When associates contemplate a potential lateral move, there is a common misconception that all law firms are the same. It may seem that one law firm is just like the next, especially when you are comparing similarly sized firms in the same city. But if you dig deeper, you may discover unique attributes at some firms that may be more appealing and improve your professional satisfaction significantly, especially when compared to your current work environment.
When exploring your options, the key is to find a cultural match that will maximize your personal and professional satisfaction. Many factors play into culture and associate satisfaction at a law firm. Considering some of the following factors before you make a lateral move may help with your overall long-term satisfaction.
As Elie Mystal wrote in The Above The Law "Office 100 Rankings: You Work in an Office, Not a Firm," "If you are going to work in a BigLaw firm, you are going to be working in a specific office. And that office is going to make or break your experience with your firm. Not all offices are created equal, even in the same firm."
Location may make a big difference in your experience. While some large law firms may have a more consistent office dynamic domestically and abroad, the environment of the firm can drastically vary from office to office and city to city. For example, one noted Wall Street firm whose New York office is well known for its sharp elbows has a Washington, D.C., office with a reputation for affable partners, open doors and a strong overall culture. Consulting with your network, knowledgeable recruiters and your law firm career office is essential research that needs to be performed in your job search, regardless of whether you are seeking a local lateral move or relocating.
When thinking about a move, whether within your market or in a new geography, keep in mind that certain practice areas are going to thrive in certain cities and not in others. Also, certain firms are going to be stronger in some practice areas over others. Learning which firms are a better fit in your practice area will help you identify those that are a better choice for your overall work happiness. It is best to do this research while in law school with your network and the plethora of publicly available information. However, it is essential to research this when contemplating a lateral move as well.
Moreover, associates in some practice areas are generally easier to move due to supply and demand. For example, there may be an abundance of litigation associates in your market, which means you either need to specialize in a niche practice area to avoid competition from other associates, or have very strong credentials to appeal to a new firm.
Work/life balance plays a major role in many of our career path decisions today. Some of you are workaholics, while others prefer a more flexible schedule. It is clear, especially after the most recent Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP salary increases that most firms expect a certain number of hours to be billed each year, and that number is often higher than the minimum number reported on their National Association for Law Placement forms. This is true whether or not you have partner aspirations. Still, you must pay attention to how lawyers at those firms are spending their time.
Are they killing themselves day in and day out, or do they have some semblance of work/life balance? Is there a face-time culture, or is it the type of firm where you can leave at a reasonable time to see your kids or hit the gym and log back on later to finish your work? Are the junior partners treated like associates by more senior partners? Are junior partners working the same hours as the associates, such that there truly is no light at the end of the tunnel for a better balanced personal life? Does the firm offer alternative work arrangements or off-track options? Learning these crucial facts and knowing where your priorities lie should guide your decision-making, both while you are in law school and when you are testing the lateral market.
If your goal is to make partner one day, chances are you are not as concerned about hours as you are about what is required of you to earn the coveted title and its financial rewards. There is an overabundance of information that you can use to track the firms and practice areas that are consistently elevating new partners. Gaining this vital knowledge is not hard, so pay attention to the practice areas where the newest partners sit, as well as the size of the group and the associate-to-partner ratio. These are indicators of the value a firm puts on that practice area and thus, which associates are consistently busy and on secure footing at the firm.
If becoming partner is not as important to you, many firms are increasingly offering nonpartner track positions that support the desire of a more reasonable work/life balance. For example, one of my recent placements was for an associate at 70 percent — both in terms of hours expected and compensation. Many firms are also becoming more amenable to capped- and reduced-hour positions. One of the attractive elements of the lateral market is that you have the ability to negotiate these terms in advance and in writing, which may be more difficult to do at your current firm, where you started your career as a full-time, partner-track associate and may always be seen as one of their "baby associates."
Your goals, values and life aspirations should guide you when you make your next lateral move. This is a journey of self-exploration. Personalities are the backbone of a firm’s culture — or the culture of any organization. The collection of these personalities affect the overall experience any single attorney will have in a firm and will ultimately play a significant role in your individual success and satisfaction.
The good news is that when you think about making a lateral move as an experienced associate, you truly have options if you are in certain practice areas and meet certain credential thresholds. You are no longer the newbie; you have valued experience and certain presumptions in your favor from day one at your new firm. At this point in your career, especially if you work in a niche practice area with a dearth of suitable candidates on the lateral market, you have enough leverage to cut your own deal with a firm. You can request to work with certain partners or negotiate assurances of certain types of work and/or hour limits. When the time comes to evaluate your current situation and contemplate new ones, consider what is working for you and what is not, and then consider if it is time to look beyond your current law firm and move on to new horizons. Your ideal firm may not be the same as someone else’s. Most importantly, you need to find the right situation for your personal and professional circumstances — and remember that not all firms are the same.