What Questions Should I Be Asking Myself Before Lateraling to Another Firm?
Yes, I’ve been a legal headhunter for more than seven years. Yes, my compensation is directly tied to the lateral placement of attorneys. And yes, I’m telling you that lateraling to another firm isn’t always the right decision for your career. Will I get some hate mail from my counterparts at other recruiting organizations for making this claim? Likely. But while they are writing those letters, you are getting at least one less voice message that day – no need to thank me.
While lateraling isn’t always the right answer, it is always a decision to be made thoughtfully and strategically. In my transition from law firm practice to legal recruiting, I learned that the legal industry is an unforgiving one, and potential employers take lateral moves VERY seriously – the first move needs to make sense, and any move after that will be viewed with skepticism.
In addition to the sanctity of both your resume and your professional perception, goodwill is a very beneficial thing to have as a lawyer, and making a lateral move means having to build up that goodwill once again. It isn’t something to be left behind without a fair amount of forethought and deliberation.
On the flip side, many associates remain at their firm because it is comfortable, not because they have actually sat back and critiqued whether their firm and their current experience is as professionally and personally satisfying as it can be (both for the short- and long-term). That form of professional paralysis is just as problematic as making a careless lateral move.
So, should you consider lateraling? In order to know that answer, you need to first know what questions to ask yourself. I regularly advise attorneys to take some time, every quarter of every year, to ask themselves the following three questions:
1. Is there anything you feel you are missing/not getting/wish were different at your current firm?
Specifically, consider the following factors that contribute to a successful law firm experience: satisfying practice area, platform/prestige, partnership potential, mentorship, client contact, skill-set development and culture. Each of these factors (and what you need to consider in connection with them) could be their own, separate article, but suffice it to say, lawyers approach recruiters and ultimately make lateral moves because they need to improve upon one or more of these factors.
2. Is your current firm/platform/experience going to get you to where you want to be professionally?
One of the most difficult situations in which to consider making a lateral move is when you are personally happy with your law firm experience, but professionally, you know you are going to be at a disadvantage for purposes of business development or professional exit opportunities in the next several years due to (a) the prestige of your firm/practice area, (b) the client base you are being exposed to and/or (c) the sophistication of work and the skill set you are developing. Most attorneys are incredulous when I advise them to plan now for the next 5 to 10 years. But this is your career, not just your job, and you need a long-term plan, even if you are comfortable here and now. Be honest with yourself about how attractive you are going to be professionally and how challenging you are making it for yourself to achieve your professional goals.
3. If you answered “no” to either of the questions above, can you resolve the issue without lateraling from your firm?
Once you have determined what needs to change about your current law firm experience, you owe it to yourself, to your employer and to your currently cohesive resume to figure out whether you can rectify the issue within your firm. Is it time to start managing up? Is there a partner you can actively seek out as a mentor? Is there an outlet within your firm to voice your concerns with the work you are receiving, the client base you are servicing and the trajectory of your career at the firm? The issue is not always resolvable, but that should not be for lack of effort on your part.
I am more than happy to introduce strong attorneys to my clients, but only after they have taken the time to ask themselves the three questions above, because that means I am partnering with a thoughtful, strategic and deliberate professional. And while lateraling to another law firm is necessary in many instances, lateraling as a lawyer is too important and impactful a decision to be made without this kind of analysis. Move or don’t move – but ask yourself these questions consistently so you always know the reason behind your decision.