New York is one of the largest legal markets in the globe. It attracts law school graduates from around the United States and international law school graduates with Master of Laws. Lawyers move to New York City to work on some of the most sophisticated transactions, litigations, investigations and regulatory advisory work the legal market has to offer. This exposure and experience is an amazing asset in the development of an associate's legal skillset. Many of these skills will make associates very marketable in the event they consider relocating to another market. However, this isn't always the case. If associates are considering relocation, it's important to start early and plan their practice with a future relocation in mind.
Timing and Marketability Window
When planning to relocate to another market, timing is incredibly important. When an associate is too junior (one to two years of experience), there is not always sufficient demand to be marketable for a relocation. On the other hand, few law firms actively look for senior associates with seven-plus years of experience. Firms sometimes hesitate to bring on senior associates as they are expensive and can undermine the internal dynamics of the senior associates who are already part of the group and want to make partner.
The sweet spot for relocation is three to six years of experience, as there is high demand for midlevel associates who have already developed sophisticated skills. Associates should also give themselves at least six months to search for a new job.
Practice Areas and Specialties
The choices junior associates make regarding their practice area will have an impact on their ability to relocate in the future. New York is a highly specialized market, and while there are some firms that allow associates to be generalists, that is not the norm.
Corporate associates should remember that the most marketable practice areas are mergers and acquisitions, capital markets and finance. Outside of New York, associates are often corporate generalists and are not required to be highly specialized, so having experience in one of those three practices areas will leave doors open for associates hoping to relocate. Choosing a highly specialized corporate practice area like structured finance, derivatives, shipping finance, aviation finance, etc., will make it challenging to be marketable in other cities.
Similarly, litigation associates should maintain a broad practice in complex commercial litigation, which will be marketable in other jurisdictions. Fewer opportunities exist outside of New York for specialty practices such as securities litigation or white collar litigation. Law firms with litigation openings in other jurisdictions often look for a mix of litigation experience in commercial, securities, white collar, bankruptcy and other areas of litigation.
Many associates work long hours, and the idea of studying to take a new bar exam while maintaining a full-time job is daunting. While it’s always helpful for associates to sign up for a future bar exam to show their commitment to relocating, it may not be necessary. The importance of being licensed in a different jurisdiction depends on the practice area.
Corporate associates can make a lateral move to a new jurisdiction without sitting for the bar exam because they do not need to sign their names to pleadings, which means they have much more flexibility. Conversely, the bar is incredibly important for the marketability of litigation associates, who are competing in a crowded marketplace. In addition to taking a different jurisdiction's bar exam, associates should expect that in order to be marketable, they will need to have graduated from a top law school — preferably with honors — and be employed by a top law firm. A completed clerkship is an added bonus.
Lateral and Interview Process
The lateral search process for relocation generally takes about six months. During this time frame, associates should take a two-pronged approach to their search: They should use a legal recruiter to actively apply for openings in the market to which they wish to relocate, and they should pursue a speculative search. Associates should look for a recruiter based in their intended market, as they will have the most in-depth knowledge of the recruiting landscape there. Market-specific recruiters will provide guidance about which firms to approach opportunistically. When associates speak to a market-specific recruiter, it is important to communicate a connection to the city. That will help the recruiter communicate their commitment to pursuing the relocation. An opportunistic search is a priority because it will expand the number of interviews an associate will receive and allow the associate to compare and contrast prospective positions.
Generally, the interview process is two or three rounds. The first screening round is performed by phone or in person if the firm has an office in New York. The second and third rounds are generally held in person in the firm's home office. Most firms will pay for the expenses associates accrue while traveling to the interviews.
Relocations out of New York occur with high frequency. Junior associates in New York who intend to relocate to another city should keep in mind that it’s never too early to plan a career based on future plans. By creating a good game plan, associates will be better positioned to make a move when the time is right.
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This article was featured on Law360, July 24, 2017.
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Jacqueline Bokser LeFebvre is a Director in our New York Associate Practice Group. She focuses on recruiting and placing associates of all levels in top-tier national, international and regional law firms.