Making the change

One of the most common questions I hear from junior and mid-level lawyers is: “How do I know it is time to make a move?” Unfortunately, there is never one clear answer.

Fernando Garcia

One of the most common questions I hear from junior and mid-level lawyers is: “How do I know it is time to make a move?” Unfortunately, there is never one clear answer. The only right answer anyone can give is: “It depends.”

I have heard it said many times before that, unless there are fundamental changes to your function or responsibilities, three to five years is generally a time to reassess where you are and where you want to be. This is the time at which most people decide to make a difficult but necessary change. Whether it is that associate who feels or has been told that the chance to make partner is slim to none or that in-house counsel who has become too comfortable with their role, at this point, you need to reassess your options. This may also be the right time to switch that little option in the LinkedIn privacy settings to “let recruiters know you’re open to opportunities.”

But making that decision is never easy. I often advise colleagues and anyone who asks that they should periodically conduct a gap analysis. This reflection requires the individual to write down, in as much detail as possible, what it is they do on a day-to-day basis. Then, they should reflect and write down areas that may be of interest but that may not currently fall within the scope of their duties. In doing so, it is also important to determine whether that gap represents something they would like to have or must have.

Armed with this information, you can then ask if you can obtain these desired and important responsibilities or skillsets where you are or if it will require a move.

Remember, in dealing with your current employer, if you don’t make them aware of what you want, you won’t get it.

Lawyers, both in-house and external counsel, can very easily become pigeon-holed. Unless you are 100-per-cent confident that you love the work you are doing, the industry that you are in or the role that you hold, you need to ensure that you are expanding and broadening your skillsets at all times and expanding on your experience and knowledge base. If you don’t, you may eventually find yourself looking for another role, by force or by choice, only to find that due to your narrow skillset or specific industry knowledge, you must take a demotion or the journey to finding alternate work may be a long one. Add to this how much harder it is to find a job when you are not at the time already working and the need to be proactive becomes increasingly clear and important.

So here are some items that you may want to add to your checklist or points to consider when deciding whether or not to find or accept a new opportunity:

  • Are you satisfied being a specialist or are you looking at branching out and expanding your skillsets into other areas? If the decision is to branch out, keep in mind that you will need to show any potential employer how it is that you can add value, highlight past experiences in that area or will undertake to work to quickly increase your skillset in that other area.    
  • Similar to the point above, be careful not to spend an entire career in a very narrow industry, unless you are determined that this is all you want to do and are determined to do it until you retire. Making the change gets harder the more time you spend in a specific industry.
  • Think about the type of environment in which you want to work. For example:
    • Would you rather join an established organization or one that is more entrepreneurial and where you will be responsible for setting the foundation for the company? Hint: The latter will require you to be much more dynamic and work with minimal supervision.
    • Would you like to work at a headquarters or a subsidiary? The type of work that you will experience in the two may not differ substantively, but the reporting obligations, the approval processes and the pace are very different. Subsidiaries often have many levels of approvals, as the actions in one jurisdiction can impact others or monetary approvals require oversight in other locations, versus being at home base and the intent is to get things done faster with fewer layers of approvals and bureaucracy.
  • As I said in prior articles, see here and here, compensation is important, but don’t make this the sole basis for making a move. That being said, consider whether things like stock ownership, automobile allowances, etc. are important and valuable to you. Also, depending on how risk averse you are, you may even be willing to take a pay cut, if there is a higher potential bonus payable or deferred income is important to you. This is a consideration that only you and, if married, your spouse should discuss and come to a decision as to what works best for your situation.
  • Keep in mind that you will be spending as much time at work as you do with your family. Make sure that you are comfortable and can buy in to the corporate culture where you are. Make sure that the corporate culture and brand matches — or at least does not conflict — with your personal values and the personal brand you have been working hard over the years to develop.

After taking into consideration all of the points above and, more importantly, your career aspirations and goals, you need to be prepared to answer the door when opportunity knocks. Do not get frustrated as finding the ideal opportunity can take time. Think about it as an important investment in yourself. Make sure you do your homework, research the options, make sure you are comfortable with the company and the people that you will be working with and, if the stars are aligned, take the risk and make the change.


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