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March 10, 2009

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Dear Sang,

I am a second year attorney with a firm in New York. Two partners from my department left the firm last week and joined another premiere firm in the city, taking three associates with them (two midlevels and one senior associate). The gossip mill's pretty active right now. There are still some partners left in my group and I don't think the firm's in trouble but I'm only a second year associate and these partners were supposedly big rainmakers. Anyway, my question is this: should I be thinking about leaving right now? I did a little work with the people who left and I thought they liked me (especially the associates) but they didn't invite me to join them and I was completely shocked when they announced they were leaving. If my department of the firm isn't doing well, I don't want to be the last person on a sinking ship. I'm trying to evaluate what my next steps should be and I don't want to talk to anyone at the firm about it because I don't want to get caught up in all the gossip. Any advice on what I should be doing?

Signed,
Feeling Uneasy

Dear Uneasy:

It's completely unsettling when the organization where you presently work doesn't look like the organization that you joined. What you are feeling, wondering and worrying about is entirely understandable and I would bet that other associate comrades share your concerns, whether or not any of you are discussing it openly. As you haven't given me much detail to work with, i.e., your specific practice area, the current size of your practice, the size of your firm, whether your firm is local, national or global, here are some general observations about the aftermath for a firm and its associates after a partner or a group of partners leaves.

To start out, feel good about your anxiety. Sure, it's a natural human response to wonder/worry about your own situation when the situation of a proximate person changes dramatically. But a large number of attorneys are so detached from the inner workings of their firms that the departure of a partner or a small group barely affects a ripple in their very still waters. If it's not someone they work for, who cares? My response: you should always care - you should always pay attention and you should always ask questions. So, embrace your unease - it means you're thinking about your professional development - but shun your panic. Apart from panic being an unattractive response to anything (I'm a big fan of professional poise), it's also an entirely inappropriate reaction to the present set of circumstances. My bottom line for you - you're going to be just fine. I promise. But let's take a look at your questions - what should you be doing and should you be thinking about leaving?

Grab onto the big picture of your professional life and ask yourself: why did you join this firm - why did you join this department? There is, no doubt, a laundry list of why this firm was the best launching pad for your career; if you are like most young lawyers, you joined your firm because you really liked (not in any particular order) the people in your summer class, the people you worked for during your summer associate days, the people who interviewed you, the compensation structure, the firm's overall reputation and the reputation of your specific department of the firm.

Now ask yourself, has the departure of the two partners and three associates significantly altered, impaired or invalidated any of the reasons you joined this firm in the first place?

You mentioned that you did a little work with the people who left and you thought that they liked you but were very surprised to learn of their move. This suggests that these colleagues were not integral to your experience at the firm (either socially or professionally). So, chances are, the departure of these folks will not affect you much at all unless their departure has resulted in the worst case scenario: they cleaned out the entire arsenal of client relationships and left the other partners in your group with few or no clients to service. Are you leaving the office every day at six o'clock, after spending two hours of your day reading the newspaper, uhm, I mean, doing "professional reading" in your office? If that's the case, you might actually have a problem on your hands that you will need to address proactively. If you really want to specialize in the kind of work your group used to do, you must move (not a question of "should") to another firm in order to continue developing your skills in this area. If, however, your decision to join this firm stemmed from your general attraction to the firm-at-large and you were ambivalent about the specific work in your department, you can easily talk to someone at your firm (there may be a professional development manager on-site) about switching into a different - and busier - group. Nobody in your firm will begrudge the request. If anything, your loyalty will be noted.

So, we've briefly explored the worst case scenario - the partners took all the business with them. Let's now explore the more likely scenario: they took some business with them, maybe even a substantial amount of business but there are still institutional clients left to service. If that's the case, look closely at the quality of your day-to-day experience in order to assess whether it's time for you to leave. How has it changed or has it changed at all since your colleagues left? What are you working on right now? Are you busy? Are you still learning and developing skills? Is it possible that you will be able to get even more responsibility on your assignments because three associates just left?

If your experience is untouched or perhaps improved, you should stay at your present firm. In your early years as an attorney, you should focus on absorbing as much as you possibly can from your surroundings, your clients, your assignments, your colleagues, your mentors. You should be attentive only to skills development; look ahead to the capabilities that a star midlevel or senior associate should possess and work hard to achieve those capabilities. Embrace every opportunity to participate on calls, interact with clients, draft important documents, negotiate deals, take depositions, argue motions and run closings. Can you still do that at your present firm? If the answer is yes, then STAY. You're a second year associate - you're just starting to get the hang of this whole "I'm a lawyer thing," aren't you? Do you really want to start all over again somewhere else if you don't have to?

Perhaps odd advice coming from a headhunter (I've been called a lot worse than "odd"), but true: you really shouldn't move around unless there is a clear and compelling reason. When an attorney decides to explore a new position, his professional accomplishments are evaluated. There is an assessment of skills; does he possess the necessary and appropriate skills to perform the job well? But that's not all. Professional judgment is evaluated and often deemed critical when an employer contemplates a new hire. Any (perceived) needless job switches found on one's resume detracts from a positive review of capabilities as they suggest bad judgment. So, uneasy friend, here's my strong suggestion: as long as you're still learning and churning, moving and grooving, billing and killing (all figuratively, of course), you should stay at your firm.

I'd also like to commend you for using good sense in avoiding the gossip mill. Here's something was all know: gossip is fun. Gossip is interesting and makes time go by faster. Gossip makes one's heart race because it's scandalous. The act of gossiping makes people feel powerful because they think they know something that others don't and are, therefore privileged and special. The gossip grapevine is luscious and juicy with whispers and glances and deliciously bad behavior that seem harmless in their own ways. Here's the truth: the grapevine's going to place you in a chokehold if you spend time eating from its vine. Don't be left gasping for air simply because you want to feel popular.

True story: a sixth year associate found herself disappointed when two partners she worked for almost exclusively left the firm to join another firm. Unsurprisingly, the gossip mill starting heating up at the firm and there were different stories flying around the firm as to why these partners left. One of these stories alluded to sexually inappropriate behavior by these partners with clients. The young associate didn't have anything to do with the genesis of this story but contributed to and reinforced the gossip by revealing that one of the partners was dating a former client (something actually quite scandal-free but private). Of course, the partner found out that the associate betrayed a confidence. Of course, the associate was not invited to join the two partners at their new firm once the stream of associates started to flow toward the partners' new firm (a frequent event that transpires a few weeks after a group of partners leave) and of course, this associate was devastated because she deeply disappointed and permanently lost a professional mentor, something that is priceless for a senior lawyer.

Another part of your note that I wanted to address was your obvious disappointment that you weren't invited to join the group that left the firm. Something that you are probably unaware of: it is incredibly bad form, if not entirely forbidden, for departing professionals to entice or solicit colleagues to join them in their new situations. Associates who are left behind aren't unattractive or uninteresting to partners who leave; it is a complicated situation that departing partners often don't know how to approach. Neither you nor I know what precipitated the three associates' departures. Sure, it is possible that the three associates were, in fact, always "in the know" and were part of the package deal. It is also possible that the associates found out about the imminent exit and asked the partners to take them along. That's a big difference. It's also a big risk.

Get out of your own orbit for a second and ask yourself this: do you think it's going to be easy for these associates to integrate into their new firm? I know your ego might be a little bruised and you might be feeling a little un-special because you weren't asked to join your former colleagues in their new adventure. But it's important to remember that whenever someone is asked to come along for the ride, it isn't all "glamour and glitz," especially when the ride is on someone else's coattails. In the spirit of the Hollywood award season that is upon us, here's a red carpet metaphor: the most highly desired power couple emerges from a limousine and the flash of the paparazzo's cameras is blinding. Everyone wants to talk to the latest Bennifer, Brangelina and TomKat (here, the two partners from your firm, probably JoeAlan or something just as catchy). Reporters bum rush the power players and suddenly, there's a yelp from the crowd and a very loud "HELP!" is heard above the din of the flashing bulbs. The crowd disperses quickly until it's discovered that the cry for help is coming from a member of the couple's posse who's been crushed by the weight of the crowd. Nobody misses a beat and the camera pans back to the white gleam of the power players' gorgeous toothy smiles.

Maybe I'm living an unfulfilled screenwriter's life. Or maybe the metaphor is actually quite perfect. I'm not forecasting that your former associate comrades will be squashed at their new firm. But I am positive that it's not easy (and certainly not as fun as one would think) to be seen as the tagalong. Existing associates at the new firm might wonder why they're not good enough for the new partners and will definitely scrutinize the incoming competition pretty carefully. The three associates who left your firm must have felt ready for the professional and social challenges that awaited them at their new firm. Are you?

We live in a society that privileges social and professional mobility. As a result, we are creatures that constantly look for angles and strive for better positioning. It is good to be self-aware. It is responsible to be professionally circumspect. But managing and navigating the choppy waters of professional politics takes skill, resilience, energy and experience. Truly, at this stage of your career, the very best posture to assume is the posture of a dedicated, diligent and intellectually curious associate. If you assume this pose, it is more likely that you will be the beneficiary of the better deals and that you will be in a position to choose your mentor because many partners will be eager to work with you (and delighted to have you come along for any/all rides).

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

Sang

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

SANG J. LEE, ESQ

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.


ABOUT SJL ATTORNEY SEARCH, LLC

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.

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