Out or Up

J.B. Ruhl
Follow your classmates and former colleagues as they weave their own career paths.

Follow your classmates and former colleagues as they weave their own career paths.

VP Photo Studio via Shutterstock

The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

Soon after I started as a new associate at the Washington, DC, office of a large law firm, the managing partner gathered all six new baby birds for lunch to talk about the firm and the practice of law. What struck me most was his overview of advancement within the ranks and the road to partnership. He concluded with words I will never forget: “When we hire you, we aim to retire you.” Of course, no one in the room believed all six of us would retire at the firm—four of us stayed around long enough to become partners, and only one of us is still practicing with the firm—but we all believed it was possible. It wasn’t a crazy idea. It would be today. In fact, if that lunch were held today, we’d all be wondering where we’d be working in two years, including the managing partner!

For better or worse, mobility is the reality at all levels of law firm practice these days, a trend that began in the 1990s and has accelerated since then. This used to be treated like a big secret—nobody talked about the fact that only a fraction of starting associates at any law firm would be around in a few years. Of course, “up or out” has been the law firm model for almost a century, but it’s not just the firms calling the “outs” anymore—many new lawyers start at firms with the goal of leaving. A trend I am picking up from guest speakers in my Vanderbilt Law School class on the legal industry is that this is no longer a secret—something not to be mentioned lest the firm or the lawyer be seen as “failing” in some way. Instead, firms increasingly are embracing it as much as their new lawyers, even mentoring associates who have expressed the ambition of changing the work scenery someday.

Sure, plenty of my students still aspire to attain the coveted equity partner distinction, but these days there’s nothing inconsistent about having that goal while leaving open the possibility that it likely will not be a straight line with the same firm. I advise my students that this should not be a random, ad hoc process they let happen to them. Rather, they should develop and continually update an exit strategy.

Ironically, the core component of a new associate’s exit strategy is to do what it takes to keep advancing toward equity partner. One reason is to know what you’d be exiting. Who knows, maybe you’ll wind up liking it. Another is to maximize control over the timing and conditions of exit. The better your standing inside the firm, the better you’ll look to the outside opportunities.

This all may seem obvious, but my sense is that most new associates do not realize that they can build an effective exit strategy within this advancement strategy. In other words, you can shape a very effective advancement strategy that nonetheless provides a great exit platform. As one of my guest speakers advised, though, this requires more than simply doing superior legal work. Rather, subtly steer how you do superior legal work in ways that build exit opportunities.

Key Steps Suggested by Various Guest Speakers

Find an open-minded mentor. Within most firms today there are many lawyers at mid and upper levels who lateraled in from other firms, companies, or other organizations. Invite them to lunch and ask about their decisions.

Do pro bono work. In addition to doing good, pro bono work can diversify your skillset and signal you are community-minded.

Get involved in bar association committees. Bar associations are networks that bring together lawyers from all practice settings, allowing you to connect with potential mentors and opportunities.

Write for bar journals and other publications and present at CLE events. Yes, people do read bar journals, and in many states, they must fulfill CLE requirements. Writing and presenting is a way to signal expertise and that you are staying current.

Stay in touch with law school classmates and your law firm alumni. Follow your classmates and former colleagues as they weave their own career paths. Take them to lunch and explore how they strategized along the way.

Connect with clients on their turf. If your goal is to move in-house, get inside the client mindset by reading the relevant industry journals and attending (and ideally presenting at) annual trade association meetings.

Invest in yourself. Don’t think of the hours not billed—which most of the above suggestions will lead to—as “wasted.” They are hours you are investing in you. There are many ways to boost your ROI. Volunteer to attend a client pitch and not bill the time. Offer to work with the firm’s business development department to craft your practice group’s website. Organize a firm lunch for clients to update them on current issues in their space. And remember, free time with family and friends is also an investment in you.

Explore opportunities. As you do all of the above and produce great legal work, you will be presented with opportunities. Explore them all. Take the call. Do the lunch. Have your résumé ready at all times. Even if it goes no further, you are building knowledge about exit possibilities.

Manage your money. Exiting a law firm job very often will mean leaving a big chunk of change on the table. Prepare for that well in advance. I always thought I might go into teaching. I drove a Hyundai when colleagues were driving BMWs. We had a nice but modest home, not a mansion. When the teaching opportunity came, my finances did not prevent me from taking it.

Although it may seem weird to be always thinking about how to move on, it’s possible to do it and still be the very best for your current employer. Turn the old “up-or-out” model that put the firm in control into an “out-or-up” model that puts you first.


J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the director of the Program on Law and Innovation and the codirector of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program at Vanderbilt Law School.