So, You Want to Move Closer to the Business Side...What's Your Plan?
“I want to move to the business side…” is a very common response from law firm associates. I can’t tell you how many times we speak with associates who were deciding between law school and business school and now they want their next professional move to be further away from law, and closer to the corporate side. My next question in response to this statement is typically met with confusion, resistance or plain silence:
“What makes you qualified to transition to a business role or to work for this type of client?”
If you can’t immediately answer this question with a concise, direct answer … then this transition will prove quite challenging. On the whole, lawyers are not considered savvy business people with an immediately transferrable skill set and background that would transition to a business-side role. Beyond that, if you do have this goal in mind, realize that you are competing against hundreds of candidates that look just like you, with impressive schools, top grades, top firms and corporate legalexperience. That doesn’t even factor in your competition that offers actual business experience. This type of transition is possible – but you have to start thinking realistically and strategically about how to make yourself an attractive candidate. Here are some considerations:
Have you evaluated your current platform? You need to critically evaluate your current firm and determine whether it’s a viable platform to launch this type of transition. This decision is a very big deal considering your current platform will ultimately dictate the direction of your career. There are three main factors to consider in determining whether your platform will help or hinder your transition:
(1) Prestige – Is your law firm’s brand prestigious enough to be recognized by a sophisticated (non-lawyer) executive or HR representative? Candidates can be immediately overlooked because an employer doesn’t recognize, work with or have any business connections who work with your firm.
(2) Clients – Are you working with clients or does your firm have a client base that covers the industry that interests you? To develop immediately transferable skills, you need to work with clients who match up with your long-term interests.
(3) Track Record – Where do associates go when they leave your group? Are they making lateral moves to places that interest you? Or to anywhere at all other than another law firm? Your ex-colleagues’ lateral moves indicate the marketability of your firm and your practice group amongst your target employers.
How are you qualified for a business role? You will be competing against business school candidates who have taken advanced courses in Accounting, Statistics, Analytics, Corporate Finance/Asset Management/M&A and Strategy Formulation. Meanwhile, as a law student, you had the option to take Corporations, Securities Regulations and maybe an elective class in Mergers & Acquisitions. Lawyers are not specifically trained for business-side roles so it’s time to play catch up. Universities offer short-term courses in essential business topics like, modeling, finance & risk management and business analytics, which are designed to help retool and advance your skill set. If you are really committed to this transition, you need to position yourself as a competitive candidate not only to be hired, but also for long-term advancement. If every other candidate has these tools and this knowledge – won’t you need them, too?
Do NOT rule out an in-house legal role: While the transition to a business-side role is very difficult, this market is so over-saturated with associates seeking to make an in-house lateral move that you can’t possibly afford to rule out in-house legal positions. The most common, and successful, transition of an associate to a business-side position has stemmed from the stellar reputation they cultivated as part of the legal team. If you are not yet a known commodity, you need to prove yourself by gaining their trust and respect as someone who would add value to their business team.
Time to step outside of your office: It’s time to start networking. Recently, a big law associate with a dual JD/MBA shared with me what a stark difference existed between his peers in each of his programs. The MBA students were encouraged to network and spent 80% of the time socializing and 20% studying. Meanwhile, he noted the solitary existence of his law school counterparts who spent about 90% of the time studying in the library without any need to speak with anyone outside their immediate study group. The “business side” imparts a great deal of importance on networking skills, such as: reading a situation and reacting quickly, presenting oneself as socially savvy and getting along with multiple personalities. You need to flex that networking muscle and put yourself out there. Whether you’re reaching out to a connection on LinkedIn, attending a school alumni event or meeting up with an ex-colleague who recently made an exciting transition, you need to meet people. The most seamless way to make this type of transition is word of mouth, so it’s time to pound the pavement.
Don’t underestimate the value of a recruiter knowing you NOW: You are committing a major disservice to your career if you do not speak with recruiters. We have our ear to the ground, speak directly with sophisticated in-house clients and either represent or know candidates just like you who have made this transition. You’re in a much better position to hear about and be connected to business-side positions through recruiters that know you AND think highly of you.
Are you really ready to do this? The non-law firm compensation model is vastly different. Most of the time, your job security and compensation are directly tied to your performance. If you underperform during your first year, then you are more likely to be out of a job. Any excuses about playing catch up or requiring additional training will fall on deaf ears. You need to be completely confident in yourself and your value-add in a business context such that you would thrive as part of this financial model.
I hope these factors and considerations are helpful in terms of focusing your efforts and strategizing your next lateral move; and, most importantly, encouraging you to remain proactive about your career.