Staying Where You Are Is A Decision


An associate reached out to me recently about a job I called her about in October 2017. She is now ready to apply. One small catch: that job has been off the market for 7 months. (To put this in perspective, I’ve had a baby and watched him learn to roll over and sit up in that time.) It was a niche role at the top firm for this work and it was filled in the snap of a finger. She would have been a very strong contender, but the door is closed. In this case, the firm very rarely takes on laterals in San Francisco, and she’s likely to be much too senior for them the next time they do. She regrets not acting sooner.

She didn’t realize at the time when she declined to apply that she was making a decision. She probably thought she was making a non-decision by just staying where she is and not doing anything.

In this hot market especially, it’s important to view staying as an affirmative choice. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your current job as you would a potential new firm. Here are the things associates commonly look at in the interview process. Apply this lens to your current role to make sure that you’re not just staying where you are because of inertia or risk-aversion.

Work • Does the firm/group do the kind of work I want to be doing? What percentage is the work I’m passionate about? • Is there a future for my practice area in the firm or is it pivoting in another direction (i.e., toward transactional)? • Is the firm working with the kind/caliber of clients that I want to be servicing?

Culture • Is this an open or closed door office? • What is the interaction between practice areas? Is it collegial or standoffish? • Do I like these people? Would I choose to spend time with them? • Does the firm let me have the life I want to outside of work, as much as is practicable? • Do I have any fun at work? Intellectually? Personally? • When associates leave, what are the push factors?

Partnership • Would I want to be a partner here? • Is there a track, if I do? • How crowded is my practice area at my level? • Are partners made up in this office of the firm? In my practice? • Do I envy the partners or feel badly for them? • Is there a space for me to build my own practice here? • Is my practice at this firm dependent on one partner, who, if she left, could decimate it?

Next Move • If I want to go in-house, is this firm a good platform for that? • Where do associates go from here?

As lawyers, our greatest asset we have to offer the market is our time. This is why the billable hour doesn’t come cheap and why we try to be as productive at work as we possibly can. Sometimes, it’s easy to put your head down, positively cranking out work, and raise it only to realize it’s been hours and hours and months and months and you haven’t thought about anything besides the task at hand. You haven’t pulled up to think about your career. You’re just getting your job done. With associate hours, it’s hard to do anything other than that. I get it. But you need to take some time to do it.

Decide whether where you are is good, good enough for now or needs to change. Decide whether you’re going to get where you want to go staying there. Decide if you want to be a partner or go in-house. Decide if you’re good at your job, and if your job is good for you. Decide if the sacrifices your role requires are consistent with who you want to be. Decide if it’s time to start earning enough to pay off your law school loans. Decide.

It’s not easy. Inertia is powerful. Staying where you are is the path of least resistance. How do you decide? You need to give yourself time to think. Block it off in your calendar. Conduct the thought experiment: if I interviewed here today and was offered my exact job, would I take it?

It’s really easy to just tread water. Instead force yourself to make an affirmative decision—whether it is staying or exploring the market. Pull up from the daily grind and give it some thought. Evaluate. Decide.


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