Making a lateral move can be an incredibly powerful and important decision, but it must be well thought-out and carefully executed. Whether moving law firms is something you thought you’d never do or it was always your plan, it is something that you should consider to ensure that you are properly developing your legal skills and career.
Why would I want to make a lateral move?
You need to start thinking about looking at other law firms if any of these ring true:
- You aren’t getting good experience. Good experience means different things for different practices and levels of seniority. However, as a general rule of thumb, you should always be getting the same—or better—experience than your peers, including peers at other firms. Great jobs, whether they are in-house, government, or law firms, are competitive, and if you want one of these roles, your skills need to be competitive with the entire market.
- You aren’t getting the right experience. It could be the case that you are getting wonderful experience, but it’s not the right experience. If your goal is to end up at a FinTech company, you should be at a firm where you work with FinTech clients. Or, if you want to be an AUSA, then you need to be getting a robust amount of white-collar work, and not focused on civil litigation.
- You don’t like where associates senior to you are going. Pay close attention to the career trajectory of senior associates at your firm. Are they having a hard time finding a new role? Are they being placed with firm clients? Are they making partner? Are they getting exciting opportunities? If senior associates aren’t going to places and positions that you’d like be at one day, it’s time to seriously consider a new firm.
- You aren’t getting good mentorship. Senior-level support is key to succeeding at a firm. If you aren’t getting it, it may be time to look for a place that values associate mentorship and development.
- You don’t like what you do. This one may be tricky, because “retooling” to a new practice group is often a difficult task. However, if you don’t enjoy your practice, and you are relatively junior, you should start looking for firms that would be open to training you in a new area.
- You just don’t like your firm. If you don’t feel that your current firm is the right fit, for whatever reason, trust your gut and start looking for somewhere that you would feel more comfortable. Not all law firms are the same, and there is no reason to stay somewhere that makes you unhappy.
Okay, so maybe I should consider looking at other firms. How do I find the right one?
If you decide you want to start looking at new firms, you should be doing two things simultaneously: (1) networking, and (2) finding a skilled legal recruiter who you trust to be your advocate and advisor. Let’s break these two very important tools down:
Networking. I know, I know. You hate networking. It’s awkward, it’s weird, it’s boring, it’s time consuming, and did I mention awkward? So, for purposes of this article, let’s change the name from “networking” to “information gathering,” because that’s what you will be doing. Learn from the experiences of others. Go out and meet attorneys who have interesting jobs to see how they got there. The goal here is not to get a job, but just to hear how people developed their own careers. I can promise you that many of these conversations will turn into career-long, mutually beneficial relationships—and may result in a job offer down the line.
And how does one connect with these people, you may ask? Use your friends, alumni networks, LinkedIn, and events to target people you want to gather information from. The rest is relatively simple. Introduce yourself, either through a mutual connection or on your own, and ask to take that person to coffee so you can learn about them. You’ll be amazed at how helpful people can be if they are just asked.
When you reframe networking from a transaction into a learning experience, all the pressure is off and it may even become an enjoyable and productive activity.
Legal Recruiters. While legal recruiters may all seem to blur into one long, oft-deleted voicemail, not all legal recruiters are alike. If you are applying to firms that use legal recruiters, it is best to find one recruiter who you trust and stick with them through the entire lateral process, rather than working with multiple recruiters.
But, with so many recruiters out there, how do you know if you’re working with the right one? Here are five things to consider.
- They need to understand what you do. If you get the sense they don’t understand your practice, find someone else.
- They need to understand your market. While you don’t have to be based in the same city as your legal recruiter, if you elect to work with someone remotely, that person should be tied to—and knowledgeable about—where you live. That said, having boots on the ground is always ideal, especially if you are looking to move to a new market.
- They need to listen to you and be responsive to you. If you tell a recruiter you want to move to a boutique and they start rattling off the AmLaw 100, you have my permission to hang up immediately. Also, they should be keeping you regularly updated and returning your calls and emails in a reasonable timeframe.
- They should treat your career with as much respect as you do. This means they should meet with you and spend time getting to know you. They should help you edit your resume, prepare for interviews, and compare offers. They should only send your resume out to mutually-agreed upon firms. Most importantly, they should never, ever blast your resume to firms without your consent, nor should they send your materials to firms without confirming there is a need. A recruiter should always be acting in your best interest, not theirs.
- They need to be an honest advisor. You won’t be a good fit for every firm, and that’s okay. Your legal recruiter should be honest with you about things like a firm’s personality quirks, work ethic, or associate happiness. Furthermore, they should give you honest opinions and guidance. A good legal recruiter may challenge you to look at firms you may not have wanted to consider initially, but they never should pressure you into applying anywhere you aren’t comfortable.
Remember, looking at other firms doesn’t mean you have to actually leave your current firm. During the information-gathering process you may find out that you’re best suited at your current firm—or, you may discover you’re a better fit elsewhere. Regardless of the outcome, you’ve made a positive step in your career by assessing your current situation and looking towards your future.
Erica Gartenberg is the President of Rocky Mountain Legal Search LLC. She places attorneys in roles ranging from law firm associates to general counsels, and works with law firms in all sizes and scales, corporations and start ups. She also is a career consultant, helping attorneys maximize their career goals. Erica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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