The market for lateral associates is hot right now. Many firms are looking for candidates with the exact same profile: midlevel associates coming from strong firms with top-notch academics.
But the question is: How many of these associates really exist? For example, capital markets associates are in especially high demand at the moment due to a significant uptick in work, but the current candidate pool reflects headcount based on previous workflow.
Given that demand is so much greater than the supply right now in many areas, firms will be forced to look at candidates that do not fit squarely within the ideal profile, just as they did after the Great Recession. As a result, 2021 provides a rare opportunity for associates to potentially switch their practices, also known as retooling.
However, retooling can be a very challenging process. That's because law firms are businesses, and firms invest a lot of time and energy in training young associates into specific practice areas. They don't want to see that progress lost if you later decide that you want to do something else. Essentially, it's like starting over for a law firm because they can no longer justify your billing rate and compensation.
If the idea of retooling is appealing, associates need to realize it's not as easy as saying, "Now I want to focus on real estate," when their primary focus throughout their career has been litigation work. So, before an associate approaches their firm about a potential switch, or begins looking for opportunities in a new area, they should take a few moments to ask themselves some of the following questions to begin figuring out why a change sounds appealing:
Am I getting the quality of work and responsibility I was hoping for?
Do I feel like there is opportunity for professional development and growth?
Do I feel like a valued team member?
Do I mesh well with the attorneys in my department?
Have attorneys in my group left for in-house opportunities (at clients or otherwise) that sound appealing to me?
Do I simply not enjoy the substance of my work?
In doing this analysis, an associate may come to realize their desire for change is not a problem with their practice area, but rather the culture and dynamic of their particular group. Some of these pain points might be easy to alleviate without changing practice areas. How?
Have a conversation, if possible, to improve your experience.
It is always tricky to approach your current partners with concerns, but having an open dialogue can sometimes be an effective way to tackle a problem.
If your current firm is receptive, you may find that you can get more substantive responsibility, work with additional partners, diversify your practice, and/or participate in more training programs. These options could certainly go a long way toward improving your experience within your current practice.
Explore your options within the same practice area.
In doing an analysis, or maybe after having an internal conversation, you may come to realize that the real issue is not your practice areas, but that your current firm does not offer the right environment for you. Accordingly, you may want to consider the possibility of remaining in the same practice area, but moving to a different law firm.
Despite what many associates think, not all firms are created equal. For example, differences in clients (which can lead to long-term opportunities), strategic growth priorities, training programs and cultures can lead to vastly different experiences among associates. In addition, it is often easier to have a fresh start as an experienced lateral associate than as an entry-level lawyer.
You may also consider moving in-house where you will most likely take on a broader legal role than you would have at a firm. Be fair warned, though, that this jump is not as easy as you may hope, as in-house positions are limited in number and highly competitive. However, working in-house can offer a different perspective within the same practice area and expose you to a wider range of legal work.
What if you really chose the wrong practice area?
Begin by looking within your current firm. Because the partners already know you, they might have more confidence in your ability to get up to speed quickly.
If there is significant demand in the practice area you are looking to join and your firm is having difficulty finding lateral associates with on-point experience, it may turn out to be a win-win. However, it is important that you recognize that you might have to take a class-year cut to make such a transition.
If you ultimately decide you need to explore options outside your firm in order to switch practice areas, you will want to provide as compelling a business reason as possible for why a firm should hire someone without the relevant experience as opposed to someone with more directly transferable skills.
Your personal desire to expand your horizons is not usually enough. Instead, you might want to focus on how your current work might relate to your desired practice area.
Even in the best of markets, retooling can be a challenge, so it is best to be thoughtful about your selection from an early stage to avoid having to make such a shift down the road. However, if you really are unsatisfied, it is important to identify your real motivation and reflect on what would make you feel more fulfilled.
This moment in the market will not last, so it is the perfect time for associates to take stock of their careers. And if you ultimately decide that you want to retool, act quickly — the lateral market won't stay this hot for long.