Knowing When to Leave Your Job

Changing jobs in the legal profession is easier and far more accepted than it was just 20 years ago. In fact, in today's fast-paced and ever-changing "New Economy," switching jobs is pretty much expected. These days, few lawyers spend their entire careers in one place.

But no one wants to make the wrong lateral move. Instead of haphazardly responding to ads in legal newspapers, you want to make the right lateral move at the right time. The goal is that each new job will bring you closer to your ideal position, ultimately rewarding you with both personal happiness and professional development.

Let's start with timing and figuring out when you might be most marketable for a good lateral move. Generally speaking, law firm associates are most attractive to other law firms when they have between two and five years of experience. First-year associates are a harder sell because most rival firms have already filled their classes at this level from their summer programs. And some firms are reluctant to hire senior associates because they're too close to partnership. These, of course, are vast generalizations, and law firms frequently have staffing needs at all levels.

For in-house jobs, the ideal timing is less rigid. Again, mid-level lawyers are good candidates because many corporations don't have the resources to train junior attorneys, and they sometimes fill senior positions with lawyers who have worked their way up the corporate ranks. As with the law firm generalizations, these are guidelines only.

Putting timing aside, the primary way to make the right lateral move is to have direction. Admittedly, thinking about your ultimate career goal is hard when you're busy logging those seemingly endless billable hours. But really analyzing what you ultimately want will make it easier to analyze any opportunities presented.

For example, do you want your client base to shift from high-technology companies to bio-tech or life sciences companies? Do you want to double your income? Reduce your hours? Have more time for pro bono work? Do you want more time to get (or give) training? Are you longing for more autonomy with your clients?

One way to help answer these questions is to consult a mentor. Whether your mentor is someone at your current job whom you trust or a lawyer you've met in the community, consulting a mentor can help you focus, evaluate opportunities and, importantly, avoid making a bad career move.

When interviewing for a lateral position, ask questions -- it's the job seeker's version of due diligence. If you're interviewing at a law firm, for example, ask how many lateral associates in the practice group have been elected partner in the last few years. And be specific. If an interviewing associate tells you the firm's hours "aren't bad," that could mean 2,500 hours or 1,800 hours, depending on the associate's own bias. Get real numbers. And have someone specifically explain the firm's partnership criteria and salary increases (don't assume the firm will always match market). Finally, if possible, try to talk to former lawyers of that firm because they're likely to be the most candid. (Of course, take that information with a grain of salt -- you never know if the former lawyer has an unreasonable gripe.)

If you're presented with an opportunity to make a lateral move, don't just evaluate the job offered. Instead, try to figure out the job you'd want *after* this job and then analyze whether this current opportunity will help get you there.

Finally, consider not making a lateral move and staying where you are. For whatever reason, the temptation to leave your current job may be all-consuming. But honestly evaluate its upsides. For example, maybe you don't like the personalities you deal with, but you're gaining tremendous skills and making important contacts for a later lateral move. (Of course, if you're horribly miserable, by all means move!)

Remember, there aren't any "perfect" jobs. (That's why they call it work!) But you can increase your chances of making a lateral move that'll bring you that much closer to your ideal position.

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