Three to five years into an associate’s legal career is the prime time for associates to consider making lateral moves within the various legal markets. Most firms are looking at candidates at this experience level with very specific credentials and experience to fill precise needs. An amazing thing happens, however, once a candidate submits his or her résumé for the position — even though the firm has been looking long and hard for candidates with such credentials and experience — the firm will often start asking probing questions before scheduling an interview. First and foremost, they will want to know why you are looking to move.
The answer to this question can be complicated as you do not want to criticize your current firm or work experience, lest you make yourself appear to be a less-desirable candidate to the potential new firm. Moreover, as an associate, there are a finite number of moves you can make before you are perceived as a “jumper.” So, before you enter the job market, you need to understand your own motivations and be prepared to answer that pointed question — and your answer is going to be a determining factor in whether you even get an interview.
So what are good reasons to move, both for your career and/or for the purposes of convincing a target firm that they should make you an offer? Here are six, some of which may raise a red flag, however, if not presented smoothly:
1. To make more money.
This one is perhaps the most legitimate reason for switching firms, though, of course, you do not want to mention this is an interview for fear of looking tacky or unsophisticated. If you started your legal career in a lower paying boutique or smaller firm, or at a national firm that is not on the highest compensation scale, it is only natural to seek out higher compensation at some point, especially if you need to pay back loans or have a family to support. That said, moving because of compensation concerns must be handled with finesse and requires strong interview preparation since most firms consider it undignified to lead off with money as a reason why you would move. A better tactic is to let the firm know you think highly of them, their work, and their reputation — how could you not be interested in applying?
2. To get better work.
If you are looking to work on more sophisticated matters, you may need to make a move to a higher ranked firm with a stronger brand name or one that is strong in your practice area. Hiring managers understand when associates make moves for this reason and often respond well to this as a reason for a move — provided you can sell your prior experience as relevant and valuable. Chances are either you like the work itself at the new firm or you want a better platform to eventually land in-house, which is easier from a higher ranked firm or a firm that is known to place associates with their clients.
However, beware of being too forthcoming with your desires to eventually move in-house at the early stages of the interview process. Firms are not worried about what they can do for you initially; they want to know what you can do for them. Once they are convinced you can help them, they are more willing to go into sell mode and explore the possibilities of an eventual in-house move. Remember the new firm is looking to “buy” your work experience, so make sure you point out the good things about your prior experience while telling them you would prefer to get the better work at their firm.
3. To gain more work-life balance.
Today, many firms offer similar compensation packages and similar hours “targets,” but a firm with some semblance of work-life balance is often a differentiator. Some firms have more reasonable expectations of associates, and when they say 1,950 hours, they mean it. Some firms are better than others at allowing telecommuting or offer good parental leave policies regardless of your gender. These are all differentiators that must be carefully navigated when making a move — you want to make sure you do not move from the frying pan to the fire — but they are viable desires and acceptable reasons for switching firms, as long as your expectations are reasonable.
Again, this must be handled with care, as most firms do not want to hire people looking for a “lifestyle” firm even though many people move for this reason alone. Candidates often reference their current firm’s culture as a reason for a move. Firms can often read between the lines with this, but at least you are not telling them, “I want to work less.” Consider meeting with a firm again post-offer to sit down with their associates and ask them what their life at the firm is really like.
4. To set yourself up for partnership.
If you have partnership aspirations, switching firms may be the only way to reach that goal. Some firms place more emphasis on certain core practices, which are most profitable for their firm. So while you may be doing great work at a name brand firm now, if the practice group is small, not held in high regard internally or is not profitable enough, there may not be a business case for a firm to ever elevate you — no matter how good you are. If that is the case, you may need to find a new situation to give yourself a better shot, which a firm who puts more emphasis in your practice area may understand. In this case, it is easy to tell a firm you are being proactive with your career, and your ambitions dictate that their practice and firm may be a better fit for you. This answer is often favorably received.
5. To move to a new geography.
This reason is the easiest to explain. If your firm does not have an office in the city to which you plan to move — or does not have a policy that allows associates to freely move to their other offices — this is a good reason that raises very few, if any, eyebrows from the firm, as long as you can articulate why you wish to move to the new geography. Some cities are more provincial than others, and the firms will want to know what ties you have to the new city, so be prepared to elaborate on those ties and reasons.
6. To escape difficult partners.
While a perfectly viable reason for wanting to move firms, this is another scenario that must be handled with care and finesse, as firms will worry that you cannot handle a little adversity if you are too open about this initially. No matter how good a new firm’s culture may be, every firm has tough partners. This is the practice of law, after all. That being said, you have no reason to spend your career in fear of specific partners, and if you cannot escape them at your current firm or make a situation more tenable, it is a perfectly reasonable strategy to find a new firm with a more affable group in your practice area.
While there are many personal reasons you could have for wanting to switch firms, there are only a few that firms are going to accept and still see you as a strong candidate for joining their team. As soon as you apply to a firm, the firm will begin their due diligence to learn more about you and why you may want to move. Be prepared from the outset of your search with your reasons as to why you want to make this move and why, if any, you have made prior moves. Firms today are going to press for these reasons before deciding to even meet with you, so be prepared and be ready with the right answers. If you can articulate strong and acceptable motives, a firm is more willing to sit down and interview you — and eventually hire you.