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Factors Law Firms Look at When Hiring Lateral Attorneys

published July 30, 2021

By Author - LawCrossing
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( 105 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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Lateral hiring, especially in large law firms, is very different from hiring for a summer associate position for law students. It is extremely competitive with hundreds of applicants for every position there is, and there are many factors in attorneys' past that influence the hiring decision.

Only factors like the law school's rank or academic results weigh a summer associate position. However, law firms have to consider things, such as practice area, law firm experience, past success, or people who are vouching for the candidate when hiring a lateral attorney. That is why lateral hiring is not often as quick as lawyers want or expect it to be.

This article will give you a guide of the most important factors large law firms look at when considering lateral attorneys to help you understand how employable you are in these prestigious law firms. It is not an exhaustive list as there are countless things law firms can look at, and each firm considers different aspects of a lawyer's experience important. However, it will give you a good idea of how big law firms think about their lateral candidates.

The Law Firm Lateral Applicant Bucket

When law firms consider lateral attorneys in the recruitment process, they usually put the candidates they are seriously considering into a "bucket." These candidates then move up or down the bucket depending on their past negative and positive factors. Negative factors "weight them down" toward the bottom of the bucket, while positive factors push them to the top.

Understandably, law firms want to hire those from the top with the least weight in their past. However, that does not mean that someone who has some negative factors on their resumes will not be hired laterally. It might just take a bit longer or requiring them to move to a smaller market.

Factors a Prestigious Law Firm Will Look at When Hiring Laterally

There are eight main categories of factors law firms consider for lateral hires, which serve as umbrellas for more specific aspects of your professional past that can either help or harm you. These eight categories are:
  1. Attorney's position in the legal industry
  2. Attorney's current employment
  3. Attorney's success
  4. Attorney's focus
  5. Attorney's advocates
  6. Strategic search for positions
  7. Attorney's attitude
  8. Attorney's professional look

Factors Related to Attorney's Position

Law Firm Experience of 1 to 5 Years Helps Rise to the Top of the Bucket

Law firms usually look for someone with 1 to 5 years of experience; such attorneys are young and full of energy and drive. Moreover, they have lower billing rates favorable for the clients, and the law firm can pay them junior salaries.

Most lateral candidates have more than 5 years of experience, and they come into the law firm with certain expectations. They want to be compensated on a senior level, and they may not want to do the small but crucial tasks. They also set high billing rates comparable to those of partners, not something law firms want.

This does not mean that an attorney with more than 5 years of experience will not find a lateral position, it will just be more difficult, and there are fewer openings for candidates like that.

Being in an In-Demand Practice Area Helps Rise to the Top of the Bucket

If you are in a busy practice area, it is much easier to succeed in lateral hiring than in a slow area. This is because there are much more positions, and firms are eager to hire quickly, as they need to meet the demand.

Almost all practice areas go through cycles of being very active and then slowing down. Some areas, such as litigation or corporate law, are active when the economy is on the up and slow down when the economy slows down. Real estate law gets active when the interest rates decrease and slows down as they grow. When big industries face problems, bankruptcy law, understandably, starts booming.

When an area suddenly starts to grow, even lateral ones tend to lower the hiring standards for all positions. However, when a practice area is slow and there are hundreds of applicants for every position, law firms can really dig deep and choose the best of the best.

Looking for Lateral Positions in a Good Economy Gets You on the Top of the Bucket

Similar to how the economy impacts activity in certain practice areas, it also has an important role for individual attorneys and their chances of getting hired. When the economy is in a good state, many more positions put attorneys on top of the bucket.

On the other hand, when the economy is slow, the positions are scarce, and many attorneys are being let go. So, when there is an odd opening, the competition is difficult, and only the best will survive.

Having Passed the Bar Exam in the Jurisdiction, You Are Applying to Will Push You to the Top of the Bucket

Passing the bar examination is harder in some jurisdictions than in others. California and New York, for instance, have meager passing rates, so if a candidate is already admitted to the bar, it will help a lot.

Having been admitted to the bar also shows employers that you are committed to the area and jurisdiction and plan to stay. That can also be an important aspect of a hiring decision.

Factors Related to Attorney's Current Employment

Coming from a Law Firm Setting Will Push You to the Top of the Bucket

Law firms, especially the large ones, are a particular practice setting. It is very demanding and high-pressure, but you also deal with people and businesses from the public and bill them for their services. That is not common in many other legal settings, such as in-house counsel or government. So, already coming from a law firm setting can help a lot in applying for lateral positions.

Apart from a federal clerkship at the beginning of an attorney's career, any other practice setting on a resume will weigh you down in the applicant bucket. This is because the training in these other settings varies too much depending on the employer, market, nature of the work, and that is too big of a risk for a law firm to take.

Working in a Full-Time Position Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

Currently, having a full-time position makes candidates much more marketable to big law firms than contract lawyers. When employers see a contract lawyer as a candidate, they often think that there is a reason they could not find a full-time position in a law firm previously for. They may also think that such an attorney demands a flexible schedule or is unprepared to function in a full-time law firm setting. These preconceptions will definitely weigh down any candidate.

Coming From Another Large Law Firm Will Get You to the Top of the Bucket

If you are trying to get a position in a large law firm, you will be much better off coming from another large law firm than coming from a small law firm. This is because large law firms almost always want to hire people coming from other large law firms. In addition, these law firms have similar quality of training and work expectations, so when they hire a lateral attorney from this setting, they do not have to be worried about retraining them. In addition, such lateral attorneys have already worked with big clients, know how to deal with them, know the amount of care they have to put into the work, and are accustomed to having multiple people in the team going over and criticizing their work.

Being Currently Employed Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

The current employment status is also important for a candidate's employability. Being unemployed tells the employer that you were either fired or not committed to the practice of law enough to stay in your previous firm until you found a new job.

You are also in a much better position when looking for a lateral position as someone who does not need a job than as someone desperate to get employed somewhere. So, being employed is very important for being employable as a lateral attorney in the best law firms.

Factors Related to Attorney's Success

Having Been a Summer Associate in a Large Law Firm Will Help You Get to the Top

When a law firm sees that you have been a summer associate in one of the top law firms in the country, it shows them that you have been dedicated and driven since law school and that you did well in school. That can quickly put you to the top of the bucket and help you get employed.

This is very important, especially for the most prestigious law firms, as they rarely employ someone who had not worked as a summer associate when they were a law student. While there can be many different reasons why law students do not become summer associates in prestigious firms, prospective employers usually view it as them not being marketable for these big law firms, and it automatically pushes these lateral candidates down the bucket.

It is still possible to find good positions and get employed in the top firms, it is just going to be more difficult, and you might get a few personal questions and raised eyebrows during the interview process.

Having a Lot of Business Will Help You With Employability in Big Law Firms

Law firms are businesses, so they need to generate money. When a lateral candidate can bring a substantial amount of business, they will always be considered, and it will help them to the top of the bucket. Bringing in business means more revenue for the firm and more work, and an opportunity to grow and progress.

The amount of business needed to help you in your employability in big firms depends on the legal market where the firm is located. In big markets, such as New York City or the Bay Area, you will need several million dollars. In smaller markets, such as Detroit, half a million might be sufficient.

Having Attended a Top Law School Will Help With Employability in Big Law Firms

The quality of the law school you have attended is also important when looking for a position in a large law firm.

In most firms, the rank of the school you attended will matter most in the first years of your employment after graduation. Then, with more years in law firms on your resume, your reputation and professional record from these law firms will start to matter more. However, a few top law firms where attending the best law schools will help you even ten years after graduating. These firms have the reputation of employing only the best of the best in front of their clients, so most attorneys at that firm have attended the best schools.

Having Done Well in Law School Will Help With Employability in Big Law Firms

Having done well in law school is important for every good law firm. Law firms want to hire smart and determined attorneys, so when someone at the top of their class applies for their lateral position, they will consider them.

Law school grades are often even more important than the rank of the law school. Some law firms have grade cut-offs, and when an attorney did not have good enough grades, they will just automatically get turned down. Good grades from law schools will definitely help you get to the top of the bucket.

Factors Related to Attorney's Focus

Seeking a Full-Time Position Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket
It is much easier to get a position in a large law firm if you seek a full-time position instead of a part-time or flexible position. Many people I work with want reduced hours; they want to work three or four days a week or work remotely.

It is common for new mothers to get reduced hours if they have worked in the firm for some time already. But when coming into a firm laterally, firms usually look for full-time positions rather than someone who will not be in the office every day.

When a candidate mentions that they want to work reduced hours during the interview process, they usually have skills or abilities to counterweigh this fact. A good way to avoid being pushed to the bottom of the bucket because of something like this is to omit to want a flexible schedule during interviewing and start as a full-time attorney. Then, after proving yourself, you can ask the employer to work from home one day a week or leave earlier some days. Many firms will not object to such a proposition if they feel that you are a valuable employee.

Niche Practice Areas Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

Being in a niche practice area is very valuable for firms if they need skills from that area. It can even balance out some negative you might have on your resume. The more specialized an opening is, the fewer applications there are. When a position for a litigator opens, there are hundreds of applications to choose from. When a position in a practice area where you need particular skills opens, it might be difficult to find enough candidates, so those that apply do not need to objectively have the best qualifications or fit into the classic law firm mold.

Having Narrowly Specialized Skills Helps With Employability in Big Law Firms

Large firms are built on specialists, so having a narrow specialization can really put you on the top of the candidate list. These firms have very high rates, and clients pay them because they know that the people working on their cases are the absolute best experts there are. To be a great expert at something, you need to specialize in that one thing and dive deep into the issue. That is why having narrowly specialized skills will help you with your legal career in a big firm.

Factors Related To Having Advocates

Having a Proactive Recruiter Will Help You Be More Marketable to Law Firms

Most candidates only apply to positions that are open and published somewhere. The problem with such positions is that every other attorney knows about it and has applied. However, a good proactive legal recruiter can put you before all of these other attorneys by getting you an interview in a firm without an opening. They know about your background, qualifications, and strengths, and they also know a lot about the market and what firms need. If they think that a firm might need someone with your skills, they will contact them and get you an interview without an open position. And when that happens, there are no other candidates to compete against, so your chances are much higher than in a normal recruitment process.

If not the greatest, many lawyers we help place with BCG Attorney Search get interviews without an open position, so finding a good proactive legal recruiter can be a big advantage.

Ties With a Valued Partner Will Help You Get on Top of the Bucket

One thing that can help you get to the top of the bucket is having a preexisting relationship with a partner with the business in the firm. I do not recommend utilizing relationships with friends in other positions, as you never know how they are viewed in the firm or what they seek to gain from vouching for you. However, equity partners with many businesses are very valued, and firms often do what they say as they do not want to lose them. So, if you know a partner who is generating business for the firm, talk to them, and it will help you.

Choosing a Good Legal Recruiter Will Help You With Employability in Large Law Firms

The quality of the recruiter you choose is another thing that can either get you to the top of the bucket or push you toward the bottom. Good recruiters have a great overview of law firms, legal markets, and their clients. They can point you to the firms where you will fit in the best, and they will also prepare you for each interview in a way that will give you the best chance to succeed. Just like choosing the best professionals in other aspects of your life, you should put your career only in the hands of the best legal professionals.

Having Family and Personal Ties in a Region Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

If the firm is in a region where you have personal ties or family, it can definitely help you with employability in that firm than not knowing anyone there. In such a situation, the law firm will believe that you will stick around and be with them for the long run. On the other hand, if you do not know anyone in the area, what is stopping you from packing your things and leaving to go someplace else?

Factors Related To Searching Strategically


Searching Positions in a Small City Will Help You With Lateral Employability

You are much more likely to rise to the top of the bucket if you are looking for a position in a small city as opposed to a large city.

In large cities, such as New York or Washington, D.C., there are countless candidates for each position, so to succeed, you have to be the best candidate out of the pool. If you do not come from the top law schools, top law firms with the best qualifications, in-demand practice areas, and are not at the beginning of your career, and it won't be easy to find a position in a major firm in New York.

On the other hand, if you are looking for positions in smaller cities, there are fewer applicants, so you automatically get to the top easier. Moreover, as a strong candidate, you are almost sure to find a good lateral position.

Of course, it also has some drawbacks, such as not as many openings. This can be a problem if you are in niche practice areas or during recessions. Markets in large cities are much more competitive and demanding on qualifications and candidate's records. However, there are also more opportunities. Attorneys have to decide for themselves and their individual situations in which market they can be more successful.

Searching Positions in Smaller Firms Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

You will always be much better off trying to get a position with a smaller, lower-paying law firm than with a brand-name law firm.

The truth is, most attorneys look for positions only in the major firms. Some are not even considering many law firms just because they are not brand names. So, when you apply to one of the smaller firms in the legal industry, it will be much easier to get the position as they get fewer applications.

Being One of the First Applicants Will Put You on the Top of the Applicant Bucket

In most law firms, one of the first applicants always gets the position. That is why we always do everything we can to ensure that our clients in BCG Attorney Search are among the first applicants for every job they apply to.

When firms open a position, they are usually very eager to fill it. However, when they find a qualified attorney in the first few candidates that apply, they do not have a reason to interview further candidates. Also, hiring attorneys in law firms usually feel loyal to candidates they have interviewed and liked first.

Looking at Several Markets Will Help You Get Employed as a Lateral Attorney

You are increasing your chances of getting hired with every market where you are searching for positions. In BCG Attorney Search, we always encourage our clients to search in more markets. For example, if you search in ten markets, your chances are ten times higher than when searching only in one market.

This is especially important in niche practice areas with not many openings and opportunities in various markets. Therefore, expanding your search is the smartest thing you can do to get to the top of the applicant bucket.

Factors Related To Attorney's Attitude


Not Feeling Entitled Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

Going into the hiring process with a sense of entitlement and numerous requirements of how you want your work might be a big problem when looking for positions in the lateral market. So, not feeling entitled will help you get to the top of the bucket.

Of course, you can have certain requirements and an idea of how you want your work and responsibilities to look. However, the more requirements you have and the less flexible you are with them, the bigger problem it might pose to the firms.

Going into the search without feeling entitled and meeting the firm's requirements will always help you be on the top of the applicant pool.

Talking Positively About Previous Employers Will Help You With Employability in Big Firms

Talking positively about your previous employers (even if you had a bad experience with them) is essential for increasing your chances of getting hired in big firms. And if you cannot say anything positive about them, it is better not to say anything because talking negatively is a huge negative weight. Whenever you say anything bad about your previous or current firm, the new firm will assume that you will one day talk negatively about them too. And they do not want to hire someone like that.

Not Being (Too) Outspoken About Social Issues Will Help You With Employability in Big Firms

While it is important to care about diversity and social issues, being too outspoken about the things you care about might be a problem for big firms. Law firms are still conservative institutions in their core and have attorneys and clients from all different backgrounds, so they may fear that having someone very outspoken on some issues might attract negative attention or might prevent a client with an opposing view from choosing their firm. Therefore, it is always better to keep social issues you care about and strong opinions out of your resume and out of interviews.

Not Switching Law Firms Often Will Help You Get to the Top of the Bucket

When lawyers switch firms too often, it tells the potential employers that you might not want to stay in the firm long term. When any law firm recruits new attorneys, they are looking for people who will stay with the firm for a long time. Recruitment, training, and onboarding of new employees are very resource and money-demanding activities, so law firms do not often want to engage in them. If they see that a candidate is not someone stable in their positions, it can hurt them.

On the other hand, if your resume shows that you have been only in one firm previously and have good relationships with the people there, the firm will assume that you can stay working for an employer for decades, and that is something they are looking for.

Factors Related To Looking Professional

Being Attractive and Behaving Professionally Will Help You With Employability in Big Firms

Although it is not something, many people like to talk about, being attractive can really help you in the legal community. And while genetic attractiveness is not something you can influence, being well-dressed, groomed, well-spoken, confident, and positive helps as well. For example, practicing lawyers represent the firm in front of clients and represent the clients in court. On similar occasions, they have to come across as professional and stand behind as someone the firm can stand behind.

Being Diverse Will Help With Employability in Certain Firms

Diversity is becoming a more important topic every year, and while it can be a detriment in some firms, it can definitely help you get to the top of the bucket in other law firms. Many firms are trying to keep up with the current wave by incorporating diversity programs and hiring more diversity representatives. When you find a firm like that, being diverse will definitely help you in the hiring process.

Being Determined About a Law Firm Career Will Help You Rise to the Top of the Bucket

Being (and appearing) determined and enthusiastic about a career in a law firm is crucial for getting a position in a large law firm. So why would anyone want to hire someone who does not appear to really want the job?

Talking enthusiastically about your practice area, getting involved in activities related to your area (such as writing articles, doing talks), bringing in clients, or having goals and a plan on how to advance in the career will tell your potential employer that you are committed and determined to succeed.


All these factors can either increase or decrease your chances of getting hired in the major law firms around the U.S. These top employers are great places to work in and compensate their attorneys very well. Still, they are also very competitive and demanding. These 30 aspects can tell you whether you are a good candidate for such firms and give you tips on what to do to increase your chances in a large law firm setting.

published July 30, 2021

By Author - LawCrossing
( 105 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.