How to Ensure Your Lateral Move Is a Success

You have spent many hours planning your job search with your recruiter, picking the right firms and researching them with every spare moment. You have interviewed like crazy for months, while staying up late at night trying to hold down your current job. You have spent countless hours nervously awaiting word on your interviews, and you are mentally and emotionally exhausted. But it's all been worth it: you finally got the perfect job offer at the firm of your dreams. Congratulations, time to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the new change in your career. But don't get too comfortable, you still have a lot of important challenges ahead of you if you are going to make this new job a success.

Unfortunately, as recruiters we encounter many attorneys each day who have made unsuccessful lateral moves and are faced with starting all over again. So take a moment before you embark to think about how this move affects your career, and how you can affect your success at the new firm.

There are a number of significant costs that attach to multiple lateral moves (aside from the arduous task of interviewing). First, when you pack your boxes and leave your current firm you lose any working goodwill you have stored there. Over the time spent working at a firm, you build relationships and goodwill within the firm and with the firm's clients; this level of trust in turn defines the level of responsibility and the quality of work you receive. (Obviously, for some, bad work-product or run-ins with partners can lead to more badwill than good, which by itself can warrant a job change.)

Second, when you change jobs it may slow your track to partnership. If you are more senior when you move, the new firm may require an extra year or two before they are willing to consider you for partnership. Moreover, you may likely be "getting in line" behind a number of other senior associates who have been there for many more years than you, during which time they have built up much goodwill.

Third, the personal relationships and friendships do not transfer either. Although many people leave law firms because of negative personal experiences, there are almost always good relationships that you are leaving behind.

Fourth, too much movement limits your future options. If you have switched jobs multiple times, your resume will unavoidably raise stability concerns with any prospective employer - the cat only has so many lives, and in this case it isn't nine. What happens when that dream job comes along late in your associate career, perhaps at a unique firm or company, but you already have three or four moves on your resume? Your prospective employer may very well pass you by simply because of concerns that you will not stay around. You will need to weigh issues like these carefully against the positives of moving to a new firm.

On the other hand, one of the best things about a new job is that you have a clean slate. The possibilities at the new job are unlimited; you have been given a new chance to reshape yourself and your career. Make the most of it by preparing yourself to adapt and succeed at the new firm.

History Has A Way of Repeating Itself

The chances are there are many things you could have done at your old job to make your time there more successful and fulfilling. Before you start the next job, take the time to reflect on the mistakes you made in your old job, and the things you could have done to better your performance. Take a hard look at any bad habits you might have developed, and make it your personal goal to change them. If you do not learn from your past mistakes, you are probably doomed to repeat them at your new job.

To that end, you may want to take the time to sit down with more senior lawyers at your old firm and ask them candid questions about your job performance and how you might improve. Many firms are reticent to give young lawyers detailed evaluations of their performance during the course of their time at the firm because the firm does not want to risk alienating the associate. Now that you are going, those lawyers who worked closely with you may be more willing to give you more specific feedback on how you could improve yourself as a lawyer. If you are really committed to making the most of your new job, early on you should focus substantial energy on strengthening your weak points.

Expect the Unexpected

As much as you feel like you know about your new firm, there is so much more that you don't know. Unless you have very close friends on the "inside," your perception of the firm was largely formed during the recruiting process, during which the firm and its lawyers have been on their best behavior. Try to find out if the department you will be in has any particularly difficult or demanding partners, or troublesome junior lawyers. Understanding how to deal with them before you start will help you avoid tough situations later.

Furthermore, law firms are dynamic, evolving organizations. What is true today may not be true tomorrow. Prepare yourself for the likely possibility that the job you have pictured in your mind may not be very accurate. The firm may lose a key partner or client, or the work in your department may change.

Although careful investigation may reveal some of these changes before your start, be ready for the unexpected after you make your move. If you are prepared to face changes at your new job, you will be better able to adapt and make the best of disappointing situations.

Know Your Environment

Be prepared for the possibility that your new firm will do little to incorporate you into its culture. While most law firms are good at recruiting and training associates, many fall short at integrating laterals after they come aboard. Do not expect your firm to provide you with a list of "dos" and "don'ts" on day one; you will have to learn the unwritten rules yourself - and the quicker the better.

Early on, spend time learning about the firm's people, its culture, political system, and history. You should be proactive in introducing yourself to the lawyers and staff at your new firm. Be nice to everyone, lawyers and staff alike. Although you may have been nice to the important partner, you could quickly alienate him or her if you are not polite to their favorite secretary or staff person.

Take it upon yourself to learn what the lawyers do and show them how you can help their practice. Study the personal backgrounds of the firm's leaders, particularly in your practice area. Find out where the alliances and conflicts may lie between the partners, and how the pecking order works. Figure out which associates are the most successful and what they have done to achieve that success. Fellow lawyers may be the most useful resource you have in getting the inside scoop on the firm and its lawyers.

Good First Impressions

The first several months at a new firm are critical. You need to show the lawyers that you do good work, are a team player, and are an enjoyable person to be around. Try to make yourself feel at home in your new firm as quickly as you can. Although your first reaction may be to devote all your energies to producing good work product, you must allow time for socializing. Indeed, you should attend social functions of any kind, such as receptions, parties, group meetings, training seminars, and recruiting lunches. Any of these events can afford you good opportunities for one-on-one conversations with other lawyers. Make sure to listen attentively and ask questions that show your interest and enthusiasm.

After you meet a lawyer, keep track of that contact and follow up later with a visit or phone call. This will fix in that lawyer's mind that you are a part of the firm, and that you are interested in working with him or her. These encounters provide you with a good forum to build relationships to support your growth in the firm. Some of these lawyers will even give you work assignments.

If there are not many social occasions, do not be afraid to make some. Ask junior members of your work group out to lunch or coffee. Getting to know them can be instrumental in understanding the more senior lawyers, and the political makeup of the firm as a whole. Just be careful. Some associates may only be interested in getting to know you so that they can pawn off unsavory assignments. Others may just want to complain about the conditions of the firm. You should avoid the complainers because it may give you an unfairly negative view of the firm and prevent you from exploring it with eyes open. You also do not want to align yourself with people known to be complainers or malcontents.

When more senior lawyers or firm staff people ask for volunteers, do so. Your involvement in recruiting or firm management committees is a great way to meet other lawyers, and shows your commitment to the success of the organization. If your firm has a strong cultural commitment to a particular charity or pro bono activity, you should try to get involved with that. Another great way to get exposure to the lawyers you work with is to help plan or make a presentation to your practice group. Many practice groups have regular meetings at which one or more of their lawyers speak to the group on a topic of mutual interest. These are good opportunities to demonstrate your legal acumen before many or all of your peers.

The Important Part

While getting involved in social and other non-billable events is important, make sure not to overdo it to the point where you become distracted from the all-important billable work.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of your first few months at the firm will be the working relationships you form. You will want to try to build close relationships with the partners who will ultimately play the largest role in shaping your career at the firm.

For the most part, senior lawyers are most likely to choose junior lawyers with whom they are comfortable. Because you do not have a history with these lawyers, you will need to exceed expectations in your early contacts with them. Make sure you create an impression that you do good work and add value to each project. Pay close attention to details, and be available or in touch at all times. Make sure to regularly report back to more senior lawyers. Try to be very organized, as that will help you do better work and will make senior lawyers more likely to rely on you for more important projects.

Realize before you start that there is not one right way to do things. Your new firm will likely do certain things different than your old one, just as certain partners within any firm have varied legal styles and preferences. Do not be set in your ways; go into the new job with your mind set on tailoring your own way of practicing to fit the firm. If you keep an open mind, you might even learn there is a better way to do things. And if you think the new firm does not quite do things the right way, be careful not to rock the boat too hard too early. Try it their way in the early stages, or kindly suggest your alternative and see how those above you respond.

You should also spend time getting to know the firm's clients, or at a minimum, the ones you are working for. There is no easier way to get yourself in hot water than to upset a key client. Particular clients have particular needs. Do not be shy to ask questions of more senior lawyers about these needs, as they may forget that you are new and do not know the "rules" for that client. Some clients are highly cost-conscious, while some are not happy unless they know that every stone has been turned over. Some clients will have a very set format for how they like their legal work to be done.

Handling Trouble

At some point you may find that, despite all your best efforts, your entree to your new firm is not going quite as well as expected. You should be prepared to adjust your strategy in response to changes in the firm, or changes in your department. Conversations with senior lawyers may help you understand where the firm is going and which partners may be best able to provide you with the work you want. You may want to shift your marketing efforts to other lawyers. If the department you are in is having trouble, be open to taking assignments from other departments. But most importantly, be prepared to adjust your expectations, by taking assignments that are not so interesting or desirable. You may find that these experiences not only give you the appearance of a team player, but they also expose you to new legal concepts that will make you a more rounded lawyer.

As time goes on, you will find that you are getting more significant assignments, that senior lawyers increasing rely on you, and that junior lawyers are coming to you with questions. Congratulations, you have arrived. But do not let the success get the best of you. The difference between lawyers who enjoy long-term success and those who do not is the successful lawyer's ability to keep growing and developing. Do not ease up on the standards you have set for yourself; success in the law is as much about maintaining a constant learning process as it is about hard work. If you keep building your relationships with lawyers in your firm and with clients, you will continue to succeed.

If you enter your new job with your eyes and mind open, in a short time you will find that your lateral move has been a success. Hopefully, you will enjoy many good years in your new home.