As you surely know by now, the lateral market has been exceptionally hot in 2021. From record signing bonuses to flexible work arrangements, law firms are offering unprecedented carrots in the battle for associate talent. It’s undoubtedly a great year to make a lateral move.
But one side effect of the rapidly shifting market has been a cascade of misleading rumors. Many candidates are entering the process with unrealistic expectations, failing to appreciate that the factors shaping the terms of a lateral offer are multifaceted and individualized. In addition, the focus on flashy inducements like signing bonuses is leading some candidates to pursue opportunities at firms that may be a poor long-term fit.
Rumor mill: signing bonuses, practice group retooling, remote work
In our experience at Lateral Link, rumors about signing bonuses, practice group retooling, and remote work opportunities are especially widespread. Let’s address those topics in turn.
When it comes to signing bonuses, everyone has a story about an eye-popping figure that some lateral associate achieved. But even assuming the number being bandied about is accurate, it’s essential to place it in a broader context. The bonus offered to a particular candidate depends on several factors, including practice area, location, and personal compatibility with interviewers. Candidates sometimes interpret a signing bonus as a judgment on their intrinsic worth, but that’s not how firms determine the number. Signing bonuses are driven primarily by the firm’s idiosyncratic needs, not the candidate’s credentials. For example, where a firm is seeking to fill slots in a particular office and needs lateral candidates willing to move from outside the region, there is greater leeway for an outsized signing bonus. The bonus that a firm offers a fourth-year M&A associate to join its Boston office is not necessarily transferable to a fourth-year lateral joining the same practice in New York.
Similarly, you should not presume that a firm’s past decision to hire a particular lateral associate to retool into a new practice area is predictive of future offers. Firms’ willingness to facilitate retooling is driven by specific practice area and location needs. The more liquid the local market in the relevant practice area, the easier it is to hire an associate who already has the skills, and the less likely the firm is to consider a candidate who needs to retool. For that reason, you are more likely to find retooling opportunities in Boston or Austin than in New York or Los Angeles.
Unfounded rumors about remote work opportunities are especially common, driven by the fact that permission to work remotely is often partner-dependent. The fact that one associate succeeded or failed in negotiating a flexible arrangement when joining a firm tells you little about the prospects for a different candidate who would be working with different partners. It’s also worth noting that a candidate’s leverage to negotiate more flexible terms may improve based on strong interview performance.
Don’t lose focus on the long term
The excitement around bonuses and other carrots can cause candidates to lose sight of what should be the primary goal of the lateral process: finding an opportunity that sets you up for long-term professional success. As great as it feels to negotiate a lucrative signing bonus, don’t let a one-time payment dictate your decision. If the firm offering the largest bonus is a poor fit for your culture preferences or career goals, you should turn it down.
At the outset of the lateral process, think carefully about why you are seeking to switch firms and how the next step fits into your broader career plans. Having that clarity of vision upfront will help you make a smarter choice when the numbers are in front of you. As you go through the process, keep an open mind. Don’t talk yourself out of opportunities before you’ve explored them properly — especially if your initial assessment has been shaped by rumors. And assuming you’re working with a good recruiter, trust the information they give you. The market changes from week to week and month to month: you can be assured that a plugged-in recruiter will have more reliable, more current information than the rumor mill.