What Happens When My Career Plan Is Really An Excuse?
Answers From Hope Barry, Esq.
As a former Biglaw associate turned legal recruiter, I feel déjà vu on a daily basis. Associates will confidently tell me their plan or timeline to prove that they don’t need to speak with a recruiter about their career, or that I can try them back in “like a year or two.” Their way of thinking always hits close to home because I used these excuses too. I now understand how detrimental those excuses can be for your career. So, I decided to write this “Excuse Series” to expose the most common excuses I hear, explain the fallout of relying on each excuse, and motivate you to evaluate your career path now, so you can make informed decisions about your future.
EXCUSE #1: I AM DOING FINE. I PLAN TO GO IN-HOUSE.
“I’m going to stay at my firm for another two to three years and then make a move in-house. If, and only if, the in-house plan doesn’t work out in my allotted time frame, then I’ll move to another firm. “
This is not a plan. A “plan” is a “detailed proposal for doing or achieving something.” It requires forethought, structure, accountability and, in order to be a good plan, a realistic likelihood of success. In contrast, this is an assumption and, moreover, one that is (i) uninformed, (ii) shared by countless associates with your similar profile and (iii) more often than not, unsuccessful. You’ve invested years of your life and thousands of hours of tireless work ensuring that you get the best grades, best summer position and best post-law school job. With all that in mind, is this really the “plan” you envisioned for yourself?
Here’s the reality - making a successful move to a desirable in-house position is difficult. You have a limited timeframe to accomplish it and there is a lot of competition for a finite number of spots. Put aside the second year associate who fell into the perfect in-house role without ever looking. She is the exception. You cannot and should not bank on that. And if you want to go in-house, the first several years of practice are more important than most attorneys realize. What you learn, the clients you represent, the network you build, will dictate your options in the future. Bottom line - it’s when you should be engaged, not on auto-pilot. Associates only have five to six years to figure out and take their next steps, before their law firm decides for them. To make matters worse, there are thousands of lawyers in NYC alone with that exact same timeline and they are actively pursuing the in-house market.
Here’s another unavoidable truth: a law firm is not a fool-proof backup plan. The more senior you become, the harder it is to make a lateral move to another firm. As a general rule, associates have a shelf-life of marketability at law firms until year five. There are exceptions of course - where there is a need to replace someone who left or a firm is building out a new practice area. Beyond that, however, senior associates are in far less demand and, to the extent there are roles, potential hires are more highly scrutinized. You cannot assume that, because of your academic credentials or the prestige of your existing firm, there will be a place for you at another firm. I’ve had to deliver this difficult message many times over the years and it still shocks me when it comes as a surprise.
Why do I tell you this? Associates have a tendency to hide behind a busy schedule or assume that your top firm or law school will open doors when you’re ready. If you take away this excuse, you will do the work necessary. You need to regularly assess your marketability – which means having an honest conversation about whether your current practice and skill set are helping to advance you toward realistic goals – and make adjustments to the extent they aren’t. Often times an adjustment involves improving your position internally or making a lateral move to another firm. Regardless, it always means developing a relationship with an outside recruiter – a market expert – who can provide honest, objective feedback as to how your experience compares with your peers and your marketability within the marketplace. When you’re asked – why are you working this hard at your firm? You should have a plan. A real plan. And if you don’t have one, then it’s time for us to have a conversation.
Next Excuse: I’ll just wait for [INSERT: the end of the year, after my wedding, my next review, a new partner to join, etc.] to start thinking about the market.