In one of BigLaw’s busiest practices, the possibilities for your next career move can feel endless (and overwhelming). From career progression to questions of culture, we hear from three corporate associates who took the lateral leap.
Of the thousands of associates we speak to every year, more than a fifth fall under the corporate banner. There are many routes a corporate associate can go down within this enormous practice, whether they remain a generalist or decide to carve out a niche; whether they want to achieve partnership or go in-house.
One of the biggest concerns for associates in this practice is that changing firms might negatively impact their career progression, especially if their ambition is to make partner. “It can be understandably difficult to leave behind the goodwill and relationships that you’ve built, but the flipside of that is that you can potentially find a place where your progression opportunities may be even greater,” says Peter Alexander, of Latham & Watkins’ US attorney recruitment team. “There are plenty of times in which laterals have the opportunity to step in and quickly become key members of a team.”
Below, we hear more from Peter Alexander along with three corporate associates who decided to take the lateral leap…
What advice do you have for corporate associates considering their first lateral move?
Tom Hillebrand: Really figure out why you want to move before you start the interview process because you want to know what you are looking for. This helps in honing in on the important items, but also will pressure test you to make sure that you are picking the right firm for your success. Maybe you are looking for an in-house springboard, maybe it’s a partnership track, maybe it’s a flexible working arrangement with an office in your favorite vacation spot.
“With the experience of your first firm, you should be well-equipped to see the differences in culture, work, and office experience, and decide what you are really looking for.”
Once you have an idea of where you are looking, talk to people at those firms that you know and be critical in your analysis. With the experience of your first firm, you should be well-equipped to see the differences in culture, work, and office experience, and decide what you are really looking for. Finally, don’t let large signing bonuses sway your decision away from a firm where you could have long-term success towards a one-time payday.
Peter Alexander: If you are considering making a move, even if it’s not in the immediate sense, don’t be afraid to start a conversation more casually to make sure it is the right fit for you. It is often hard to distinguish the benefits you would gain from a particular platform without speaking to someone in that practice, so recognize that even starting a longer-term conversation could be in your best interest.
What was attractive to you about the corporate group at Latham & Watkins?
Adam Whitaker: The biggest draw for me was and continues to be the Latham & Watkins platform. I am continually amazed at the breadth and depth of expertise Latham attorneys have across all varieties of subject matter and industry, both within the corporate group and amongst the specialist teams that support us on every transaction. I felt that Latham was the best place to enable me to service all types of client needs under one roof, making it easier to build my own practice, knowing all that Latham has on offer for clients.
For someone like me desiring to build a robust M&A practice, the breadth of work and clients is unparalleled, ranging from large corporate serial acquirers to future tech unicorns to private equity firms, public and private deals, cross-border matters and all types of transaction structures.
TH: Coming from a competitor, it was obvious that Latham was an absolutely top-tier law firm, but it was only once I started to interview and got to know the people at Latham that I was really able to put together what made it such an attractive option. It is probably cliché, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true — it’s the people that make the difference. As we know, hours can be long anywhere, but it is who you are spending it with that makes the difference and you can tell from the start that Latham is a great team. The people, combined with Latham’s unwavering success in the Houston legal market, and its globally top-rated practices across the spectrum, made it an easy decision.
How has your experience at Latham differed to your previous places of work?
Jennifer Wong: I am really impressed with the breadth of resources that associates have on hand – the knowledge management team does a great job of frequently distributing helpful precedents, articles, and other useful materials, which is helpful for drafting purposes and for keeping you apprised of recent trends in the M&A market.
TH: I think the biggest difference is the top-down culture of teamwork and respect at Latham. In a world that includes some long days and tight deadlines, I think the most important part of a law firm is how the associates are treated; teamwork and respect trickles down and has a significant impact on productivity (and happiness). When we closed some very large deals at the beginning of the year, everyone on the deal team came down together to the conference rooms. We ordered in food, rolled up sleeves (i.e. plugged in laptops), and got the deals done — it was a great new experience in camaraderie and it made a long but rewarding night a fond memory. It sounds overly simple, but seeing the whole team putting in the work and seeing everyone treated like an important member of the team was eye-opening.
“As someone looking to make partner as a lateral associate, I was impressed by the candor and transparency with which Latham approaches the partnership advancement process.”
AW: As someone looking to make partner as a lateral associate, I was impressed by the candor and transparency with which Latham approaches the partnership advancement process. At Latham, you will know exactly how the process works, what you need to do in order to make partner and how to succeed as a partner, and you will constantly receive constructive feedback along the way. This removes much of the mystery around making partner that may exist at other firms. I also feel that the partners here genuinely want associates to make partner and go out of their way to provide tips and advice on developing your own practice and finding your own niche within the firm and your local office.
Associates often have concerns when changing firms that a move will impact their opportunities to progress. What’s your take on that?
AW: I knew that I wanted to make partner, and so I had a lot of questions around how Latham treats its lateral associates in terms of integration and advancement. Ultimately I spoke with many associates and partners who started at Latham as lateral associates and realized that many of the most successful attorneys at Latham started as laterals. Of course, when starting fresh at any law firm, you will need to develop your connections, support network, and mentors, but it was much easier for me to approach this seemingly daunting task knowing that the path ahead was well-worn by many Latham attorneys before me.
“If this is something that is important to your decision in lateralling, you definitely should not hesitate in asking these questions upfront.”
JW: I think it’s important to have these conversations throughout the interview process so you can get a real sense of what your progression path will look like. The conversation will obviously differ depending on where you are in your career but if this is something that is important to your decision in lateralling, you definitely should not hesitate in asking these questions upfront. I think it’s important to have realistic expectations and not just focus on the long-term view of your career/promotion but to also focus on what you want to achieve in the short term whether it’s building expertise in a specific industry/area, working with certain types of clients, etc., since all this will play a significant role in helping you achieve your long-term goals.
Peter Alexander: At Latham & Watkins, we certainly aren’t strangers to having laterals join, become key players and make a path for themselves. We have extensive mentorship programs to help associates integrate where they are paired with both a formal mentor in the practice group, and also with an additional mentor who has joined Latham laterally in the past who can provide guidance specific to the experience of joining a firm as an experienced associate.
AW: I have also been very impressed by the clients we have at Latham. If your “backup plan” is to go in-house, Latham is an incredible launch pad to doing so given the firm’s impressive client base, particularly here in the Bay Area.
“It was particularly gratifying watching several Latham partners slog through a mud pit obstacle at the Tough Mudder charity race event we attended last year.”
How would you describe the culture of the corporate group and your office?
AW: The culture in the Latham corporate group and the Bay Area offices is supportive, collegial, and fun. Associates — both locally and in other offices around the world — always seem willing to take time out of their busy days to impart knowledge or share insights from a precedent transaction they may have worked on. No partner views themselves as too senior to “get their hands dirty” when the need arises — on multiple occasions when completely underwater, I’ve had partners offer to lend a hand on matters on which they are not otherwise working.
Of course, the work is demanding and the partners and clients rightfully have high expectations when it comes to providing sound client advice and high quality work product, but attorneys here truly enjoy the work and we always find time to laugh and enjoy ourselves along the way. For example, it was particularly gratifying watching several Latham partners slog through a mud pit obstacle at the Tough Mudder charity race event we attended last year.
“I was really impressed with the level of effort the M&A practice made to create a sense of community by organizing regular zoom calls at the start of the working from home trend.”
JW: Having lateralled during the start of the pandemic, this has presented some challenges in terms of “meeting” people and I had serious concerns about being able to integrate/familiarize myself with the group prior to starting. However, I was really impressed with the level of effort the M&A practice made to create a sense of community by organizing regular zoom calls at the start of the working from home trend. It really helped me put faces to names and made the transition slightly more seamless (though I do look forward to the day I can actually meet the rest of the group in-person).
What does your sub-team do?
TH: I work in a corner of the corporate group that specializes in oil, gas, and energy work, as well as project development transactions. Depending on the client and situation, sometimes we function as specialists and sometimes we run our own deals; every day brings new types of transactions and opportunities to learn.
JW: I’m in the M&A practice so our work is transactional and involves advising public and private clients in structuring their deals and then helping them execute on these transactions, from running a diligence process to drafting and negotiating definitive documents.
Which types of work have been especially busy lately?
AW: My practice is primarily focused on M&A and we have been extremely busy on all fronts this year, despite COVID-19 and other headwinds 2020 has presented. The same is true, I believe, for nearly all other practice areas at the firm. Despite all of the uncertainty in the world and the economy at this time, Latham has quickly adapted and remains well poised to continue providing top-notch service to clients and it feels as if we are busier now than we have ever been.
TH: There has been a wide mix of work lately — from multi-billion dollar joint ventures to massive land sales, and, as is expected in our current market, a bankruptcy here and there. Overall, the pace this year has been brisk and work has not slowed much at all in the project development and oil and gas space.
“… the largest land purchase in the United States since the US government purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.”
What’s the most interesting deal you’ve worked on personally?
TH: I was part of the team that helped Occidental Petroleum divest itself of 5 million acres of land (surface and minerals) for $1.33 billion in what was the largest land purchase in the United States since the US government purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. It was an exciting and complex transaction where I was able to take significant leadership roles with the full support of the team at Latham.
AW: I have particularly enjoyed the complexity involved in working on certain high-profile, large-scale transactions including Postmates’ acquisition by Uber and Intuit’s acquisition of Credit Karma. I have also enjoyed working on and being at the forefront of a growing trend in business combinations with special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs.
More about corporate at Latham & Watkins from recruitment insider Peter Alexander…
"While we are, of course, always looking out for candidates with particularly strong substantive skills, I think what separates candidates in the group is the entrepreneurial outlook, enthusiasm for the work, and willingness to learn all sides of the practice they are joining.
We’ve seen high levels of activity across all of our corporate practices over the past few months (and really over the course of the year). This has created needs on the lateral front in groups small and large. In particular I think groups on both coasts have seen a particular recent uptick."