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Legal Lateral Hiring

published December 23, 2021

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Law firms, especially the big and smart ones, rarely recruit someone from a different practice setting than a law firm. Law firms are particular environments, so they almost always choose a candidate with successfully proven experiences in that setting over someone who has either never worked in a law firm or has worked there and chose to leave and work somewhere else. That is why it is challenging to get back into the big law firm world if you have been there and left. Not impossible, but difficult. All of these points are covered below in the article, so if you fit into one of the categories and want to take your chances in getting (back) into the law firm world, read on.

Lawyers Who Have Worked Inside of Law Firms but Switched to a Different Practice Setting

Did You Leave the Law Firm World Because You Could Not Do the Job?

When a hiring manager or interviewers see a candidate who has worked in a law firm but then switched to a different practice setting, the first thing they will assume is that you could not handle the job, and that is why you left. Even though you may not have left because of your performance issues, it will be what firms will think. You may have wanted less oversight, less stress, more freedom, or you just were not happy in a law firm, so you left. None of it is what law firms want when they hire someone new.

Law Firm Setting Means as Many Billable Hours as Possible

One of the main reasons lawyers decide to leave law further hours is their hours to work. Being an attorney in a big law firm is everything but a 9-5 kind of job. You have to work late, you have to work weekends, you have to bill thousands of hours every year, and you have to write all of the hours down to be able to bill them. Some people are just not willing to do that. Law firms want to be sure that you are willing and able to tirelessly work more hours than is common in other professions and settings without complaining. If you are not coming to a law firm interview from another law firm, they do not have this certainty.

Attorneys in Law Firms Do Very Specific Work That Those in Other Settings Do Not Do

The thing about being a lawyer in a company or other non-law-firm setting is that no one outside of the company you are working for knows what exactly your work responsibilities entail. You could be doing the same types of tasks as attorneys in law firms; however, you could also be responsible for something completely different that has nothing in common with a regular law firm job. It varies from one company to another, which makes it very difficult for law firms to assess and predict your skills and readiness to work in an actual firm.

That is very different from how it works in large and mid-sized law firms. All attorneys know how difficult it is to get into and stay in major law firms. Typically, they know what type of training and experience a firm can offer.

Now, law firms you are interviewing with might not necessarily think that if someone left the law firm setting to a different one, their skills are lacking, and they cannot manage the workload and tasks in their firm. However, when you are out of the law firm environment where there is much emphasis on the quality and specificity of the work for some time, it can deteriorate your skills. Or you might pick up some bad habits not wanted in major law firms. That is why they may be hesitant about hiring someone not coming from a law firm setting.

Attorneys From Other Settings Might Have Trouble Generating Their Own Business

This is completely different in law firms than it is in other legal practice settings. As you become more senior as an attorney in a firm, your responsibilities grow, and you have to start bringing in your own business. Suppose you cannot do the job as it is meant to be done. That is not known in other legal settings.

Many attorneys cannot get business because of their personality, lack of skills or experience, or other reasons; therefore, they choose to leave the law firm and go into other practice settings where generating business is not a requirement. Law firms often assume that attorneys not coming from law firms might have trouble in this aspect once they get more senior.

Willingness To Work With Different Types of Clients Is a Must in Law Firms

Some attorneys have a specific vision of what clients they want to represent. It might be government organizations, a big corporation, or something in the public interest. That is possible only in non-law-firm environments. You have to be prepared and willing to work with any client in law firms as you never know who will need your services. You have to represent all clients equally regardless of how you feel about them or how much you believe in their case.

Law Firms Mean Uncertainty and Attorneys Working There Have To be Okay With That

No one wants to be stuck at the same place and work level forever, and every attorney automatically thinks about the options of how to advance in their career when they start practicing law somewhere. However, in law firms, you have to be prepared for uncertainty regarding your advancement possibilities. Although billing as many hours as possible is definitely a way to increase your chances of advancing and making partners in an office, it does not automatically secure it. Many different factors go into the advancement decisions.

Some attorneys become partners because of the connections they have, because of the current political situation in the office, because of the wish of other partners or an important client, etc. There are many different reasons why someone is or is not made a partner, and not all of them are fair. That is just how the world of large law firms works, and if you want to be a part of it, you have to accept that.

For instance, I was not okay with this uncertainty and wanted to be in an industry where I could rely on a well-established promotions system. So, I decided to quit working in a law office and went into something different to be more certain about the future and my career path. Of course, now, with my knowledge, I know that generating enough business can get you around politics and help you secure advancement. Still, I did not know it before and was not willing to be uncertain about my future.

Many lawyers feel the same and leave law firms to go into a more certain career path. Legal firms know about this and are well aware that if someone left a law office to go into a different practice setting, this is often the reason.

Workplace Relationships With Peers Are Often Very Competitive and Cutthroat

All industries are very competitive at the top level, but this is especially true for legal firms. Lawyers compete for everything all the time - for better clients, more billed hours, higher billing rates, more recognition, etc. That often means that people will often not be your friends. And if they are, they might have their own agenda in mind. In legal firms, attorneys often undermine each other or play political games. That is not an environment everyone can handle and may lead many people to switch practice settings.

Not Everyone Is Capable of Navigating the Social Aspect of Law Firms

Networking and socializing with clients and colleagues is a big part of being a lawyer in an office. Many firms expect their employees to go out together or with their clients every week, and even though it cannot be made compulsory, it can have a big impact on how you are viewed in the office and how your prospects are looking for the future. However, not everyone is willing to sacrifice their free time for work gatherings. That is completely okay, but you have to be aware of the consequences of your stance.

Not Everyone Wants To Be Always on Call and Sacrifice Their Weekends and Holidays

You never know when a client turns up or when an important task, such as deposition filing, needs to be finished, so when you want to work in a law office, you must be on call 24/7. Many attorneys have not had free weekends for weeks or have not gone on holiday for years to make sure that they are available every time they are needed. Not everyone is willing and ready to do something like that, and law offices know about it. Many attorneys give this exact reason as an explanation for their switch to a different practice.

Traveling Is a Vital Part of Being a Lawyer in a Law Firm

Traveling is another aspect of work in a law firm that divides many attorneys. Many of them do not want to travel because they have families to take care of and social lives to live. However, it is an essential component of the job, and you have to be okay with it to really succeed.

You Have To Be Okay With Doing Work You Feel Is "Beneath" You

While working in a law firm, you have to expect any task to be thrown your way. Whatever the task is, you should never decline it or express that you do not want to do it. You are showing that you are not willing to do everything you can in your power to help the firm, and that is not something firms want from their employees. Refusing one task can be fatal for your career in that company.

You Might Have Left the Law Firm Environment Because You Cannot Be Managed.

When leg alfirms recruit new attorneys, they need to be sure to manage the people they are hiring. People who cannot be managed are complicated to work with and usually undermine the stability and cooperation of the whole team and the supervisors. Legal firms need to know that you will support the people you work with and work for and do what is needed to be done the way it needs to be done. Otherwise, they risk problems further down the line.

When being managed is the problem for attorneys, they often do not have another option to switch practice settings because legal firms all function very similarly. If they have issues in one firm, there is a high chance that they will have the same issues elsewhere. If anything you say during your interview indicates that you cannot be managed, it may be fatal for you. Also, if you are unhappy in such an environment, you automatically belong to the people who are hard to manage. Things you should be careful about throughout your interviews include:

Doubting the Decisions of Your Previous Employer

This means saying things, such as "I do not understand why face time was so important in that firm when the job itself did not require it." If it is important for the employer, it should be important for you.

Saying You Were Not satisfied With the Work You Got Assigned

Attorneys in a law firm have to do the work that the law firm has for them. If it means small tasks for many small clients, the attorneys cannot just decide that they do not want that work.

Slandering or Gossiping About Your Previous Boss

Even if the attorney and the boss do not see eye to eye and would not be friends in the "real world," it is a job. It is the attorney's responsibility to get over their differences and be an asset to the firm, not drag it down because of personal differences.

Saying You Left Because the Firm Did Not Make Partners For Years

Leaving a law firm to go into a different setting is not a solution for not being able to advance.

Complaining About Working Long Hours

It would be best to never complain about working too much in your previous firm as long hours are standard in most competitive law firm environments.

Complaining About Cutthroat Workplace Relationships

Legal firms are very competitive environments in general, so if this were your problem before, it would probably be a problem later on as well.

Complaining About Too Much Travel In Your Previous Firm

It is just part of the job in every firm; there is nothing you can do about it.

Indicating That You Could Not Get Along With Your Peers

To be manageable and easy to work with when working in a firm, you have to get along with the people around you. If you cannot do that, it is a problem.

Complaining About the Organization of the Firm

No company and no law firm is perfect. If you feel like the job is disorganized or badly organized and you cannot deal with it, you will probably have similar issues in your next job.

Complaining About Doing "Busywork"

You have to support the firm any way it is needed. That sometimes means doing work you think is beneath you. You cannot just work on the most important tasks all the time.

If a firm hears you saying anything mentioned above, they can get scared about not being able to manage you. And employees who cannot be managed only bring problems to firms. They usually do not do their job properly, bring negative energy to the office and bring everyone else down with them.

If You Left the Law Firm Setting Once, You Will Probably Do It Again

Law offices cannot predict how you will fit in and function if they hire you, so they base their decision on your previous record. If you have already left a law firm to start in a different practice setting, they have no reason to think that you will stay in their law firm long-term this time. And they are always looking for attorneys who will stay with the firm for the long haul.

Firms are businesses, and to be able to function properly and profit, they need long-term employees. The recruiting process is very time and money-consuming. It not only costs money to post an ad, contact the candidates, interview the chosen ones over several days or weeks, and train the ones you decide to hire, but also the attorneys who are interviewing the candidates spend hours doing work that is not bringing in money instead of billing clients.

Constant changes in attorneys working in the firm also have other unpleasant consequences. When other attorneys see the high turnover, it can really lower their morale. It is also tough to build a good team that works well together if you lose and gain members all the time. Clients are also not happy when the attorney they trusted with their case suddenly disappears, and they have to deal with a completely new person they do not really know.

From my experience as a legal recruiter with BCG Attorney Search, if someone once left the world of legal firms to go into a different practice setting, they will not stay long the second time. Attorneys do not usually leave legal firms on a whim. They always have a reason, and once they are back in that environment, they suddenly remember why they left and that they have other options that do not include being stressed and overworked all the time.

Looking at it from the side of an employer, rehiring people never ended up well. I even got advice from one of my mentors to never hire someone twice. Problems usually persist, and the person will often leave shortly after being hired again. Typically, the reasons for leaving the second time are the same ones as leaving the first time.

If You Left a Firm To Do Something Else, You Might Not Want the Job

Some attorneys leave legal firms to do something they enjoy more but decide to come back because of the good salary a major law firm can offer. However, hiring managers and interviewers know about this, and they often assume that if you left the setting to work somewhere completely else in the legal profession, you do not like the job and do not want it.

Settings, such as academia, public interest, or government, are extremely different from the work in firms. You need a different skill set, you are chasing different goals and outcomes, so it is not a surprise that the firm doubts your motives for working with them. They want to hire someone who seems dedicated and determined in their legal career, not an attorney basing their future employers solely on the amount of money they can earn.

So, even if you have reasons you want to use to convince the interviewers that this is what you want to do, they will often see right through you and uncover the real reason why you want your legal placement with them. And if you are really passionate about working in a firm, they will see it - on your resume and in you, as well.

Lawyers Who Have Never Worked Inside of Law Firms

If you have never worked in a law firm, the firm has no way of knowing whether you have the skills, motivation, personality, and drive to succeed there.

Without Experience, Firms Will Assume You Are Not Able To Do the Job

Although some government offices, companies with in-house counsel, and other legal environments do not provide their employees with good training and experience, many do not, as there is no unified system. It differs from company to company. The firms you are interviewing with have no idea about the type of training you received or the skills you have or do not have.

It is fairly easy to know the level of training and skill an attorney has in legal firms based on the type of law firm they are coming from. Some firms are better than others, but everyone understands which law firm has what standards and requirements.

Many top legal firms will automatically assume that you are not qualified to work there if you are not coming from a law firm environment. Firms often know that only the best law students and young attorneys get into prestigious law offices at the beginning of their careers and assume that you are not law firm material if you did not. If your grades/law schools you went to/interviewing skills or any other reason did not allow you to get a law firm job right after graduating law school, they often assume you are not fit for them.

Every law firm believes that its unique requirements are something not everyone can handle (and really not everyone can), so not having that experience can really set you back. As an attorney in a large law firm, you have to bill every hour and watch it meticulously to meet the monthly goals. You have to deal with and relate to many very different clients, socialize with your peers, keep up the high quality of work required, problem-solve difficult situations daily, appear trustworthy and very professional, and do many other tasks not found in other settings.

Hiring someone who does not have experience in these tasks is a big risk many legal firms do not want to take. Thanks to my experience with BCG Attorney Search, I have seen many attorneys with and without experience get a job in a law firm. The truth is, those without experience and training do not have good habits and often cannot keep up with their peers who have worked in legal firms for years.

Firms Do Not Know How Well You Will Be Managed Without Experience

Law offices usually guess how manageable an attorney is based on how long they stayed in their previous law firm. Without this indicator on a resume, it is tough for firms to gauge whether you will cause problems for them or not.

Firms are special in that attorneys in them need to be team players who will not get offended if their senior takes credit for some of the work they have done, take instructions and be willing to be present and work a lot to achieve a common goal, take in feedback and constructive criticism, and work with and for a lot of different people with different expectations. Without previous experience, firms have no way of knowing how well you will handle yourself in the day-to-day demands.

Firms Do Not Know Whether You Want To Be Long-Term in a Law Firm Environment

The best indicator of how well you can handle the law firm environment and how long you will be able to and want to stay in it is previous experience in that environment. Many attorneys think they want to work in a firm but quickly find out that the environment is too stressful, dealing with people you do not like, the advancement seems too slow, etc. Others later realize that this world is not for them because they want to spend more time with their family or have other interests they would not have time for if they stayed.

Every company and business wants to hire people who will stay with them long-term. Recruiting new people is time and money-consuming, training takes a long time, and high turnover always breaks up the team and lowers morale. It is sometimes just too big of a risk if they do not know whether you will stay with them long term.

Without Previous Experience, Firms Do Not Know Whether You Want the Job

Attorneys who want to work in a law firm usually go after it very hard. So, if you have not worked in one before, they will assume that you are not interested in that setting. They want people who are determined and dedicated to the practice of law, and if you first went after a different legal career, you demonstrated that this is not your top priority.

Will Law Firms Ever Hire an Attorney Who Is Not Coming From a Law Firm?

Every rule has an exception, and so does the one about firms not hiring people from other settings, so do not fall into despair.

Attorneys Who Clerked Right After Law School

If you have done a clerkship right after law school, you should not have a big problem getting hired at a law firm. Your chances are even higher if you have worked as a summer associate during your studies. If you decide to clerk after working in a law firm and your clerkship was not longer than two years, your chances are good as well.

Practicing in a Niche Practice Area

Niche practice areas generally do not have many attorneys working in them, so lack of experience in firms is not that fatal if they need an attorney like you. These areas include patent prosecution, healthcare, ERISA, or food and drug law. Also, if your practice area is in high demand currently, you could get around without a lot of experience in most law offices.

Attorneys Doing Good Work for Firm's Clients

Although this is not common, law offices will sometimes hire attorneys who work in-house for their clients if they love their work.

Well-Regarded Former Prosecutors, Judges, and Other Government and Elected Professionals

It is prevalent for law offices to hire well-regarded prosecutors, judges, government appointees, or elected officials. They get hired all the time to the most prestigious firms and advance to partners. Some of the best attorneys in the country are former prosecutors and actually never worked in law offices until they took that law firm jobs.


If you want to work in a law firm long-term and are in one today, the best thing to do is not leave. It can be tough to get back into it, although there are some exceptions. Law firms want to see determined people who show their desire to work in that environment.

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