Free Agency—Post-World Series Lessons for Lawyers

The World Series ended Oct. 28, and the next day nearly 200 Major League baseball players became free agents. In the coming weeks, many of these players will choose to sign new contracts with their existing teams, while others will choose to play elsewhere.

It’s the same question facing thousands of law firm partners around the country.

I am an agent. I have represented law firm partners for more than seven years, and I have represented professional baseball players for almost 20 years. These two jobs are remarkably similar because each involves helping someone find the place where they can be happiest.

Being a free agent means that you have the freedom to work where you want. In baseball, most players are drafted out of high school or college, and they have no say about which team they play for. Only after working their way up through the minor leagues and surviving six years in the Majors are players eligible for free agency—a right they take seriously as a result.

Lawyers don’t have to wait for the chance to choose where they work, and often they don’t grasp just how valuable that freedom can be. Lawyers can assess the trajectory of their careers at any time, and they should periodically think about whether their current firm is still the best place for them to work.

Here are some key lessons law firm partners can take from baseball free agency:

Testing the Market Doesn’t Mean Changing Jobs

Free agent baseball players often choose to sign back with the team where they have spent their career, but they do so only after evaluating what other teams are offering. If they choose to stay, they do it with full knowledge of the alternatives.

Likewise, the only way for lawyers to know if there is a better opportunity somewhere else is to assess the market. Sometimes the grass is greener at another firm and sometimes it isn’t, but the only way to find out for sure is to see what alternatives may exist. Many lawyers who test the market will come to the conclusion that they should stay where they are, but sometimes they discover opportunities they never realized were available.

I’ve been approached by many lawyers who question whether their current firm is the best place for them, or whether they are being treated fairly. Confidentially testing the market will reveal the answer. If there is a better alternative, the lawyer can choose to pursue it. But if there isn’t, any concerns about the current firm tend to dissipate.

The Free Agent Decides What’s Most Important

Sometimes free agent ballplayers sign the most lucrative contracts they can, but often they don’t. I’ve represented players who opted to take less money for the chance to play for a contender or their hometown team. Many times players also choose to take less money to remain with the team they know the best.

What’s important is that the free agent gets to decide what factors should matter. Like athletes, lawyers can consider factors such as leadership opportunities, the quality of their teammates, and what’s best for their families. They can evaluate whether their careers will thrive if they make a move. Lawyers in particular can also consider billing rates, the ease of clearing conflicts, and the opportunity for advancement. Ultimately, free agency affords lawyers the opportunity to decide what is most important to them.

Free Agency Can Determine Your Market Value

As baseball players work toward free agency, their compensation is kept artificially low. When they start out, their salaries are set unilaterally by their teams. Only when they achieve free agency can they use the market to find out their real value.

In my experience with lawyers, compensation is usually NOT the driving factor in a lateral move—although it is always one factor. And the only way to know for sure if your firm is compensating you appropriately is to find out what other firms are willing to pay.

In the end, most law firm partners would benefit from thinking of themselves as free agents, at least every so often, and working with someone who understands the market. Whether you change jobs or not, knowing your options will empower you to make the best choices for your career.

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David Schwartz is Managing Director in our Partner Practice Group. He focuses his practice on representing attorneys and groups contemplating lateral moves, and representing law firms in mergers and attorney acquisitions. David is a strong advocate for his candidates and clients, and he serves as a trusted counselor and advisor to lawyers who are evaluating whether and how to move from one job to another.

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