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Is it Time for a Lateral Move? Key Things to Consider

Published: Sep 21, 2021

Topics: Law  

It used to be the norm that a lawyer would spend their entire career with one firm, but that is increasingly unlikely in this day and age. Many lawyers choose their first legal employer after only one year of law school and with limited information. If their firm is not working out for them, associates should not stay with their firm out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. Even an associate who is happy at their firm should take the opportunity to interview with other firms to make sure they are in the best spot for them. Here are some key things to consider before making a switch.

Reasons for the move

There are many reasons to make a lateral move, including better partnership prospects, more prestige, different client base, better lifestyle, relocating to another market, and retooling to another practice area. These are sometimes made as an interim move to set up the associate for their ultimate goal. If you are unhappy with your current firm, think about why you are unhappy and what you want out of a lateral move. Do not just move for the sake of something new—the newness will wear off and you may be just as unhappy at your new firm.

Moving up and down

A common move is to lateral to a firm with more prestige or better exit opportunities to set up a move in-house. An associate might move upmarket to make more money as counsel or partner. While BigLaw associate salaries are generally the same, counsel and partner compensation vary greatly. An associate might look to move down to a firm with lesser prestige to have better partnership prospects as the “big fish in a little pond” or to have a better work/life balance. Another approach is to move up in order to move down. Here, an associate might make the move to a firm with higher prestige in order to facilitate a second move to another firm that has better partnership prospects.

When to lateral

As a general rule, associates are most in demand on the lateral market when they are in their fourth through sixth years. At this point an associate has gained significant experience and skills and midlevel associates play a significant role in running a deal or case, managing both up and down. There is generally light demand for junior associates because a firm can rely on its summer hiring to fill in the junior ranks. There are also fewer opportunities for senior associate to move because law firms generally have fewer senior associates and because firms need a few years to evaluate a new associate for promotion.

Even associates who are happy with their firm should take a few meetings in their midlevel years to better understand the market and what another firm may have to offer. Sometimes an associate finds that they would be better suited at another firm and sometimes those meetings affirm that the associate is in the best place for their career goals.

Associates should go to market before their firm situation is unbearable. It is always better in an interview to be able to truthfully say that you are doing well at your firm and aren’t looking to run for the door. It is also better to evaluate a potential move if the alternative—staying at one’s firm—is not itself unpleasant. Associates often regret lateral moves that are made under duress.

Time of year

There is no “best” time of year to go to market. Many associates move after receiving bonuses, so there is a lot of lateral movement in the first quarter of the year. While this creates more opportunities, there is also more competition earlier in the year. Lateral hiring slows down in the summer months when many partners are on vacation and firm recruiting personnel are occupied with summer programs. The fall can be an advantageous time to go to market because there are fewer associates competing for jobs then. A firm will generally make an associate whole on their bonus if they wish for them to join late in the year, or they will tell the associate to wait to give notice until after receiving their bonus from their current firm.

How many moves?

As lateralling has become more common, so too have associates who make multiple career moves in just a few years. As a rule of thumb, one should plan to spend at least a year to eighteen months at a firm before making another firm. An associate who makes several moves may raise red flags in an interview process, but more important than the number of moves is the reasons for them. An employer can get comfortable with an associate who has “bounced around” so long as the associate has good reason to make each move and that those reasons fit into a cohesive story.

Working with a recruiter

It can be advantageous to work with a recruiter in making a lateral move. A good recruiter will be well informed and help the associate prepare their materials, target firms, handle the logistics of scheduling interviews, advocate for the candidate, and negotiate terms of an employment offer. Many firms are now offering associates bonuses for referring their friends for a job. Submitting one’s materials through a friend can be risky however, as the friend is not in a position to provide the services that a legal recruiter can—an associate will generally just send in your materials and then let the process play out. Even when going through a recruiter an associate can ask their friends at the prospective firm to put in a good word for them once their materials have been submitted. New law school graduates, law clerks, and unemployed attorneys should generally not work with a recruiter.

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