March 09, 2015 Articles

Making Your First Lateral Move

By Laura B. Bacon

So you are finally a lawyer . . . what's next? You graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. You landed your first job practicing as an attorney. You have focused on doing great work and gaining as much experience as possible. And now you wonder—where do I go from here? For as long as you can remember, graduating from law school, passing the bar, and finding a job was your “finish line.” You may have given little thought to what comes next. (I know I didn’t.) But lately you have been scanning the job postings that often hit your inbox, many looking for someone with “3–5 years of litigation experience.” You are asking yourself, is it time to make a move? Follow these four steps to guide your decision-making process.

Take Stock of Where You Are
The best place to start is by conducting a thorough self-assessment and asking yourself several questions about your current position. In recent years, the dearth of job prospects for new lawyers has been widely publicized. Many young lawyers may have been forced to accept a job to pay the bills (and the ever-mounting student debt burden) rather than having the luxury of waiting for the “right” position to come along. Start by asking yourself, am I happy in my current job? Do I enjoy the area of law I am practicing in? Is it intellectually satisfying? Am I comfortable with the amount of money I make? Are there opportunities for advancement? Will this position or this employer be able to fulfill my long-term career goals? If I choose to start a family, will this position allow me to spend as much time with my children as I would like? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, look no further. Contrary to what some might tell you, staying in the same position on a long-term basis is not necessarily a bad thing, if you feel that it will continue to be enjoyable and rewarding 10 years down the road.

If you don’t know the answers to all of these questions, now is a good time to do some self-exploration. Particularly if you do not like the type of law you are practicing, spend some time thinking about what else you would like to pursue. Staying in a niche or specialized area of law for even as few as three years can cause you to become pigeonholed and make it increasingly difficult to make a change the longer you stay. Being an attorney is a profession, not just a job. Practicing law can be much more rewarding if you find an area of law that you enjoy. Take a few continuing legal education courses on topics that you find interesting. If your firm or company allows it, ask for an extra assignment in a different area. Even if that is frowned upon, talk to the partners or associates whom you know in those other areas. Give some serious thought to what you really want to do and what you want your career to look like in 10 to 15 years. The worst reason to stay in the first position you accepted right out of law school is because you don’t know what else you want to do. Staying somewhere for fear of disappointing a mentor or another associate that you have bonded with is also not a good reason to stay with a job that you do not find fulfilling.

Ask for What You Want in Your Current Position
If you generally like your current position, but there are a few changes that would make you happier, consider asking for those changes. All too often, young lawyers seek new opportunities without exploring the full possibilities of their current positions. Employers may not know what you want until you tell them. Seeking more pay? Ask for it. Are you ready for more responsibility? Ask. If you think you would benefit from a flexible schedule or to work from home on occasion or on a set day, make an appointment to talk it over with your supervisor or mentor. Many firms or companies may not have stated “work from home” or “telecommuting” policies, but if you request an adjustment they may accommodate you. Keeping valued employees is important to firms and companies alike. You may be surprised at the changes your employer is willing to make in order to keep you on the team.

If the idea of raising such issues with your boss is terrifying, you may be motivated by one of the many great books that discuss the importance of negotiations for women. Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever has a particularly powerful discussion about women frequently passing up chances to negotiate in all aspects of their lives, often leading to dramatic results. For example, in studying the effects of failing to negotiate salary over time, the authors concluded that a woman may sacrifice over half a million dollars in earnings by the end of her career.

Realistically it may not be feasible to negotiate in your current position, or perhaps the changes that you desire are not possible. The people you work with, and particularly whomever you report to, can have an enormous impact on your job satisfaction and career advancement. If there is a certain person holding you back or making every day miserable, it may be time to move on.

Make a Change
If you decide that it is time for something new, get the word out. You’ve heard about the importance of networking. Now go find that extensive contact list you’ve amassed over the years and put it to use! Communicating with your network can be just as important as regularly combing job postings. Many new opportunities are never even posted online. Spread the word that you are seeking a new position and be specific about what you are looking for. Tell family, friends, law school classmates, and yes, maybe even opposing counsels. Use caution (and your best judgment) in determining whether to tell people with whom you have relationships in your current place of employment, such as clients. If your current employer learns that you are looking to move on, you may be shown the door prematurely. You want to leave on your own terms.

The job search process also can further the self-exploration process. Talk to law school classmates about what they are working on. Set up lunch or coffee appointments with others in your network. Continue to attend bar association functions and volunteer activities to expand your existing network. One often-overlooked avenue in the job search process is the career services office at your law school. Many law schools allow and encourage alumni to work with their career services staff or have an alumni-dedicated job posting website. And don’t be shy about applying for available positions, even when you may not meet 100 percent of the listed “requirements.” Even the interview process can further your job search. Getting your feet wet with an interview for the not-quite-right position may help you nail the interview for your dream job.

Be Selective
This job search is different from your search for your first position. You have experience, skills, and qualifications to offer a new employer. You know what you want—and maybe more importantly what you don’t want—in a work environment. Be sure not to sell yourself short. Find the right position that fits all your wants and needs (or at least most of them). Let your answers to the questions in the self-assessment be your guide. If you are pretty sure the law firm environment is not for you, don’t accept a position in a law firm. If a prospective employer makes you an offer, but the salary is lower than you had hoped, negotiate for more. Further, obtaining a new job offer may be another opportunity to negotiate in your current position. If you were previously hesitant to request any changes, having a job offer that you would be willing to accept is a strong bargaining position if you would prefer to stay. Proceed with caution, however. Once your employer knows you went looking for another job, you may forever be perceived as someone who cannot be trusted.

While the decision whether to accept a certain job offer may seem especially daunting, keep in mind that your next job may not be your final destination either. You do not need to decide that this is the position that you will retire from or even stay for the next 10 years. Any position that you believe is a step further toward your long-term career goals or dream job deserves your serious consideration.

The search may take longer than you had hoped, but hang in there. The time and energy you put into your search will be worth it when you are sitting in your brand new office, in a role that is better suited for you. Good luck!

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, young lawyers, laterals, career transition, job search

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