The realities of the legal industry, law firm structure, and market at large present unique circumstances that require attorneys to be constantly monitoring their career security. Whether the problem is in management, the “eat what you kill” model, or the politics and volatility of the industry in general—you don’t want to get caught off guard.
Sometimes there are clear indications that signal the need to prepare for a lateral move. Sometimes, there are not; and attorneys are suddenly burdened with a job search while still tending to their current responsibilities.
Legal professionals to day have to be on top of their job responsibilities and actively manage their careers. This means juggling more than one set of job responsibilities while actively monitoring the workplace for clues and signals, and keeping an eye on the market. In short—today, attorneys are always “on the market” in order to stay open to advancement opportunities.
Below are some indicators that should serve as a signal that you should pay close attention to lateral opportunities:
Associate expiration dates.
Unlike many other professional jobs in the market, the more senior you become as an associate, the less attractive you are to others as a lateral. The more senior you are, the more diminishing the returns are.
Success in big-law requires planning. This means you are going to have to have a realistic, accurate assessment of your partnership potential during your practice (note that what makes a litigation and transnational associate attractive as a potential partner is different). Depending on the culture of your firm, there may be perks to serving in a counsel role. If you aren’t about the firm life, you can certainly look towards government positions and in-house roles. Just remember that these require planning and a pro-active approach. A positive relationship with the right recruiter can keep you in the loop.
If there are two or more people in the office, there will be office politics. You don’t have to be a part of the drama, but you should be aware of it because it constantly shifts. That associate that you can’t stand working alongside may suddenly be promoted to a position of authority. That junior partner that you love to work for may be the less favored one. Choice matters may disappear as one partner is marginalized or forced to hoard work to stay alive.
Remember that the partners that you work for do not always act in the best interest of the firm—some will do what’s needed to keep themselves afloat. They may hoard projects that would groom you for partnership at your firm. They may shirk business development responsibilities for as long as possible. The smooth well-compensated ride that partner is taking is great for him or her—but that means less billable hours for you.
Some disruptions are external that are beyond the control of anyone within a firm. For better or worse, they affect the entire legal industry. These disruptions can be technological (artificial intelligence making attorneys replaceable, for example), or legal (such as Supreme Court decisions like Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International). Some disruptions wipe out entire industries and practice groups, while others can create entire practice groups (cannabis law or e-discovery for example).
Keep abreast of industrial and market trends so that you can anticipate opportunities and have cover your bases.