Lateral Firm Move Questions – Question 3: In making a lateral firm move, how do I balance short-term vs. long-term goals?

If you are following Top Tier Legal Search’s article series, we are discussing the top lateral firm move questions we see come up most often.

We have already addressed whether a new big law job will really be different from where you currently are, and we also touched upon the often-desired practice group switch (these articles are on our website  Today we are discussing the question of how to appropriately balance both short-term and long-term goals in making a lateral firm move, especially when those goals are potentially at odds with each other.

This question of short-term vs. long-term comes up in almost every lateral firm move, and it is important.  Of course, we would love every job to be our final destination for a long, fulfilling career — that is always the goal.  And we want everyone to be happy and fulfilled at their positions at all times.  But the reality is that there are many factors involved in a lateral move decision, and we implore attorneys to take a step back and consider the long-term career marketability of their move, and not just focus only on short-term desires.  

The fact remains time and time again that not every job opportunity will be perfect in both the short-term and long-term – some may be something the attorney strongly prefers in the short term but will actually be a poor move for her career as a whole, and some may be something that the attorney may not ultimately want to be doing in the short term but is actually the move we would recommend her making for her career – that is, if she is focused on long-term marketability.

As legal recruiters, candidates depend and rely on our knowledge and understanding of long-term marketability in considering lateral moves, and it is important that your recruiter understands this part of the market very well.  We will spend time providing guidance on how we see the opportunity for each individual candidate’s short-term and long-term goals, and to make sure the candidate is considering both factors and not losing sight of the long-term benefits a position may have for them.

The legal firm market is a tricky one – and there are certain experiences law firms want to see and require in considering lateral candidates.  In addition, the firm you are at can matter significantly for potential in-house moves, and it can be extremely beneficial to have experience at two firms rather than one in order to broaden your connections within that in-house world, if in-house is your ultimate goal.

We have seen many examples of attorneys turning down opportunities that would have been huge for them in the long-term due to short-term concerns or dream desires.  And we have gone back to some of those candidates and also our former law firm colleagues later to ask them if they regret certain decisions, and many do, especially when we speak to people over 10 years into their careers who are feeling the long-term impacts now. 

A prime example is a generalist corporate big law attorney who knows they want to stay long-term in the firm world, but never gets the opportunity at their current firm to specialize in a practice area.  He applies to a specialist position, and lands the job, but turns it down because he would prefer a different firm.  Of course, we fully support every candidate’s decision if the fit is not great and firms want and deserve for candidates to be excited about joining their firm. However, the long-term focused recruiter would likely advise the candidate to strongly weigh long-term benefits of this move as it can be very difficult to make those type of transitions and when a firm is offering it to you, it is important to at least think hard about long-term career objectives, even if the job is not perfect in every way, since that attorney may not get another opportunity. 

Other times, perhaps the candidate wants to end up at an extremely elite firm, but does not have the firm background or experience they need to get there.  It can make a lot of sense to make an intermediate move to a different firm to build up that experience to lead the attorney to the place he or she ultimately thinks they want to be. And sometimes, the home they felt was a stepping stone ends up being the actual perfect fit for them. But if not, they have set themselves up well for future lateral moves.   

A third example is a candidate who is about to be unemployed or has already been let go at their firm.  This candidate is a prime example where long-term marketability is so important to consider.  At this point, the main focus needs to be getting back in a position as soon as possible.  The reality of the legal firm market is that the longer the gap is, the more difficult it will be to explain it and successfully re-enter the market, and a very large gap can follow your career for far too long.  In this case, long-term marketability may need to take center stage in deciding to accept an offer.   

We would strongly advise talking to us or your recruiter about both the short-term and long-term benefits of the firm you are considering or a lateral move you are contemplating generally. 

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