Can I Lateral a Second Time?
Spring is finally upon us after what felt like an eternal winter. As the seasons come and go and the years pass, many associates find themselves asking with increasing frequency, “Is this the right time to make a change?” The answer to this question will vary among associates, depending on a range of factors, including whether she has already lateraled in the past. Even if a lateral has compelling reasons to make another move, she might wonder, “Is it okay to lateral again?” The answer is a qualified “yes”.
A lateral move is a major event in an attorney’s career. I know this not only from my experience with associates as a recruiter, but also from my personal experience: I lateraled twice during my career as an attorney. Careers and lives are not static, and keeping one’s mind alert to opportunities and strategic planning is critical to maintaining a vibrant and satisfying career. Most employers understand this – as long as an associate can provide a compelling narrative for why she seeks to change platforms. A second lateral move, therefore, is not only possible, it might even be advisable in some instances for professional and/or personal reasons.
Any lateral move, especially a second one, should be thoughtful and advance clearly defined goals. If you are an associate considering a possible lateral move, whether for the second or first time, there are two important considerations to keep in mind in order to better position yourself for a successful lateral move and to preserve your reputation at your current firm (i.e., not “burn bridges”).
Put in substantial time at your current firm.
As a general matter, if you are a lateral associate considering a second move, you should plan a move only after you have devoted a solid amount of time to your current firm. This is somewhat less important for first-time laterals who, for example, wish to move opportunistically to a stronger platform or change their practice area, if doing so is not possible at their current firm. But after an associate laterals once, any subsequent move(s) will be scrutinized more closely. Why? A few possible reasons: concern that the associate’s multiple moves could be due to underperformance; the possibility that the associate’s personality generally might not integrate well into a firm culture; or fear that an associate simply has a fickle disposition and is, in essence, a “jumper”. Regardless of the actual reason for the lateral move, a potential new firm viewing a second-time lateral candidate will be concerned that she is apt to move yet again, after the new firm has invested resources to the lateral’s integration and entrusted her with important client work.
One key way to moderate the skepticism that might arise with a second lateral move is to spend a substantial amount of time at your current firm – at least two years, though there may be exceptions to this depending on the circumstances. Two or more years affords an associate a reasonable amount of time to get to know her colleagues, to further develop skills and expertise in her practice area, to contribute to the firm’s success and to establish her reputation. This will better enable the associate to depart from her firm on good terms. The good will and the professional contacts that result from a well-managed experience at a firm may prove invaluable in the future.
At the very least, every associate owes it to herself to have the best possible experience at her current firm, whether it is her first or second. It is always ideal to explore new opportunities when things are going well, and the associate has a solid footing at her present firm. Regardless, any lateral associate looking to make a second move would benefit from devoting at least a couple of years to her second platform. That way, a potential employer will be less likely to question whether she ultimately gave her current firm a “fair shake” before moving on.
Have clear and cogent reasons for the move.
In addition to devoting a substantial period of time to her current firm, it is also important for a lateral associate to have clear and cogent reasons to move again. For more senior associates, a move might make sense to enhance partnership or counsel prospects – especially if the associate is currently at a firm with historically low partnership promotion rates. Other associates might wish to move from a large platform to a smaller one in order to, for example, achieve better work-life balance or to work within a smaller, more intimate culture. Still others might seek a geographic change. The critical take away is that the associate must have a clear and persuasive reason why the lateral move makes sense, both to the associate and to the prospective firm.
Most associates make a lateral move at least once in her career. Gone are the days when the typical attorney starts and ends her careers at the same firm. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. The good news is that lateraling – even a second time – is not only possible, it could very well afford associates a more satisfying professional and/or personal life. Given the various strategic considerations and the importance of thoughtful planning, associates generally should not go about the lateral process alone. Rather, they are better off working with the professional and informed guidance of a recruiter. A good recruiter will advise an associate on the pros and cons of a potential move, whether to a particular firm or at a particular time. In addition, a good recruiter will focus on the candidate’s unique experience and ambitions, and discuss realistically whether a potential lateral move would align with the associate’s skills, personality and aspirations.
The seasons and years pass quickly! If you’re ready to explore a lateral move, perhaps this spring is the season to reinvigorate your professional life.