The Right and Wrong Reasons for Switching Jobs as an Attorney

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Lateral movement in the legal profession has become the norm. However, prior to 1990, lateral movement was rare among associates and absolutely unheard of among partners; back then, you joined a firm and stayed there until you made partner and retired. If a lateral associate was hired into a firm, it was done very quietly and with only partners involved in the decision. Times have changed - a lot!
Should you switch firms or stay where you're at?

The good news is that attorneys now have more options and more choices in the legal profession - similar to professionals in other industries. There is no longer a stigma attached to someone who has moved around in his or her legal career. In fact, associates who have never changed firms are clearly the exception nowadays.



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The bad news is for the firms themselves: All of this movement costs a lot of money. Large firms lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each time an associate walks out the door. This cost is recouped in higher billable-hour expectations and higher billing rates. With new associates often starting at $160,000+ right out of law school, the pressure is on them to perform faster and sooner. Is it any wonder that one of the most common reasons that associates leave a firm is lack of training and mentoring?

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The error some people in large firms make is that they leave in the first three years - mistaking their natural discomfort for something wrong with the firm or their relationship to it. So, they trade what comfort they do have (people, familiarity, etc.) for an entirely new place where they have to start all over. Sometimes, they leave the profession altogether, which may or may not be the right choice. In either case, if they've made the move within the first three years, it's probably too soon to know for sure.

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Of course, there are exceptions to the "three-year rule" in large firms. Sometimes you will find that you are not getting the level of experience that your peers are getting, or, people with whom you've worked and whom you consider mentors have left the firm themselves. It is important, therefore, to make a thorough assessment of your current situation before you decide to make a move.

What is it about your current situation that you would like to change?

Is it the practice area? Is it the people with whom you work? Is it the level of responsibility with which you are charged? Is it the culture of the firm? Is it the geographic location?
 All of these are viable reasons for considering a move.
 
  • Is it that you are not being mentored or trained properly?
  • Is it that you are frustrated because you feel like you don't know anything?
  • Are you unhappy with your level of secretarial support, or the firm's technology?

If you've answered yes to these questions, then it's time to think about what you can change and what you need to accept as inherent in the profession.

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For instance, associates in virtually every firm complain that they are not mentored or trained enough - that they do not receive ample feedback. Most firms have come a long way in developing training programs and associate evaluation methods. At most "big league" firms, however, the economic reality still exists: The more you get paid, the higher the expectation for your early performance. An important question to ask yourself is whether you really think it is going to be any different at another firm.

Once you've completed your assessment and you've decided that you want to make a move, you should give careful thought as to how to accomplish this. We're talking about your career, and you should take the time to manage it carefully. No one else is going to look out for you like you will. A little time invested at the front end of your search can go a long way.

Many people prefer to use headhunters because they provide a confidential buffer between the associate and the potential new employer. A good headhunter who really partners with you and with the firm can add a lot to your search and make your choices much easier.

If you decide to use a headhunter, ask around to find a good one. Headhunters make a living from lateral movement. Keep in mind that the firms pay the headhunter a fee. The headhunter should listen to what you want and what you're looking for. He should only send your resume to firms you have approved. He should be able to tell you a lot about the firms to which he is sending you, and be available to counsel you all the way through the process. If the headhunter doesn't do any of these things, drop him. These types of headhunters are useless and can negatively affect your desired outcome.

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A good resource can be your alma mater. Check with your law school career services office and make an appointment with a counselor to discuss your career. Discuss why you are considering a move and receive some objective advice so you are pointed in the right direction. Most law school career services offices provide job postings for alumni as well. While there, ask if they have any assessment tools to better define what you need in a new position in order to be fulfilled. The office might even conduct some mock interviews to help you sharpen your skills.

But you should talk to people besides headhunters and career counselors. Talk to friends and relatives about other firms. Find out what clients and business acquaintances think of these firms. But, be wary of the rumor mill because it tends to include more fiction than fact. Competition for new talent is stiff and has been for several years. Some firms latch on to negative news about the competition and repeat it over and over, often exaggerating the facts. Beware of lawyers who speak negatively about other firms, especially if they cannot also convince you of how their firms are different.

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You can also find inside information in public venues. Read the trade newspapers and search the Internet for articles written about the firm you are considering. Conduct a search of the practice area that interests you and find out who the real players are. A lot of firms will tell you they have substantial corporate practices, for instance, but have different definitions of corporate work than yours.

Use sources within a firm you are investigating. An excellent source of information is a lateral with whom you have previously worked. Chances are high that the lateral has interviewed with many other firms as well. In a nutshell, a lateral can tell you whether all the hype is true or not.

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Of course, the best barometer for measuring a firm is your own experience. Are there firms with whom you interviewed in law school and felt positively toward but for whatever reason decided not to join? Are there firms with which you've worked as co-counsel or even opposing counsel? You can tell a lot about the culture of a firm by observing how the attorneys interact with each other. Are the junior attorneys afraid to ask questions of the more senior attorneys? Or, do they joke around with each other and seem to enjoy each other's company?

The bottom line is: Don't be lazy about your decision to make a move. This is your career and you should manage it with care and attention. Know why you want to move, know what you're looking for in a new place, and then proceed with due diligence. You would be surprised at how many laterals I interview who cannot articulate meaningful criteria by which they are evaluating potential firms, or even explain with any conviction why they are looking for a new position.

The factors that lead to job satisfaction are simple: doing what you like, what you're good at, with people you enjoy, and in an environment in which you can thrive.

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Summary: There is no longer a stigma attached to someone who has moved around in his or her legal career. What are the right reasons for switching jobs as an attorney?






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