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5 things you should know about making a lateral move . . .

Career Path
|Written By Danya Cohen
5 things you should know about making a lateral move . . .

For many law firm associates, at least a few moments of the distracted thought which rounds off their billables is spent considering whether they are at the right firm. 

But often the curiosity is smothered by the view that all law firms are the same. It’s easy to assume. Most firms exhibit the same hallmarks — expensive lease, mishmash of well-adjusted versus not so well-adjusted lawyers, token piece of experimental art, billable targets, greedy view, institutional client-gods, etc. But given that a great deal of law firm attrition can be attributed to firm-to-firm moves, many associates have found that switching firms presented a meaningful difference.

The grass is sometimes greener. But it can also just be freshly sodded with the same crap as where you came from. Therefore, you should apply the same rigour of due diligence to your career decisions as you do to your deals.

That being said, lateral moves have accounted for some of the most rewarding career maneuvers for associates and partners alike. So, if you are considering crossing the not-so-proverbial street, here are five things you should know about lateral moves.

1. The bottom line never changes

If you have not figured it out yet, you really don’t deserve that degree on your wall. And there were many clues along the way.

Maybe it was that one bold lawyer you met during on-campus interviews who was frank enough to pierce the blissful bubble of academia and explain that firms have a bottom line. And it involved numbers — a subject you thought you’d avoided by pursuing your LLB.

Firms exist to provide legal services, but they survive because they make money.

The unfortunate burden of having to make money obviously falls to associates in the way of billable hours. While the expectation for hard billable hours may vary between departments (litigators, for instance, typically don’t bill as much as transactional lawyers) they are often the same across the firms for comparable departments.

Firms may tout a better balance, but the bottom line is this: if the work is there, you will be too. And since law firms are constantly trying to drive more business, chances are that if the firm is healthy, your social life won’t be.

While some differences between firms may account for slightly better hours like a better partner-to-associate ratio, the unpredictability of private practice will likely remain the same. With the rare exception of some boutiques that advertise a billable target under 1,600 hours, or a fortuitous relationship with a schismatic partner who has made a 9-to-6 practice work, trading up one firm for another won’t solve your work-life balance woes.

2. Beware of high toxicity levels

One of the more common reasons associates defect for another law firm is to get away from what is affectionately known in HR circles as a “difficult personality” — diplomatic speak for a toxic person.

Unfortunately, every firm and every department will likely have a few DPs among them. Why? Some of the more challenging personalities tend to coincide with the more brilliant practitioners. Maybe it’s that vengeful nerd thing.

The real question is whether you can avoid these DPs or whether you are caught in inescapable servitude to them.

One DP in a large department is usually not enough to give up the other benefits of staying put. But, if you’ve fallen into a relationship where your day-to-day encounters teeter on abusive — yelling, name-calling, or getting flak when you take time off to attend a relative’s funeral or say, have a baby — you may want to consider moving on.

Even more problematic is if you are a senior associate and you’ve become wrapped up with the insecure variety of DP who will keep you down as far as partnership considerations go.

Although most firms are not free of DPs, you can often improve your situation by making an informed move. Just do your homework. Most DPs have an established reputation on the street so sniffing them out shouldn’t be hard.

Beyond that, find out if they like to use associates, if they already have their favourites, or if you are being recruited specifically to take the spot of someone who went on a mysterious stress leave.

Your most important resource will be speaking to the associates in the department you are considering as a new home as they will typically be the most candid. Surprisingly, what you may also find is that some branded as DPs are tough, but far from nasty.

Succeeding as the junior of a demanding-but-fair partner can turn you into a better lawyer and also give you credibility in future career moves. What you may also find is that some are just plain nasty.

3. Starting from scratch

For those contemplating a move, the excitement of starting fresh can sometimes trump the more sober consideration of starting from scratch.

Laterals can encounter an uphill battle, especially when the receiving firm doesn’t do a great job of integrating their new arrivals. The result can be a flailing associate who doesn’t have the goodwill and familiarity of homegrown associates.

While it should not discourage those truly dissatisfied from looking at other options, it should certainly inspire some investigation. As a more junior associate, try to pin down who you will be working for and which partners have a practice that really keeps associates busy. If you are more senior, a late arrival may have further repercussions for partnership admission.

Consider how many associates are at your level or above in the incoming department.

Have a frank discussion about partnership with the firm you are considering once you know they are serious about you. Ask how many partners were admitted into the group in previous years and be clear about your goals for partnership, demonstrating too that you understand you’ll have to prove yourself first.

Cautionary tales aside, there are many success stories among laterals. Sometimes a strategic move can speed up your chances for partnership if the demographics are right and you establish a cheering team from the outset.

If you are at a firm with two-tier partnership, your situation may also be improved by moving to a firm that only has equity partnership.

I spoke to one associate who was doing great at a two-tier shop, but didn’t want to wait through two mandatory years of non-equity partnership. He moved to an equity-only firm at the right time, impressed a heavyweight early on and made partner within a year.

Another associate who moved laterally expressed that breaking into a tight-knit group was hard but attributes her success to attending all the firm social events. She recalls having those awkward conversations with partners and explaining time and time again that she was not catering staff, but an associate at their firm.

Given that homegrown associates often don’t bother to attend these events after a few years, consider it some stolen one-on-one time with the partners who do show. And they always do — at least the ones who like to imbibe.

4. Dollar, Dollar Bills Y’all

I’d be remiss not to mention the even more popular reason for making a lateral move — money.

This consideration won’t usually apply if you are within your first three years of practice as lock-step salaries are, for the most part, identical among the major firms. There are a few aggressive bidders out there, though, that offer higher salaries even within these formative years.

Once you’ve shaken loose the manacles of lock-step salaries, however, you can usually fetch a slightly better salary when you make a move. You’ve got something to leverage at that point; you know stuff.

The differences in salary obviously become more pronounced the more senior you get. Partners with a practice or associates with a demonstrated ability to build a book of business will have the best opportunity to cash in their experience for a large increase in salary.

But associates too — if they are doing well at their existing firm and the receiving firm is looking to fill a critical gap — can translate this into a better salary.

While I do not encourage being unreasonably demanding, savvy firms will appreciate that making a move is a big undertaking and that any increase in salary will be a powerful incentive. So if an offer does not entail an increase, there is nothing wrong with negotiating as long as you remain within the range the firm offers other associates at your level.

You won’t always be successful, but at the very least you’ve demonstrated some advocacy or negotiating skills.

If you are making a move at an advanced stage in the fiscal year, consider too that you’ll be leaving your accrued hours and therefore potential bonus on the table. If you get an offer, you should therefore be prepared to discuss a signing bonus that will in part, if not wholly, compensate you for the bonus you are foregoing.

Although money may not be the main motivation for your move, you should be made whole in a lateral move or do better — not take a hit.

5. It’s business, not personal

If you’ve decided to switch firms, the anxiety of delivering the news will likely follow quickly on the heels of the excitement of getting an offer. So when you are sitting in your office trying to work up the courage to tell your firm, recalling some advice you once heard about Band-Aids, just remember the reasons you’ve decided to move because they are likely good ones.

Whether it’s a better platform, better chances for partnership, better work, better mentorship, better fit, or better money (and I’ve never seen anyone move for money unless they were paid under market or the increase was significant) — these all represent a better business opportunity in the venture that is your career. And the lawyers who are truly business-minded will understand.

Though I would not urge associates to be so obnoxious as to utter the line — ‘It’s business, not personal’ — this is certainly the message to be conveyed. If your firm takes the news personally, it is sometimes just recognition of failure on their part. Or perhaps you are just dealing with a DP.

The truth is that if someone were paying attention to your career like you are, your decision to move shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with Rainmaker Group. She can be reached at danyac@rainmakergroup.ca.


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