If you’re an associate entering the lateral market, I have good news and bad news. The good news? Despite all the talk of recession, the lateral market remains open for business. The bad news? The days of minimal scrutiny and massive sign-on bonuses are behind us. For associates whose conception of the lateral market was forged in the chaotic, unprecedented period from late 2020 through mid-2022, a reality check is in order.
Firms have more power now
It’s hard to overstate just how remarkably imbalanced the lateral market was in 2021. Transactional associates with even average credentials held substantial leverage, often receiving quick offers from multiple firms, complete with sign-on bonuses of $50,000 or more. Given that the 2021 market was a striking departure from the historical norm, it’s not surprising that the pendulum has swung back to a more typical place.
In 2023, a lateral move requires more strategy and effort. That starts with the decision about which firms to pursue. A good recruiter will be honest with you about the firms that are realistic options in light of your credentials. You can help us help you by being transparent about where you’ve applied and interviewed in the past, and why you’re looking for a change. If we understand the reasons motivating your search, we can give better advice on which firms are likely to be a match.
Traditional interviews are back
Just as offices are beginning to look more like the pre-Covid normal (at least on Tuesdays and Wednesdays!) the lateral interview process is starting to resemble 2019.
Zoom interviews are no longer the default. You should expect a “hybrid” process. Some interviews—especially those with partners—may still be virtual, but you should assume that a visit to the office will be required, even if you don’t live locally.
When interviewing with local firms, you should anticipate at least a half day in person. If you’re interviewing with a group out of state, be prepared to devote at least a full day to interviews, accounting for travel time. Try to make yourself as available as possible. Firms must typically coordinate the schedules of several partners to accommodate your interview, so your flexibility will be appreciated. Once the interview is confirmed, commit to showing up as promised—only a dire emergency should cause you to ask to reschedule.
Firms are more selective now than they have been in recent years, with multiple candidates typically interviewing for a single opening. Given the increased competition, preparation is essential. Know who you will meet, and have a plan for what you hope to achieve in the conversation. Based on the available background information, can you anticipate any potential sources of rapport with your interviewer? On what topics might this person have uniquely valuable insight? Make sure you arrive with some thoughtful, well-tailored questions.
Remember to dress professionally. In-office dress codes are looser these days than ever, but you should still wear a suit to an interview. If you haven’t dressed formally in a while, take a moment now to confirm that you have appropriate, well-fitting attire. And if you’re flying, make sure to pack your interview clothing in your carry-on bag.
Firms are taking their time to extend offers
Back when the market was red hot, firms were forced to make offers exceptionally quickly. Today, it’s customary to take more time. Some firms may still move fast if there’s a pressing need to do so, but taking a week or longer to put together a written offer is not unusual. Occasionally, firms may run conflicts checks before a formal offer is made, further delaying the process. Be patient, but tell your recruiter if you have another offer pending, or some other good reason why an urgent decision is necessary. Nobody wants to lose a strong candidate over timing, and we can prod firms to speed up where it’s genuinely necessary.
Once you receive an offer, there tends to be little scope for negotiation. This is particularly true in large markets with lockstep associate salaries. In some cases, class year may be a point of discussion: if you’re re-tooling to a different practice area, lateraling to a more sophisticated practice, or the scope of your practice is shifting, you may be asked to take a class year “haircut.” This is standard practice and is often to your long-term benefit. That said, if you disagree with the firm’s assessment of your level, talk to your recruiter about it.
Before 2021, sign-on bonuses were not standard practice, and today they are once again the exception. Even so, there are circumstances where it makes sense to ask. If you’re taking a pay cut to move from Big Law to a regional firm, walking away from your previous year’s bonus, being asked to start on an accelerated timeline, or you have multiple offers, it’s reasonable to attempt to negotiate a sign-on payment. If you are relocating, it’s common for large firms to pay a “relocation” allowance in the form of a sign-on bonus. In any case, it’s important to keep your expectations realistic. You aren’t going to get a $50k+ sign-on bonus as a matter of course. The typical current range in a large market is more like $10-25k.
Be aware of post-offer expectations
Once you have received an offer, you should inform the firm of your decision as soon as you’ve made it, ideally within a few days. If a quick decision isn’t feasible (for example, because you’re juggling other interviews or offers), be transparent with your recruiter to enable us to manage the firm’s expectations. Note that conflicts and background checks can take as long as a few weeks, so it’s best to get that process started as soon as possible.
Upon clearing conflicts and giving notice, it’s standard to start within 2-4 weeks. If your circumstances require a longer gap, state your request clearly, but be aware that asking for more than a month is generally frowned upon. Wrapping up a trial you’ve been staffed on or taking a pre-planned vacation are good reasons for requesting a delayed start.
Don’t get discouraged
All of us wish that the post-Covid lateral bonanza could have continued indefinitely. But that was never going to happen. Instead of lamenting the reversion to more normal conditions, focus on the positive. If you commit to a lateral search and approach it correctly, you still have every chance of landing at a firm that will be a better fit. In the end, that’s what matters most.