From a recruiting perspective, there is no more pivotal time in your legal career than the fifth year of practice. Every year in the depth of summer, I take a minute to email the fifth years in my orbit with a simple message: “If you may want to move to another firm, do it within the next year. Do not stop. Do not pass go. Get your resume ready, think about what you want out of your next job and get in a mindset to move. (If you are truly happy where you are and it’s going to get you where you want to go [in-house, to partnership], then sit pretty!)”
But what’s the big deal about being a sixth year? Let’s start with some hard data. I just ran a search for all of the law firm jobs for 2012 grads in the Bay Area. There are just over 100, which include some from tiny firms practicing worker’s comp and personal injury. (While those are fine practices, they are more than likely not what you do). If I narrow it the list down to AmLaw 200 firms, there are fewer than 75 opportunities. Now, what are the odds that in that number there is one job in your practice area that is available at the right time and at a firm you’d go to? Not great. If I run the same search for 2013 grads, I get literally double the number of jobs.
There’s a cliff that you fall off after your fifth year. Are you ready for it? There are almost 500 lawyers in the Bay Area from the class of 2013. Of those, 284 went to top 50 schools; 170 went to top 10 schools. This is your competition for the increasingly small number of jobs. The Bay Area is overloaded with legal talent at your level.
One of my candidates—a sixth year who has impeccable credentials in every respect other than her class year—said she feels like “overripe fruit.” She’s succeeded at everything she’s ever done—from her sterling Ivy League education to her clerkship. By all indications, she’s a talented lawyer. But the firms she wants to go to are not interested in meeting her. Why not? It’s entirely about seniority.
So what’s the problem with associates past the sixth year?
- You’re expensive. You make a lot of money. That’s great! Enjoy it. You’ve earned it. But that also means that you’re a pricey bet for another firm.
- You’re in the mold of your firm. Firms undeniably have different moods and flavors. If you’re at a fairly formal East Coast firm for many years, it can feel like a leap for a San Francisco-based firm to hire you.
- Your motives are dubious. You say you’re on a great track to partnership where you are, and you’re solidly a sixth year—why would you risk it and move now?
Is your firm getting you where you want to go? Are you going to be able to make partner there, or go in house from there? Are you happy? If the answer to any of these questions is anything other than a firm yes, it’s time to test the market. It can’t wait another year.