How many years are you out of law school?
For those new to BigLaw, you will learn quickly (often by how many recruiter calls you receive in a given week), that a short window of time determines when you are best positioned to make a lateral move from current Firm A to potentially better Firm B. This window is typically between your second and fifth years post-law school graduation. This mid-level “sweet spot” can be explained in the context of the broader associate trajectory, which looks something like this:
- Years 1 to 2: The inaugural “junior” associate years; your billing rate is low as is your relative substantive knowledge. You take any and every project handed to you (with a smile), prove your ability and work ethic, and—best case—stand out from the rest of your fellow first- and second-year associates by doing exceptional work. Often, this is when you select your practice area (or it selects you), but your overall marketability is relatively low given your infancy.
- Years 3 to 5: The “mid-level” associate years when your marketability is at its peak. With a relatively modest billing rate, some substantive experience under your belt, and a number of years still ahead before partnership comes into play, your phone is likely ringing with lateral opportunities from competitor firms down the street. This is the quintessential sweet spot for associates to make, or at the very least explore, a lateral law firm move.
- Years 6 to 9: The “senior associate” years where you are hopefully advancing toward counsel or partnership at your current firm. If you are not, you may have an exit strategy that involves an in-house, government, or non-BigLaw position. Opportunities for senior associates to move laterally from one firm to another are greatly reduced because, among other reasons, there are few (and fewer) promotion opportunities in BigLaw. As a lateral senior associate candidate close to advancement, you will be backing up to the small number of senior associates in the new firm who are also vying for those few coveted counsel, non-equity, or equity partner titles. Firms generally do not want to invite this turmoil into their senior associate ranks by introducing a new associate at this level, unless the lateral offers a measurable upside (e.g., portable business or a unique skill set).
- Years 9+: At this point in your BigLaw career, you may wear any number of titles: senior associate, non-track attorney, counsel, of counsel, senior counsel, non-equity partner, non-share partner, or equity partner, to name a few. These are the years when the hard work you have put in should manifest itself in client relationships and portable business. (If not, see comment above regarding in-house, government, or non-BigLaw position exit strategies.) At the end of the day, however, the 9+ year attorneys with the greatest number of options, both internally and externally, are those with portable business.
Understanding the associate trajectory and keeping an eye on your mid-level sweet spot allows you to take control of your career from the outset and maximize your options throughout. The ultimate goal is for you to pay attention to the potential red flags discussed below as a junior and mid-level associate, so that you can avoid becoming an unhappy senior associate with nowhere to go.
Are you busy?
In short, are you consistently meeting your billable hour and bonus requirements? This question is critical for associates on a couple of levels, including your current job security, and your marketability as a lateral candidate. As to your current job security, alarm bells should ring if you are not busy for a prolonged period of time. Typically, associates experience a lack of work for one of two reasons: (1) the entire group is slow, or (2) everyone around you is busy but you are not. Neither situation is ideal. If the entire group is slow, take a hard look around and try to understand how, why, and when the drought may end. By and large, partners do not want to lose strong associates who they have trained and with whom they have good relationships simply because of an ebb in work. Nor do you, as that associate, necessarily want to jump ship at the first sub-160/billable month. But beware if the drought appears to be lasting too long, even in the face of your partner’s daily reassurances that the work will come. Use common sense. If you do not see your partners actively developing business, you, along with your group, may be downsized despite your all-star status because, in the end, the firm is only able to retain “slow” attorneys for so long. Equal concern should exist if your colleagues are busy but you are not. Here, it may be that a partner has lost confidence in your work product, or somebody simply does not like you. If this is the case, do your best to uncover the problem and, diplomatically, see if it can be repaired. If not, it may be best to cut your losses, get ahead of the “you’re no longer needed” conversation, and polish your resume. (The amount of self-awareness needed in these circumstances cannot be underestimated, nor can the importance of understanding the associate trajectory described above.) Remember, it is always harder to land a new job when you actually need one. Another critically important reason to keep tabs on your busyness is to determine whether your legal skills are developing at a rate that is commensurate with your class year and your peers in and outside of your firm. Remember, for every month that your skills atrophy because you are not busy, the associate next door is gaining those skills and becoming more marketable. If you become complacent and remain slow for too long you will be at a significant disadvantage when competing for the few lateral opportunities that exist in your practice area.
What are your partnership prospects, truly?
Whether or not you aspire to become a partner in your current firm, you must at least understand what your partnership prospects are to stay ahead of managing your career. It is no secret that BigLaw’s advancement model looks like a triangle (or some may argue a diamond), with fewer and fewer attorneys achieving partnership status. As a result, despite the blood, sweat, and tears you have given your firm over the years, you simply may not be promoted to partnership—or within a timeline that fits with your personal and professional goals (think of the 15-year associate down the hall who was deferred once again). Be honest with yourself about your chances for promotion and the likely timing. Two questions that will shed light on this assessment are: (1) what has been your practice group’s track record for promoting people to partner, and (2) how many people are beside and ahead of you for partnership consideration? Understanding who, how often, and how many attorneys have been promoted to partnership in your group over the past few years will help you assess your real-time partnership prospects. Similarly, because the likelihood of more than one person in the same group becoming partner the same year (or even within a few years of one another) is exceedingly rare, you should consider who among your peers you will be competing against for that coveted partnership nod. [Caveat to junior associates: while this information is helpful to know early on, take it with a grain of salt at such an early stage, because many things can change over time to alter the promotion-to-partnership equation.] In addition, understanding your group’s philosophy and experience with lateral hires, both associates and partners, is informative because if, for example, your group notoriously hires laterals, that may further diminish your organic advancement opportunities.
How is attrition and morale?
I recommend tackling this question at the practice group and firm level. You want to gather as much knowledge as possible around the following points: (1) the number of associates who have recently left; (2) why those associates left (e.g., asked to leave/left voluntarily); (3) where each departing associate went; and (4) how the firm handled the departures. While it can be difficult (and unfair) to glean broad generalizations from individual associate departures, this is important, real-world data about the health of your firm/group, potential exit options (e.g., a fellow associate going in-house to a client vs. a competing firm), firm culture (e.g., difficult personalities, quick to cut staff), and how to handle your own resignation should the time come. In addition, attrition rates often affect the overall morale of the firm. With the 2008-2009 layoffs still relatively fresh, and job security often ranking as important to associate happiness as the opportunity to do challenging work, understanding when and why your colleagues are leaving the firm will help you assess whether and when you should consider your own exit strategy.
Do you emulate anyone in your practice group or firm?
In other words, are there any senior attorneys in your firm for whom you would say: I hope to be doing that type of work in that context when I reach his/her experience level? If the answer is no, ask yourself why, and think very carefully about whether your current firm can and should be a home for you long-term. No doubt, all sorts of personal and professional variables are inherent in our lives that can change the answer to this question, but the question remains important. If you don’t deeply respect and aspire to model someone in your current firm, what path do you see for your own success? Conversely, if you look up to and respect the people you work with, developing mentorship or sponsorship relationships with them could make all the difference in you experiencing a truly happy and rewarding career in BigLaw. Ask yourself these five questions early and often. The answers will give you a much clearer picture about whether and when you should consider new opportunities and, perhaps, find long-term, genuine satisfaction as a BigLaw attorney.