Why It's Best To Move As a Mid-Level

by | March 10, 2009

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Why It's Best To Move As a Mid-Level

Dear SJL,

I am a fourth year associate at an AmLaw 50 firm in New York. I think my ultimate goal is to make partner, but I don't want to spend my whole career at my current firm. My question relates to the timing of my lateral move.

I received some calls from headhunters during my first and second year, but the pace seems to have really picked up lately. I keep hearing that the best time to leave is 3rd through 5th year. Shouldn't I wait and move when my skill set is stronger - maybe in my 6th or 7th year? I'm just not sure how much I have to offer another firm at this point. My friends say they've heard the same thing about moving as a mid-level, but we’re still a little confused as to why this would be the case. If there's more to the story than headhunters just trying to motivate us to move now, I'm all ears.

Skeptical in New York

Dear Skeptical,

I am all for a healthy dose of skepticism, and in fact, believe that a little skepticism in all matters relating to your career is wise. To the extent you make a lateral move, you want to be sure that it's motivated by the right things - professional development, partnership opportunities, a geographical move, a prestige upgrade or an improvement in culture or hours, among other things. Moving because someone's trying to scare you into doing so certainly doesn't make the cut.

It is, indeed, true that due to market forces third - fifth year associates are in the prime years of their lateral marketability. Picture the trajectory of an associate's lateral marketability like a bell curve: first and second years are on the far left of the curve - where marketability is low, third through fifth years are at the peak, and sixth year and more senior associates are down on the right as the marketability curve moves down again. Understanding why this is so will help you to take meaningful control of your career.

First and Second Year Associates
Firms hire associates out of law school, knowing that much time, energy and money will need to be invested in training them in the basics of being a lawyer. During this adjustment and integration period, new associates are learning a new vocabulary, how to most effectively interact with clients, the rhythm of cases and deals, and the nuts and bolts of functioning in broader teams of associates, partners and paralegals. These associates are probably in good shape if they have a positive attitude, pay close attention to detail and are strong team players. Junior associates are not expected to have substantive knowledge - they are expected to bring a commitment to getting it right and learning as they go.

Firms usually hire enough associates out of law school to fill their junior classes, and attrition has not yet become an issue. So, associates looking to make a change during these first couple of years might find that there is a relatively limited number of opportunities in the market.

Third, Fourth and Fifth Year Associates
At this point, though you might not feel you know as much as you'd like to know, you are a somewhat fully formed lawyer in the eyes of law firms. Firms will still invest in your training, but mid-levels are able to function more independently than their junior counterparts. As a lateral associate, much of your market value will now come from supplementing the skill base of your new firm. Mid-sized and smaller firms might have general litigation, corporate, IP and finance practices (among others) for which they need associates with particular expertise; large firms might look to fill the now-empty seats of their own associates who have moved on to other opportunities. Attrition and the architecture of the law firm model conspire to create a variety of opportunities in this marketability sweet spot. I don't know about you, but I would prefer to explore opportunities when there are more opportunities to be explored. In other words, for you, it's a seller's market and you've got what they're buying!

While the firm's work of intensively training you is done, to the extent there are gaps in your skill set, mid-level associates are still junior enough to be brought up to speed. For example, if you are a securities lawyer lateraling into a general corporate practice, you are senior enough to function as the lead associate on securities deals, but junior enough to function as the mid-level or junior on M&A deals in which you do not yet have experience. These swing years provide associates an opportunity to shed bad habits, learn new skills and insure that they are on track for their class year, whether their ultimate goal is to make partner or go in-house. To the extent your goal is to make partner, it is during these years that lateral associates can lay the groundwork and fill in gaps to become senior associates who fit the practice in which they would like to be promoted. With at least two to three years before partnership is on the table, there's plenty of time to work for a variety of different partners, and to get in front of the decision-makers.

Sixth Year Associates and Beyond
To the extent it hasn't already happened while you were a mid-level, partners will certainly be looking to you to manage the day-to-day workings of cases or transactions once you're a senior associate. That only works if you have all the relevant experience to function in this role. If you need to re-fit your practice at all, moving as a senior associate becomes very challenging. Senior associates can't be staffed as juniors on cases and deals to strengthen their skill set in a new area; your time is too expensive now, so you need to have the experience that's reflective of your tenure.

As for partnership prospects, hiring a senior associate presents real challenges for law firms. Most firms have both homegrown associates and laterals who joined as mid-levels who they have been grooming for promotion to partner. Hiring a senior associate clearly impacts the homegrown associates and can negatively impact their morale. In fact, the mid-level associate who was embraced by his or her new colleagues as extra hands to share the work burden might have found lunch a little lonely if he or she had arrived too close to partnership time.

Also, hiring decisions at this senior level often take longer, as firms assess whether they can stand by any commitment to meaningfully consider the lateral associate for partner. Your timeline for partnership might be pushed back depending on how senior you are. Many - if not most firms - want anywhere between a two and four year "look" at associates before putting them up for partner. As a practical matter, if an associate comes in as an eighth year with an expectation of being considered for partner one year later, they might not have an opportunity to work for more than a handful of partners during that 12-month period. For example, litigators can find themselves staffed on a big case, giving them opportunity to work with only one or two partners in the practice. To maximize your partnership potential, it is important for many partners to see your work, and to have support from a broad group of partners who have the power to help make you a partner. This can easily take a few years - years that your peers who had lateraled in as mid-levels already have under their belt.

Senior associates are often frustrated by this 2 - 4 year look prior to being considered for partnership, but it is important to appreciate that bringing someone into the partnership is an important business decision which needs to be carefully vetted.

Enough About the Law Firms, What About Your Needs?!?
Up to this point we've focused on how the so-called "meaty" part of the bell curve is good for the law firms. The fact is that moving as a mid-level is, in many ways, optimal for you, too. You're seasoned enough to know you want a change and still junior enough to be able to afford a mistake and correct it. It's also an ideal time in your associate tenure to learn a new area of law.

Moving as a senior associate has greater stakes for you, as well. It takes a while to get to know an organization and its culture - certainly longer than provided by the interview process. If as a senior associate you find yourself at a new firm whose culture doesn't work for you, it is even more challenging to move again as an associate. Once you become a partner, if that happens, it can be years before you have enough of a practice to be mobile.

Exceptions to the Rule and Swimming Downstream
There are of course always exceptions to the rule. This is meant to lay out the overall distribution of law firm hiring patterns, as indicated by our clients. New practices are built, lateral partners join firms and need associate support, the economy inspires growth in particular practice areas - there are many reasons that opportunities arise at the either end of the bell curve. However, these opportunities are not assured.

And even with the best of intentions, you may have reasons to buck the bell curve altogether. You may have landed at a firm that's not the right fit straight out of law school. Or maybe it was a great fit for a number of years but has been experiencing real challenges in its business just as you're coming up for partner. When moving is the right thing to do, you have to do it - even if it's not the optimal time to do so. Undertaking a search with an awareness of the potential challenges you will face will help you to manage the process with the patience it demands. You might need to hustle more than would have otherwise been the case, but with the right advice and support you will find yourself back on track, on your way to realizing your professional potential.

So, to get back to your original question - what you've heard is, indeed, true. To the extent you are interested in making a lateral move, you should carefully consider whether you would prefer to do so as a mid-level while swimming downstream, or as a senior associate, facing a likely swim against the current. I might be a skeptic, but I'm also a pragmatist. Armed with the relevant data, you will be able to make informed decisions about how to best manage your career.

Good luck! Please do let me know what you decide to do.




Stephanie joined SJL as a Managing Director in 2007, after more than four years of general corporate practice with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP. Stephanie currently focuses on assisting associate-level attorneys with placement at law firms in the New York metropolitan area. Stephanie graduated with distinction from Cornell University with her B.S. in Human Development. She earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was an Articles Editor of the Journal of Labor and Employment Law. As a practicing attorney, Stephanie gained experience advising clients on a wide array of matters including mergers and acquisitions, securities compliance and general corporate matters. Prior to joining SJL, Stephanie worked at Gilda's Club Worldwide, a non-profit cancer support organization. Stephanie's abilities as a recruiter derive from her commitment to helping candidates realize their professional potential, her understanding of associate life and her appreciation that a successful career is not always linear.


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.

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