on your current firm before you accepted the job offer? (This may demonstrate a lack of attention to detail or the fault of looking before leaping.)
  • Are you a "whiner" who will never be happy in any firm?
  • Are you the type of associate who gets "bored" and has to change firms every year or so?
  • Is your work unsatisfactory so that you are being asked to leave?
  • Do you have a major personality flaw and cannot get along with anyone?
These types of questions routinely come to the surface in recruiting professionals' minds in any type of service-based business, so do not be offended by their negative tone. As a potential lateral candidate, you need to understand what you are up against and the types of questions to which you will be subjected during the recruiting process. The more experience you have, the more difficult the recruiting process tends to be, the tougher the questions get, and the longer the process takes, so you've got to be prepared.

Don't Wait Too Long, Either

But don't wait too long to make your move, either. As you invest more time in a firm and move closer to partnership consideration, you're put under the microscope more often. Firms need time, often several years, to give their associates a good look before they decide if they're partnership material or not. And the economics of making a move in your later associate years often make moving around from firm to firm very difficult.

SELECT THE RIGHT FIRMS BEFORE YOU BEGIN YOUR SEARCH

You probably thought that once you graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and studied for an LL.M. degree at night, you would never have to contemplate doing legal homework ever again. Wrong on all accounts. As we discussed in Chapter 4, doing your homework is an integral part of a successful job search at any level. There are no shortcuts no matter who you are and what credentials and experience you may have. I've seen too many associates jump from one ship to another, creating more problems for themselves in their second law firm than in their first one, making the exact same mistakes, only because they failed to take the time to evaluate their current and future situations and find the firm that filled their needs.

How to Select Firms

How do you go about targeting and selecting the right law firm as a lateral candidate? It's not always an easy assignment, but the time spent is clearly worthwhile.

Determine what attributes you find attractive in your current firm and what aspects of your current job you find unattractive or unsettling. Even if you are happy where you are and your personal circumstances are forcing you to relocate, this exercise won't be in vain. Again, the adage "Know thyself is critical to your finding the position that will satisfy your needs and challenge you professionally. This exercise helps you to understand which attributes you deem important in any law firm.
Make two lists, indicating the positive and negative attributes of your current law firm. Often, if you don't take the time to jot down the issues and actually see them written down on paper, it is difficult to visualize them clearly. After composing your lists, put them down for a few days, picking them up again after the dust has settled, ensuring that your ideas and feelings do not change over time. Therefore, it may take you a few weeks to finalize this exercise. You should reach a point where your lists don't change from one review to the next. Your list might look like the following:

Positive Attributes—Bell, Book & Candle
  • Genuinely like most of the associates and partners
  • Stability in staff
  • Beautiful, modern offices in a convenient location
  • Stable firm, well capitalized
  • Solid firm management with strong financial executive
  • Strong computer system, ahead of technology curve for a law firm
  • Diverse attorney staff
  • Community-oriented mentality
  • Commitment to pro bono work
Negative Attributes—Bell, Book & Candle
  • Too much internal competition in certain practice areas
  • Partnership track too long
  • Two tiers for partners
  • Not marketing-oriented—need to spend more time and money on marketing
  • Too much revenue generated by two or three large clients
  • Staff gets away with too much—poor management in the human resources area
  • Salary and benefits a little behind the market
When you begin interviewing with other firms, make a list of the attributes that you absolutely need your next employer to have and those that you absolutely will not tolerate. As you interview with these firms, determine which ones possess the attributes on your positive list. Eliminate those firms that do not stack up to your established criteria.

How It Really Works

To demonstrate how helpful this exercise can be, look what one associate discovered once he wrote down what was important to him. He was considering relocating from New York to Atlanta, after hearing so many great things about the great quality of life and friendly people in Atlanta. A friend convinced him to put down on paper the positive and negative aspects of his impending relocation. Once he completed this exercise, over a period of weeks, continually reviewing the positive and negative aspects of his choices on a printed page, he realized that he was much better off remaining in New York, that Atlanta did not offer him the attributes he discovered were important to him in a new firm. He decided to change firms, not location, remaining in New York, and is now much happier in his legal career.

While the purpose of this section is not to determine what color your parachute might be, performing this kind of internal due diligence is an integral part of any successful job search in any field of work. As you move up the ladder of experience in your legal career, this exercise becomes easier, but your universe of options gets smaller.




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