Everyone is dying to know why the candidate they are interviewing is looking at their firm. While the question is standard, the best answer is tricky and should be thought through in advance of a first interview. If you are seeking a new firm, you want to be positive and seen as someone that firm will want as a partner. You do not want to be seen as bitter, negative, greedy or hard to please.
There is a pull and a push to each job change. For the most part, firms want to recruit partners who are doing well and successful where they are, so focusing your answer on the positive is a very good place to start. Think about what is pulling you to the specific opportunity and be sure to craft your response around this motivation.
"Your firm is great"
Incorporate the reasons why the prospective firm is a fit for you into your answer. This can include culture, practice fit, the draw of the local office (especially if you are talking to the local office managing partner), firm financials and expertise that would be beneficial to your clients. For example: "I have always thought highly of your firm in the market, have been impressed when I have come across you on matters and have seen your continued success bringing in great partners."
"Your firm reached out to me even though I was not looking"
If this is the case, it is a great way to start your answer, but it should not be all of your answer. As the process moves forward, you should incorporate aspects of the sell that you have been given that resonate with you when talking about what attracts you to the firm. For example: "Well, I originally took the meeting because you reached out to me and I was curious about the opportunity. Now that I have spent a lot of time getting to know your firm and your partners, I am very impressed with…."
"My practice has outgrown my firm"
Leading with the fact that you have established a successful practice that you would like to expand is a great way to explain your interest in exploring other opportunities. This is a very positive spin on the need for more associate support, geographic reach, or strength in your practice area or industry vertical. This is also a positive way to mention the ability to cross sell your clients — if you only had the people who could do the work. Be cautious about giving a reason that the other firm cannot solve; there is no upside to saying you need expertise in an area the prospective new firm cannot provide.
"I am impressed by your firm's success compared to my current firm"
If your firm is struggling, it makes sense that you are exploring the market. You do not want to spill all your firm's secrets in your explanation, but if you can explain that your firm is not doing as well as the firm you are talking to, it will help establish that your reason for exploring the opportunity is based on a rational business decision. You can look to public information regarding financials, recent departures or failure to grow and compare it to the firm you are exploring.
"My practice group is too crowded or not substantial enough"
Nobody wants to be an island, and nobody wants to be in a space so crowded that there is no room to grow. Firms routinely look for junior partners at firms where those partners do not see the opportunity to advance, so if this is your profile, firms will be pleased to hear it. Alternatively, everyone wants a team player, so if you are left alone and don't have colleagues to collaborate with, firms will be pleased to hear that you want to be part of a collaborative group.
When you are exploring other opportunities because of challenges at your current firm, think about how to phrase the response. This can be mentioned within your response, but you do not want to leave the impression of being someone who is overly difficult and negative.
"I want more money"
Compensation should not be articulated as the only driver for a lateral move. Nobody wants to hire a team of mercenaries who only work at firms willing to pay the most. Further, if you repeatedly tell interviewers that you are underpaid, firms will question if you are someone they want. Instead, you can point to your current firm's overall financial performance or your wanting to be in a firm that is focused on your practice area. In my experience, when there is the right fit for practice and partner, the value those partners bring to the firm is greater—and that results in higher compensation. Often a partner who is exploring the market because they are disappointed in compensation is at a firm that is not investing in what that partner does, and they can find a better fit somewhere else.
"I hate my partners"
Firms have reputations, and if you are in one known for a difficult culture, it is very possible that the interviewer will know that and be worried that you are difficult, too. Instead of phrasing this in the negative, talk about your interest in a collaborative culture or desire to come to a firm that has a more manageable size where it will be easier to make lasting connections across practice groups and offices.
"I hate my firm leadership"
You can address the fact that firm leadership is making decisions that you do not agree with without resorting to personal attacks on the people themselves. Consider phrasing this in terms of how the changes will impact your practice going forward, instead of making it personal.
Your answer should be honest without being too personal or unprofessional. Ultimately, most people explore other opportunities for a mix of reasons, and your response to the question should address your personal situation and how the move will be for the better.