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Will My Goodwill Be Squandered If I Make A Lateral Move?

Will My Goodwill Be Squandered If I Make A Lateral Move?

Answers From Lauren Sugarman, Esq.
Managing Director
t. 212.897.0983
lauren.sugarman@sjlsearch.com
website bio

One of the most common fears I hear from big law associates who are thinking about a lateral move is losing the goodwill they’ve built at their current firm.  But do they actually lose their goodwill or does it have the mobility to travel with them to their next role?

Q:  What is goodwill?

A:  In legal terms, goodwill is the difference between the purchase price of a business and the actual value of its tangible assets, such as the value of a company’s brand.  It’s the reason we buy Coke and Starbucks rather than a generic-brand, and it can often be very valuable.  In big law associate terms, goodwill is your professional brand.  It’s the reputation you cultivate at your firm over time through hard work, outstanding work product and unlimited availability.  It also has significant value that you want to preserve.  Goodwill encompasses the confidence that partners and senior attorneys have in you to get the job done quickly, efficiently and well.  It makes your big law life more manageable because it enables you to ask for an extension, send a draft to a partner the next morning rather than in the middle of the night or leave the office early on Friday to head out of town, all without raising eyebrows.  You cherish your goodwill for good reason. 

Q:  Will I lose my goodwill if I make a lateral move?

A:  No!  Many associates are surprised to hear that their goodwill travels with them even when they are no longer working with the same attorneys.  How does this happen?  Easy answer – you were responsible for creating your goodwill and you will continue to own it going forward, just like Nike owns its Swoosh or Apple owns its macintosh.  Your goodwill isn’t something that is bestowed upon you by the people you work with.  Rather, it’s the professional brand that you cultivate for yourself.  It’s the work ethic you’ve demonstrated, the legal skills you’ve mastered and the way in which you interact with others.  Unlike OCI, you’re now interviewing for jobs with a few years of experience under your belt.  You know how deals flow or how cases should be managed.  You understand how to conduct due diligence or manage a document review.  You know how to interact with clients and partners and appreciate the quality of work product that they both expect.  These are the main reasons a future employer will want to hire you, and you take them with you wherever you go.  As a lateral, you’re not hired en masse with a group of other first year attorneys – you’re hired on an individual basis specifically for what you bring to the table.  Because of this, you already walk in the door on your first day with significant goodwill.  It’s not something you need to create from scratch like you did as a first year attorney. 

Q:  How easy is it to build up goodwill again?

A:  Even though you start a fresh job with goodwill, you still need to show your new colleagues that you’re as much of an asset as they thought you’d be.  However, because of your previous legal experience, it doesn’t take long to do this.  After every assignment, you reaffirm your reputation and word quickly spreads that you’re an associate people want to work with.  Simply put, this process won’t take a year or two like it did right out of law school because you’re starting with a strong foundation in your practice area and a working knowledge of how to navigate law firm life.  It is my experience that a successful associate at one firm will be a successful associate at another firm.  Even though your co-workers and office may be different, you’re still utilizing the same skillset that made you well-respected at your prior firm.  Goodwill very quickly replicates itself.

Q:  What if I don’t have goodwill? 

A:  Sometimes associates make mistakes early on in their careers that leave their colleagues questioning their ability to succeed long term.  While most attorneys make errors at some point, sometimes those missteps are made with important partners or clients who aren’t quick to forgive and forget.  Unfortunately, one misinterpretation of a document or rushed memo can permanently impact your colleagues’ impressions of your work product and aptitude.  In this case, it can be difficult to build up goodwill, even if you’re otherwise a strong associate with the best intentions.  You may want to ask yourself why you should continue to paddle upstream if, at the end of the day, it won’t make a difference.  A fresh start at another firm can put you on track to have your co-workers recognize your abilities without that mistake from early on in your career looming over your head.  It can offer you the opportunity to be that go-to associate who has more flexibility due to the high-esteem he or she is held in by co-workers.    

It’s important for associates throughout their career to regularly take stock of their professional brand or “goodwill” and assess whether its value is on the rise and, if so, ensure that they are capitalizing on it.  I’m always happy to be a professional resource in that conversation, so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.

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