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Practice Pointers - Knowing When to Consider a Lateral Move

Most lawyers (indeed, most professionals) won’t stay at their first job forever. Kudos to those “lifers” who find their perfect fit from the get-go (or decide to stick it out at their first gig), but the rest of us will likely contemplate a lateral move at some point in our careers. And if you fall into the latter category, how do you know when to consider making a move?

The answer, of course, will vary depending on the individual lawyer and situation. From personal experience and now, as a legal recruiter, I’ve found that the following are good reasons to start thinking about and exploring other options:

  • Not enough work

There’s a difference between a slow month or two and a consistent dearth of work. If you find that you’re unable to make your hours month after month despite asking your supervising attorney(s) for additional work and/or attempting to bring in more work for yourself, something is up. Maybe your superiors don’t have enough work to pass along to you or there’s a performance issue that needs to be addressed. Hopefully your supervisors would have already spoken with you if there were any performance concerns, but either way, several dry months should raise a red flag for you.

  • Not enough substantive experience

Maybe you’re getting plenty of work, but the nature of that work isn’t facilitating your professional growth. For instance, if you’re a third-year litigator at a firm who still spends the majority of your days doing doc review, you’re not going to advance at the same rate as your colleague who has already defended a few depositions and had an opportunity to argue a motion. If proactive efforts to seek out more substantive work haven’t gotten you anywhere, you might want to look for new opportunities that will allow you to get the substantive experience you need to keep growing as an attorney.

  • Not enough upward mobility

Let’s say you’re getting plenty of challenging assignments and regularly meeting your hours. But when you look around, you realize it will take years and some serious competition to make partner given the sheer number of associates your year. Now you might be the fierce “I’ll beat every one of these suckers to the top even if it takes 10 or 11 years” type, and if you are, go you! But if you envisioned making partner sooner than that or, for whatever reason, you don’t see yourself as one of the coveted “chosen ones,” consider a mid-level lateral move to another firm where you’d have a higher likelihood of making partner (if that’s your goal). That’s one of the reasons you see stellar big law firm mid-level associates moving to a sophisticated boutique firm where they’ll be able to quickly advance and still get high-quality, challenging work.

The same goes for public sector lawyers – if there’s little room for advancement (maybe leadership hasn’t turned over in years and is unlikely to) and you know you want to move into a leadership position, you might want to consider a lateral move somewhere else.

  • The culture fit is off and likely won’t improve

Did you join a firm/company/organization super excited only to find that the culture that was sold to you is far from the day-to-day reality of working there? It’s unfortunate but happens all the time. If you can tough it out for a year or two, great. But if you can’t, know that you have options. You don’t have to suffer through 10 to 12-hour days with a bunch of jerks, if that’s the situation you’ve found yourself in. Same goes with practice environments that lack or don’t value/support diversity despite touting that they do. (Shame on those places by the way!).

  • Your mental health is suffering and/or you’re unhappy/unfulfilled

Speaking of working with a bunch of jerks, if you’re mental health is suffering and/or you’re unhappy or unfulfilled, please don’t ignore those very important signs that you’re in the wrong place. All of us will have the occasional bad day or even week at work. But if you dread going to work every day, find that you can’t breathe when a partner emails you, or would prefer to do a Freaky Friday switch with the person who delivers your daily UberEats order… please chat with someone. Depending on your situation, that might be a therapist, career coach, or close friend or family member. You don’t have to push through the pain to succeed. You CAN be happy, or at the very least, content with your career. So if you’re feeling hopeless or deeply dissatisfied with your job, please seek support, and know that there are viable alternatives for you – both in and outside of the law.

  • Your life circumstances have changed

This one is probably the most obvious reasons to consider making a move. Maybe your partner decided to leave a six-figure job for a nonprofit role or you now have a kid or two and want to devote more time to your family. Whatever the case, your personal goals matter, and you can (and will!) find an opportunity that supports those goals.

  • You’ve decided to change sectors and/or practice area

Perhaps you’re tired of billable hours and want to move in-house or transition to a government role. If that’s the case, go for it! Generally, the mid-level mark is a good time to consider such a move, but there are always exceptions.

If you’re looking to move because you want to change practice areas, then consider doing so sooner rather than later (ideally as a junior lawyer) so you don’t get pigeonholed into a practice. The more senior you get, the less marketable you’ll be for different practice areas. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is what it is.

  • An amazing opportunity lands in your lap

This is one of the best reasons to consider a lateral move – the unexpected awesome dream job that comes out of nowhere. As a risk-adverse Type A lawyer type, you might hesitate to take a leap of faith, especially if you’ve been at the same job your entire career. But do yourself a favor and at least consider the opportunity, because once-in-a-career opportunities are just that. Take the time to weigh your options carefully and decide what makes the most sense for you and your goals.

No matter what though, remember that you’re in control of your career. Be proactive with it, build relationships consistently (not just when you need them), and be open to possibilities. There’s so many more than you might realize.  

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