The American Lawyer additionally reports that over 2,000 partners at large law firms are switching firms every year.
While this number pertains only to partners at major national firms, it’s clear that partners and associates alike are on the move.
But the larger question regarding lateral moves is when is the best time for a lawyer to make a lateral move in their career.
It’s not an easy question to answer, particularly for young lawyers.
So to that point, what are the most important issues young attorneys need to ask themselves before they consider making a lateral move? This article will narrow down the top 6 questions young attorneys need to ask as they contemplate making a lateral move.
Are you dissatisfied with your current position?
According to The American Lawyer, young lawyers are more often than not motivated to make a lateral move due to personal or professional dissatisfaction in their current role, or some combination of both.
In some cases, a lateral move will likely solve that dissatisfaction. This is because lawyers who, for example, want to switch from corporate work to litigation (or vice versa) will find that such an opportunity is only available through a lateral move, which can then make a move to another law firm the right step.
What is less clear, however, is whether a lateral move will resolve the personal or professional dissatisfaction a young lawyer is experiencing in their current role, which in all honesty, no one can predict.
Maybe a lateral move might be the elixir for personal or professional dissatisfaction in law. Then again, maybe quitting law altogether might be the solution.
One way or the other, in this case, it’s not the lateral move that needs to be mulled over, but the reasons in one’s own heart why a move seems necessary.
In short, be aware that the grass may not always be greener on the other side.
Why are you dissatisfied with your current position?
Moving on from the first question, with this second question you will need to be more specific with your reasons for considering a lateral move from where you are now to where you feel you belong.
Of course before making a lateral move it is essential for a young lawyer to take stock of not just the dissatisfaction they are experiencing, but the root causes of professional discontent or restlessness.
If you are investigating a lateral move to achieve greater work-life balance, ask yourself what exactly does a greater work-life balance mean to you?
If your work-life expectations are not compatible with billing 2,000-plus hours per year making a switch from one law firm to another might not be the right answer, regardless if the move gives you a reprieve from your current workload.
Likewise, if you are thinking of a lateral move to get more substantive experience or client-facing work, thoughtfully consider what comes along with those responsibilities.
For instance, are you ready to entertain client requests in the evenings and on weekends along with the stress associated with being the lead lawyer on a matter?
As The American Lawyer article explains, the above questions are not meant to discourage lateral moves. They are instead intended to only point out that the first step to a successful lateral move is taking the time to think introspectively and consider what is causing your current dissatisfaction.
You also have to consider whether a lateral move will eliminate your dissatisfaction not just in the short term but over the long term as well.
Don’t lull yourself into thinking a lateral move for the sake of a lateral move will instantly rekindle your enthusiasm to practice law.
In fact, your workload may increase with your lateral move which will not only quickly lead to your disappointment, but effectively land you back on square one.
Is pay (and attorney’s fees) the problem?
While there are many reasons a lawyer may want to leave their current firm, one common problem is that associates can get squeezed between their firm’s rate structure and their clients’ hesitance to pay higher fees.
The American Lawyer article explains that this can occur when a young associate at a larger firm might not feel challenged enough in their current environment, or when a partner whose ideas aren’t being received at their present firm may feel a need to seek out a firm where their opinion is more highly valued.
Attorneys will often look to make a lateral move due to significant structural changes particularly if they feel they were once on the fast track to partner, but now they believe that opportunity is no longer available to them.
As we all know, a lateral move is not a catch-all solution to every issue, but it can be a step in the right direction for many young attorneys, particularly if a pay structure is considered.
The associate whose firm’s high fees are dampening his relationship with his clients may be a desirable candidate for a firm with less aggressive billing practices. That attorney also may fit in better with a smaller firm that has the ability to charge lower rates.
The young attorney who is not challenged at her large firm might opt for a pay cut at a smaller firm and be rewarded with more hands-on time with her clients.
Meanwhile, books of business can always be a bargaining chip for an attorney that is thinking of a lateral move.
Attorneys with even modest books of business who feels stuck at their current firm might find they are a lucrative option for a firm across town.
Is not getting enough work the reason you want to make a lateral move?
Not getting enough work can be a death sentence for an attorney’s career.
Not that lacking work proves an attorney’s incompetence, temper or overall lack of character and legal knowledge, there still is the perception that an attorney who doesn’t have enough work is a subpar attorney.
Needless to say, this is a red flag for employers when they come across an associate who is moving firms because they’re not getting enough work. This is particularly concerning if that associate works in a busy practice group.
Employers may view this…
As a sign that your work is not of good quality.
You’re not proactive enough.
Or that your firm’s partners do not like you.
Sure, it’s a fine decision if an attorney’s family is involved. They may want to switch firms to be closer to their loved ones. But for an attorney to say they want to move firms for better weather or a change of scenery is a big no-no.
As The American Lawyer article states, these reasons can raise suspicions that one might not be a stable lawyer, let alone a stable employee.
Have you made too many lateral moves?
In any profession the process of changing multiple jobs in a short period of time can raise concern to an employer. Much of the same is true in the legal industry.
With that highlighted, young attorneys should be wary of making several lateral moves in a short period of time.
The young attorneys who do bounce from one firm to the next in a short time period could if anything be mixing their law firm discomfort with career stagnation as firm after firm passes over them because of their spotty track record. It’s definitely something to think about before leaving your current firm.
The time of year may also affect the success of one’s lateral move.
Researchers have observed a 15-point drop between the five-year retention rates of lateral moves made in the first half of the year and moves made in the fourth quarter.
Partners within the new firm that an associate might be considering may also have a strong influence on the success of the associate’s lateral move through the profits those partners take in.
The American Lawyer article mentions a study that shows the lowest retention rates of lateral movers happen when the partner (or associate) moves to a firm that is 20 or more places lower in profit rankings than their previous firm.
To that end, higher long-term retention rates occur when a partner climbs to a new firm that is 40 or more spots higher.
Are you unable to practice within your expert practice area?
Each law firm has its own structure, and sometimes that structure does not allow for an attorney, particularly an associate to devote their time to the area of law that is their passion or in which they would like to develop an expertise.
Needless to say, this could occur because their firm is invested in certain types of cases and clients.
At this point, it may make sense for the associate to speak with a recruiter to understand which firms in their market may have recently invested in a lateral partner specializing in the area of the law of interest to the associate.
Or the recruiter may know whether another law firm partner has a large book of business in a particular specialty.
Regardless, the associate should consider a lateral move before they become labeled as an attorney with another expertise.
This is because it is difficult to carve out a new specialty and sell that specialty to clients and other law firms when an attorney’s first few years of practice have not been devoted to it.
The fact is this: If you have to go, then you have to go. It’s as simple as that with lateral moves.
And while attorneys should approach a lateral move with the above 6 questions in mind, despite the concerns these questions may foster, a lateral move can still be a good idea, especially at the mid-to-senior associate levels.
As was relayed, there are numerous reasons why a lateral move may be prudent for an associate.
A lateral move can mean more hands-on time with clients, better compensation and a more direct path to becoming a partner. Or it can mean to recruiters, law firm managers and hiring partners that a particular associate is unstable.
This is why it’s important for attorneys to carefully consider their reasons for leaving one firm for another. At this juncture, a young attorney should speak with a recruiter or career coach with experience in the legal field.
Doing so can help the young attorney break down the root of his or her dissatisfaction, as well as discuss potential openings in the market and those openings’ practice areas.
Young attorneys should also seek the advice of trusted, experienced mentors in the field to discuss potential career moves.
At the same time, partners looking to make lateral moves should consider the timing of their move, and the profit ranking of the firm they seek to join.
No matter what level you are as an attorney, you need a plan and good explanation for that plan. Once those are in place, you may find that a lateral move could be the right option for you to advance your career.
Just give it careful consideration before waving bye-bye from one law firm to hello as you near your next law firm.