The Lateral Dilemma: Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

Arturo Thompson
Take time to understand what you really want and if this new job will help get you there.

Take time to understand what you really want and if this new job will help get you there.

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There’s a good chance that you will have an opportunity to move laterally to a new firm during your first years of practice. You might get a call from a recruiter, someone you know from law school, or someone who was on the other side of a case. When the call comes, the next step is figuring out what you want in a deliberate and thoughtful way. Take time to understand what you really want and if this new job will help get you there. It can be a lot to consider, but over the last seven years, we have developed a three-phase approach that is incredibly effective at helping to answer these big questions.

Phase one is about asking yourself what you want, laying out your priorities and ranking them to create a framework to guide your decision making. Because everything flows from this phase, it is important to commit to the process, take your time, and think broadly. Remember, you are figuring out what you want, not what others expect or want for you, so be honest and self-interested. 

Phase One: Determining Your Priorities

First, think about your big picture priorities such as geography (where you want to live), work-life balance, practice area or alternate careers, income, prestige, and organizational culture. Put them down on paper as they come to you.

Second, rank the priorities. You must put numbers in front of them, and there are no ties allowed. If you can’t figure out why a priority should be ranked one, two, or three, stop agonizing and just decide. The truth is that you will never have perfect information, so be honest with yourself and trust your instincts.

Finally, go to your top priority and put in the detail beneath it. If geography was your top priority, you would list your top five cities. If it was income, list the range of what you need to earn. If it was work-life balance, then maybe it is hours or a range of predictability or vacation without needing to check a phone. Do this for priorities two, three, and maybe four. In almost every case, by the time you have done this for the third or fourth priority, you have more than enough detail and can stop.

Good job! You now have a framework to help you analyze a whole host of career and life decisions, including the one we started with: why, and if, you should make this lateral move.

Phase Two: Using Your Priorities Framework to Compare Jobs

What matters most is that you trust the priorities you set out and the rankings you gave them. After all, they are your priorities, so committing to them is committing to yourself. How does the job you have map against your priorities? Will it get you to them down the road? Now think about the job that the recruiter called you about. How does it line up against your priorities now and in the future? Remember, you can now say something like “two weeks of un-disturbed vacation is more important to me than a 12 percent bump in salary.” Why? Because work-life balance was a higher priority than income for you. Statements such as these let you better assess your options.

Phase Three: Decision-Making

If you committed to phases one and two, this should be fairly simple. Basically, you have all the information available, your options are limited, and stalling will just mean more agonizing, so get to it. At this point, you probably have something similar to the four options below, and each is a win in its own way.

  1. The job you have is a better match. In this case, because you don’t want to leave, you may just decline the offer to interview and act as if it never happened. In some cases, you can still use the offer to gain some leverage by letting colleagues know you got a call but declined. If you have been doing a great job, this can help them see the value you bring and may lead to a bump in salary or more opportunity. Be careful. There is the risk your colleagues will think you have one foot out the door.
  2. The new opportunity is the BOMB! That’s great, but let’s take a breath. You don’t have the job yet, so now is not the time to let others know. When you talk to the recruiter or are in the interviews, be engaged, be prepared, and make sure you ask the questions about your priorities before making a move. If this looks positive, you might ask for an opinion from a trusted mentor. Ideally, this is someone who has been in practice for a while and is familiar with your current employer and potential future employer. Most people will be flattered you asked and can often offer insightful impressions, provide their own experiences in these situations, and suggest what you should consider that might not have occurred to you. Finally, think about what you might want to negotiate, such as salary or credit toward their timeline to partnership.
  3. For all intents and purposes, it’s a tie . . . congrats. You can still reach out to the recruiter, maybe interview, and reach out to a trusted mentor. With the knowledge you gather, you can confirm if what looked like a tie at first blush really is one. If there is no reason to move, you can stay where you are, building your resume until you find that better position.
  4. You find neither is a good match for you!? While frustrating, this is a fantastic thing to know. Now you can take control of your future, actively looking for that job you want rather than hoping it finds you.

This approach will help you with almost any decision, not just career moves. It is especially helpful with big life decisions that involve numerous factors, many of which can be converted easily into a numeric value.

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Arturo Thompson

Arturo Thompson is assistant dean of career services and The University of Kansas School of Law.