Timing Your Escape

by | March 31, 2009

  • My Vault
Dear Sang,

I am your typical miserable mid-level at a huge law firm. I billed a ton of hours this summer, so I should be in good shape for my bonus. But...I am thinking about leaving - to tell you the truth, I can't wait to get out of here. I promised myself I would stick it out for a few years at a big firm and pay down my law school debt, but I don't feel any loyalty to this place. All my friends have left, I'm not close with any partners, the work is boring, and it's not getting any better. I actually have a hard time thinking of reasons to stay.

As you can tell, I am already "checked out" of this place. Work is really slow right now, so I finally have time to do my job search. I will look at other firms, but I won't walk away from my bonus. It is way too much money to leave on the table. I heard that some firms are really desperate and will pay associates bonuses to get them to start now. Should I look now, or wait until after I get my bonus in January? How can I find out which firms are paying bonuses to leave now?

Already Checked Out

Dear Checked Out,

Your letter just screams ennui! I am sorry that you are feeling so discouraged about your firm and your practice, and I wonder whether your current frame-of-mind might be the result of overwork and exhaustion. I would be happy to offer my advice on timing your "escape," but I would like to share a few observations first.

It is always best to launch any major transition, like a job change, from a position of strength. You never want to feel desperate, depleted or distracted when making such a critical life-altering decision. I hope that the recent completion of your major project will now enable you to take a week or two of vacation - something restorative, including a change of scenery, not just a week of bad TV and take-out food on your couch. You need renewed energy, a clear head and uninterrupted time to reflect upon your next step. We can't address larger issues about your specific career goals and motivations in this forum, but I encourage you to reach out to your law school career counselor or other trusted professional mentor for advice. Be sure to talk with someone outside of your firm who can be completely objective about your career development.

While financial concerns are never unimportant, I am always concerned when a professional decision appears to be influenced unduly by monetary considerations. Believe me, I feel your pain when it comes to law school debt, and I am sure that you earned every dollar of your year-end bonus. You don't mention your practice area, but I hope that you feel more of a sense of connection to your chosen profession than your letter suggests. A job change should be motivated primarily by greater responsibility, a more compelling mix of clients or matters, a more comfortable cultural fit, superior mentoring and training, or a better chance for partnership or leadership.

While compensation can be an important factor, the substantive aspects of a lawyer's day to day practice should take priority. When money enters into the equation, it is certainly appropriate to analyze the base salary and potential bonus in light of the total hours, predictability or lack there of, clients, quality of work and future mobility (exposure to or preparation for in-house, business-side or government positions down the road). The more junior the associate, the more compensation represents accessibility (i.e. lack of control over your plans). Since a junior associate is not experienced enough to be paid for his expertise, he is literally being paid for his availability to clients - 24/7 in the case of firms at the top of the scale. Finding a "lifestyle" firm paying at the top of the market is an elusive goal, when every firm must cover its soaring associate salaries and bonuses with equally lofty billable requirements.

I hope that in evaluating whether and when to make a move, the quality of your work experience and your opportunity to grow as a professional take top priority. I am sure that I am preaching to the choir here, and that you've carefully weighed the merits and costs of making a move. You have good will built up at your current firm, and you'll have to start at square one to establish your reputation and foster strong relationships with new partners and clients. Of course, if you feel like you've worn out your welcome at your current firm - or worse, you're on thin ice - having the chance to start over can be not only appealing but necessary.

In the spirit of acting from a position of strength, you want to be absolutely sure that feeling "checked out" doesn't manifest itself in your attitude or work product. In order to make a move, whether you do so now or in several months, you will need to be in good standing at your current firm. If you let your apathy show or your work starts to slip, you might find yourself with a poor evaluation or worse - you could be asked to leave. Search firms are obligated to truthfully represent a candidate's current standing to all prospective employers. Trying to make a move when you've been asked to leave is extremely difficult. Additionally, any offer from a firm is contingent upon satisfactory references. Staying in the good graces of your current partners is a must to ensure that you have the best possible options for your next step, so please, please - check back in!

All that said, let's talk turkey. Are law firms so desperate for talent now that they'll make lateral candidates whole for a lost bonus rather than wait for a 2007 start date? In some cases, maybe; in most cases, probably not. After all, the money left on the table represents work done for another firm by a brand new associate - an unproven quantity to the hiring firm. Lateral candidates are often not even eligible for bonuses at their new firms unless they have worked for a minimum of six months of the fiscal year there. A bonus, while taken for granted as "deferred compensation" in the New York market, is usually a reward for extraordinary service, in quality, quantity or both. It is a mechanism firms use to acknowledge value and to encourage retention of existing associates.

Just as you are carefully plotting your departure based upon your firm's bonus schedule, so is every other prospective lateral candidate in your market. Firms do not want to start down the slippery slope of making lateral candidates whole for a pro rata portion of a lost bonus -- there are too many variables. What would the associate's hours at the prior firm have been? What is the quality of that lawyer's work? Are non-billable contributions (pro bono, recruiting, business development) included? Ultimately, it is a cost wholly unassociated with the new firm's clients and work. The new firm is not responsible for "making you whole" for the bonus you are leaving on the table. Rather, the hiring firm is presenting a professional opportunity which it hopes will be more attractive than your current situation, on the merits of that opportunity. Any bonus awarded is simply a recruiting tool - a signing bonus - and should be evaluated solely on those terms.

Firms seek to attract the best lateral talent in key practice areas, and it is a simple matter of supply and demand. Where qualified applicants are abundant, or the need is not as dire, signing bonuses are generally not paid. A "hot" firm or one with a coveted opening (e.g. media or entertainment law) almost never offers a signing bonus. On the other hand, if a firm is having a particularly challenging time recruiting experienced and highly-credentialed mid-level candidates in a highly specialized area such as Patent, ERISA, Real Estate or M&A, a signing bonus may be offered. It will not be the equivalent of the year-end bonus the candidate is foregoing, but it will be keyed to seniority. A firm chasing a desirable candidate with competing offers may use a signing bonus to sweeten the deal. Junior associates rarely receive signing bonuses, unless a candidate has particularly stellar experience or credentials. Like a clerkship bonus, a signing bonus can be a proxy for a candidate who brings special luster or "resume value" to the firm. Because most firms use signing bonuses on a case-by-case basis, there are few who advertise their payment of signing bonuses. Needless to say, trying to identify firms who trumpet signing bonuses would be an ill-advised way for you to identify prospective employers!

So where does that leave you, Already Checked Out? I hope that this information will provide some perspective, and encourage you to take a deep breath and recommit yourself to your current firm, if only because it is a smart strategic move. Reach out to your former colleagues who have moved on to other firms and find out whether they are enjoying their new professional homes. Put pen to paper and make a list of what you like and dislike about your current firm, and your short-term and long-term career goals. Next, make sure your resume and deal sheet are up to date, and schedule meetings in person with several experienced recruiters at highly-regarded search firms. They will help you to evaluate your best strategy for your lateral search, as well as addressing how your next move fits into your overall long-term career development plan. Choose one recruiter whose judgment and knowledge inspires your confidence.

I suggest that you start the process now. A successful lateral job search can take from one month to several months. Proper preparation takes time, from working with your recruiter to polish your resume and deal sheet, to evaluating firms for possible submission, to preparing for the interviewing process. The actual interviewing process, including screening and callback meetings, offer negotiation, post-offer visits and finally the conflicts and reference checks, require several weeks at least. Now that Labor Day has passed, the lateral recruiting market will heat up once again, and the intense pace will continue through the New Year. Putting off your search could result in lost opportunities, as candidates and firms connect in the coming months.

At the end of the process, with appealing offers in hand, you can take stock of your choices. At that point, you can zero in on a start date with your prospective employers. If your bonus will be paid within a month or so, most firms will understand your desire to pick a start date after your bonus is in hand. If the firm's need for your services is acute, or your bonus won't be paid until mid-January or even later, you can explore possible solutions with them. The firm might be willing to meet you part-way, offering a signing bonus that will ease the loss of leaving your bonus on the table. Ultimately, it should be the promise of future success and satisfaction more than a bonus check that motivates your decision. While the sum of money may seem great right now, your professional happiness and peace of mind is priceless.

Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch,


Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.


Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.

Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.


Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

We understand the immense value of relationships and so, we have assembled a team of proven relationship builders in the firm. In addition to a research staff that supports our firm's goal to cull and store the best market information, SJL Attorney Search is proud that our consultants include former practicing attorneys with tremendous academic credentials, a former senior law firm administrator, a former law school professor and a former senior marketing executive. Please visit www.sjlsearch.com to learn more about our consultants and our firm.

Filed Under: Job Search

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