Most attorneys will make three or more moves during the course of their career. Unfortunately, some of those moves will not be well planned as anyone who was practicing law during the past recession can attest. But what about the flip side – moving to advance your legal career? Is there an optimum time to make a change? The answer is yes, but it varies depending on your level of experience.
The optimum time to make a move is when you have about three to five years’ experience. The reason is that you are now at a level of training that is most productive to an acquiring firm. But what if you are not unhappy where you are, should you just stay? The answer depends on where you are. There are many firms where it is assumed that the benefit of working there is in the training and that eventually you will change firms. What are your firm’s benchmarks for promotion to partnership and how realistic are they to be obtained? Where did the partners in your firm come from? Are most of them laterals or were many of them promoted to partnership as associates? Questions like these should provide some guidance.
What about at the senior associate level? Is there a best time to move? Suppose you’re pretty sure you will be promoted to partner? Should you wait, obtain the junior/income partner status and then move? After all a new firm will see how valued you are. Right? Wrong. What the new firm will see is someone with a partner title who probably has no practice or at least not enough to be self-sustaining. If you don’t have your own practice, and are pretty sure you will move eventually, better to move earlier. On the other hand, for attorneys beginning to produce their own clients, change is almost always an option. And you can wait, continue to build your own practice and then move later as an equity partner.
Another timing consideration for associates depends on work you are currently involved in. Someone who is gearing up for trial or involved in a big project should wait until the matter concludes. The ideal is to give notice when your absence will be least stressful for your current firm. The goal is to build your career – not burn bridges.
The calendar also can affect when you leave. While remaining at your firm for a year-end bonus is an obvious choice, trying to change firms during other times of the year can be affected by the recruiting cycle at the new firm. For example, during the summer, many large firm recruiting administrators are consumed with the summer associate program and not with lateral hiring. On campus interviewing usually occurs in the summer. And at large and smaller firms, vacation schedules can also impact the hiring process.
The fall can also be difficult at large firms as new hires traditionally start after Labor Day. Many firms will continue to conduct law student interviews and call backs during the fall.
The best time to make a change is early in the year. Law firm budgets, compensation, hiring and growth projections are usually set at the first of the year. Also as associates collect year-end bonuses and move, new positions open up providing more opportunities for laterals.
Timing is trickier for partners and most situations are unique. Be sure you are familiar with your partnership agreement which may impact the timing of a departure. If you are a member of a management-related committee at your current firm, you should resign or wait until your term is up.
Also keep in mind that the process of meetings, interviews, etc. can often take several months. For example, if you are thinking about starting at a new firm in January, you will probably want to begin your job search in October or November.
You also need to make sure your client base is large enough to be attractive to a potential new firm.
While it might seem that the optimum time to change firms is when every matter has settled, unfortunately, the inverse is true. Your new firm will want you to join with clients that will continue to provide work from day one. If you are a corporate attorney, you may consider remaining a bit longer at your current firm to develop a larger portable practice. For litigators however, timing can be especially tricky. Obviously you cannot change firms at certain points in litigation, but you will not be as attractive if every matter is completed. I have often received calls from litigation partners with “clean plates” who want to make a move. I have to advise them to wait until they have matters to take with them before moving. Timing is everything.