When is the best time to make a lateral move?

Lateral moves are all the rage, and this question is justifiably now heavily weighing on the minds of many partners and associates. If you are a partner, perhaps you are sensing the winds of change at the firm or in your practice area, and do not like where they are headed. Or, you are not being amply rewarded for cross-selling, do not see a strategic vision for the firm, are tired of funding someone else’s retirement, there could be many reasons…If you are an associate, hopefully you have received your bonus, you recognize that the odds of your being made partner at your firm are not 100% certain, and even if you do make partner, you have borne witness to a seismic shift in law firm business models where even equity partners are in the cross hairs. While being at a firm is in many ways about “we,” is it time for you to devote more time to thinking about “me?”

For most associates, the best time to move from one firm to another is after completion of your second year and before you complete the sixth year of practice. Why this time frame? Your first firm after law school is like a finishing school, it is where you learn how to be a lawyer. After practicing for two years you have a decent amount of experience in your practice area and have learned the basics of being an attorney, yet you have not developed completely and other firms would be interested in picking-up your training. Why would a firm do this? In large part because they have work in your practice area that needs to be done, the current associates are overwhelmed and/or they have a hole they need to fill in a particular practice area.  Firm’s want associates who can hit the ground running and immediately be productive. After your second year, you should have such an ability.

After your 6th year, that ability should be dramatically increased, but unless you have a book of business, very few firms these days are interested in you. Exceptions may be if you have a niche practice area, or the firm is seeing some tremendous growth in an area and they have an immediate need. Otherwise, it is quite difficult to place you. Some firms will suggest that they are concerned with the “message” they may be sending to other associates your year that have been with the firm since the onset of their legal career, that hiring a senior associate may indicate others are to be replaced or that their chances at partnership are going to be diminished.  Ok. In my experience, the firm has to have a pretty wide gaping hole in your practice area with a significant need, or, you have to have a book, Period.

It is important to note, laterals hired for a specific practice area frequently do make partner at a noticeably higher rate that than that at which the “lifers” did. While it is more difficult to see from inside a firm (plus who has time to life their head to look), if you were able to have my perspective as a recruiter and to watch the careers of attorneys from law school graduation to the partner level, without question attorneys who make one or two well-timed lateral moves over the courses of their careers frequently attain impressive levels of success. That goes for in-house as well. Many in-house employers want to see that you are able to be successful in more than one environment, prior to their bringing you into their group. Of course there are exceptions, but in these days they are  a rarity.  Shameless plug time. My firm works with associates throughout the country from AMLaw 100 firms with strong academic backgrounds. If you are interested in learning more about making a lateral move, please contact me.

As for counsel and partners, if you have a book, you are golden, and the size of the book dictates just how golden you are. Many firms are aggressively looking to build through lateral partner acquisition. Again, shameless plug time… I am working with a number of firms throughout the country and am conducting active searches in all practice areas. Please contact me, and I would be happy to discuss the priorities you are seeking in your next position.  

Unfortunately, if you are of counsel or a partner and you do not have a book, unless again you have a niche practice or a firm is willing to take a hit on profitability to expand a practice area, it is unlikely you are going to be able to make a transition to another firm.



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