Tag Archives: Professional development in law

The Strategic Lateral Move: A Guide for Attorneys Contemplating Change

As attorneys progress through their careers, the decision to make a lateral move to a new role becomes an increasingly relevant consideration. Most attorneys lateral at least once in the first seven years of their practice, often due to the realization that the fit envisioned during law school’s On-Campus Interviewing (OCI) process doesn’t fully align with their long-term career aspirations or firm preferences. This journey leads us to ask ourselves whether this is the year to make a change.

Timing and Marketability: The Optimal Window for Lateral Moves

It’s observed that the majority of lateral moves to firms happen between an attorney’s 2nd and 5th year of practice. This period is the ‘sweet spot’ where attorneys possess the right mix of expertise and adaptability, without being too senior, thus maximizing marketability. However, as one moves past the 5th-year mark, opportunities start to thin out due to growing seniority. Given this, the magic time to move is between an associate’s 2nd and 5th year of practice, where the number of opportunities peaks.

Mentoring and Training: The Cornerstones of Professional Development

In the current working environment where in-office time differs from firm to firm, the level of mentoring and training varies significantly across firms. The ability to interact with other lawyers in the office can significantly impact one’s long-term development, particularly for junior attorneys. The availability and quality of mentorship and training depend on factors like formal programs, partner availability, and the presence of a supportive associate team.

Practice Area Fit: Broadening or Narrowing Your Expertise

Many attorneys face challenges in picking the “perfect” practice area, often making this decision in law school without sufficient information. When a practice isn’t the right fit, it is worth considering a lateral move to look at roles that broaden or narrow their current practice or potentially transition practices altogether. Transitioning practices can be difficult, especially in a down market, but firms sometimes retool associates with closely related experience. Regardless of the pivot you are looking for, it is ideal to make this move sooner rather than later as it becomes increasingly difficult with seniority.

Partnership Prospects: Assessing Your Current Firm’s Pathway

The journey to partnership varies across firms. It’s crucial to assess if your firm provides a clear and supportive path to partnership, including opportunities to lead cases/deals, formal business development training, client exposure, and mentorship. The promotion criteria and the firm’s culture around partnership, which includes historical data, are also important factors to consider. Even more important, if you have been passed over more than once despite assurances, it is time to consider a move.

Firm Brand and Client Targeting

The brand of your firm plays a significant role in your ability to target and secure clients. Consider whether your firm is one of the go-to firms for your practice, as this can impact how successful you can be at building a book. It is also important to evaluate if your practice requires lower billing rates. Ensuring your firm’s brand and rate structures support your client acquisition and practice-building goals is vital to your long-term success in building a practice for yourself. 

Transition to In-House Roles: Firm’s Track Record

If transitioning in-house is a goal, evaluate your firm’s track record in facilitating such moves. Firms that see the long-term advantage in having attorneys go in-house often have strong practices in relevant industries, a robust alumni network, and actively market their support for in-house transitions. It is also important to look at how many attorneys from your firm have gone in-house. There are some firms that are a better springboard to in-house roles.

Cultural Fit and Work-Life Balance

Cultural fit is the biggest driver for associates to move. It encompasses aspects like group dynamics, office location, work hours, and mentorship availability. Associates often face a conflict between personal career needs and loyalty to their firm. Sometimes, proactive efforts can bring change, but often, a lateral move is necessary for better alignment with personal and professional goals.

Relocation as a Career Strategy

Many attorneys plan to relocate for personal or professional reasons, such as family proximity, industry opportunities, work-life balance, or community environment. Relocation allows reassessment of current roles and exploration of options that better align with long-term goals.

Making a lateral move can be daunting for attorneys, especially when they are “mostly” happy. That said, it’s important to continually assess your career against your long-term goals and job satisfaction. Ultimately, the decision to make a lateral move should be guided by a careful evaluation of your current position and how well it aligns with your professional and personal aspirations.