Annual bonuses have hit the bank accounts of many law firm associates, kicking an already active lateral market into an even higher gear. With demand continuing to outpace supply, many lateral candidates can reasonably expect to receive offers from multiple firms. Unfortunately, the offers probably won’t arrive at the same time. Candidates often must make a decision about an offer in hand before receiving an answer from one or more other firms where they interview. This scenario begs the question: what should you do if you have received an offer from a less-preferred firm but have yet to hear from your preferred firm?
Each situation requires a case-by-case assessment, and a trusted recruiter can offer helpful individualized guidance. However, there are a few general principles that any lateral candidate should keep in mind.
Don’t underestimate the value of joining a firm that truly wants you
The clearest indication that a firm truly wants you is a decisive offer extended shortly after interviews. This is a strong signal that the firm will go above and beyond to integrate you into the practice, setting you up for success in your new role. It should also give you confidence that bumps along the road will be more easily manageable. For example, in the event your first performance review is less than perfect, you will be in a better headspace to receive criticism as genuinely constructive, rather than wondering if they even wanted you there in the first place. Given the sometimes cut-throat nature of law firm life, knowing that the team was thrilled to hire you can be critically important in helping you stay positive and confident through the inevitable ups and downs.
If the firm really wants you and also knows that you are considering other firms, you (or your recruiter) may be in a position to negotiate a signing bonus or, in the case of non-lockstep firms, a higher salary. Obviously, this will be valuable if you accept the offer. If you have doubts about your willingness to accept, even with an added financial incentive, you should be careful about potential damage to your reputation. It’s a bad look for a candidate to negotiate a robust signing bonus (either alone or through a recruiter), only to then decline the offer.
A full pipeline of work alleviates job security concerns
A prompt offer is a strong indication that the firm has immediate work for you to take on. This can mitigate concerns about failing to meet hours in a new group where you lack established relationships. Conversely, if a firm is slow to give you a decision, there is less certainty of an immediate need. If the practice group is not currently operating at full capacity, there is some risk that the firm will ultimately decide not to approve a hire — even if your interviewers judge you to be a great candidate.
There’s something reassuring about a confirmation that the role and the need are firm priorities. Even junior associates — who have experienced a remarkably strong market for the duration of their legal careers — sometimes fear that they will be “last in, first out” should the market sour and the firm start making cuts. This is rarely a serious risk in the current market, but knowing the practice you will be joining has a robust pipeline of work should put to rest any concerns about job security.
A less-preferred firm can sometimes be a stepping stone
In some cases, a less desirable firm may be a stepping stone to your preferred firm. This is particularly plausible where a candidate is seeking to transition to a new practice or subspecialty. If the less-preferred firm is offering a concrete opportunity to gain relevant experience in the new field, it may be wise to accept the offer and then re-apply to your preferred firm in the future, with a strengthened profile.
When accepting an offer, plan to say for at least a year
With rare exceptions, it is a major red flag to leave a firm after less than a year. Keep this in mind if considering the stepping stone approach. If you cannot see yourself sticking it out for a full year or more, you are better off declining the offer and taking your chances that a more attractive option will materialize soon. Of course, how you feel about your current firm is also an important factor. If you are not desperate to leave, you can be more selective and risk-tolerant in your lateral search.
Working through these issues with a trusted recruiter can be invaluable
There is a lot of upside to working through these timing issues with the help of an experienced recruiter. Candidates often focus on the recruiter’s role in helping secure interviews, but a recruiter with strong relationships can also add value as the candidate’s advocate after interviews have concluded. For example, recruiters are typically in a better position than candidates to exert pressure when a firm is delaying its decision. Your recruiter can have a candid conversation with the firm, conveying the message that you are strongly considering other options and will soon be off the market.
In addition, a trusted recruiter can be a helpful sounding board as you weigh the various factors and come to a decision about how best to proceed. Juggling actual and potential offers is rarely easy, but your recruiter can help you navigate the process as smoothly as possible.