Lateralling in New York

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It’s not something you learn in law school, but making a lateral move is part of almost any associate’s journey to living the Harvey Specter dream. In the most active battleground for lateral moves, expert recruiters spoke to us about the types of issues that may surface when contemplating a move, particularly when doing so in the city that never sleeps…

The New York Market

With only one year of law school under your belt, you were thrust into OCI, an intense and chaotic process which was probably unlike anything you’d ever experienced. Hopefully, you ended up with a few offers. But you had a relatively short window in which to make a decision and were being bombarded with information from competing employers. Even the most thoughtful of law students lacks the perspective that comes with actually practicing, so any decision you made was, to some extent, blind. Fast forward a couple of years. You’ve experienced the highs and lows of the profession, and may have discovered that the interests, expectations and goals you had as a first-year law student no longer match up with your way of thinking today.

 This is a familiar story to the recruiters at SJL Attorney Search. They’ve worked with enough attorneys to know that their reasons for wanting to move firms can vary widely. Some associates want more responsibility or yearn for a better work/life balance. They may be searching for a firm that better reflects who they are as a person. Or maybe they’re hungry for a salary bump. Others want to boost their chances of making partner, and some are even looking two steps ahead at the exit opportunities a strategic career move can bring.

“Not all New York law firms are created equal.”

SJL partners with lawyers who are trying to figure out how to achieve some or all these goals and provides them with the support and market insight they need to accomplish a smooth and successful job change. Collectively they have more than 50 years of recruiting experience, and they know first-hand that the New York legal market is vast in terms of types of firms, practices and client base. Pretty much all of the AmLaw 100 firms have an office here, and about a quarter of them are headquartered in the city – after all, there’s a reason it’s sometimes called the capital of the world. Because of the vastness of the city’s legal landscape, associates have an unparalleled ability to refine their practices to suit their own unique set of interests and goals. Of course, fierce competition for jobs comes hand in hand with this.

“Certain practice areas and clients have become increasingly desirable, including the tech sector, emerging companies, hedge and private equity funds and privacy.”

Chambers Associate: What trends have you noticed in lateral recruitment in New York recently?

SJL Recruiter: The lateral hiring market for associates has been unusually robust in 2019. While associates continue to make moves for different reasons, one trend we have witnessed is that lifestyle has taken a backseat to associates entering the market to ‘up their game.’ There seems to be a growing number of associates who want to upgrade to the best possible firm and platform, in terms of prestige, compensation, resources, exit opportunities and partnership potential. This could be fuelled by a divide we are seeing in the AmLaw 100 between the ‘haves’ – those firms who are dominating in terms of increased market share and profitability, and the ‘have nots’ – those that appear to be lagging behind financially and therefore constrained in what they can offer their associates in terms of compensation and advancement.

SJL Recruiter: Certain practice areas and clients have also become increasingly desirable, including the tech sector, emerging companies, hedge and private equity funds and privacy, so we’ve seen increased activity in those areas. Beyond that, with the idea of a recession looming, associates are taking advantage of a currently active hiring market to enhance their profile and position before things potentially slow down.  

“Lateralling can reset an associate’s career in many different and often unimaginable ways.”

What are some of the common reasons associates want to change firms in New York and where do they want to go?

SJL Recruiter: Associates at large firms often seek to lateral to mid-sized or boutique firms to get more hands-on experience, a better shot at partnership and more predictable hours or a more manageable lifestyle. On the flip side, associates who start out at a boutique or smaller/mid-sized firm may want a larger firm to access better training, a more prestigious name on their resume, more sophisticated clients and better exit opportunities. That said, not all moves are marked by a dramatic change in the profile of the firm. We regularly work with associates who are transitioning from one top firm to another in order to tweak their practice orientation or client base, improve their partnership prospects or find a different culture. 

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Lateral Thinking: Is It Worth It?

What are the benefits of lateralling from a long-term career perspective, as opposed to staying with one firm?

SJL Recruiter: Most law students select a firm without having any prior legal experience and essentially make their decision in a vacuum. Once they’ve worked in the legal industry for a while, they have a better sense of their strengths, the environment that best suits them and what excites them. They also have a better appreciation for things like their group’s standing within their firm or its ability to promote partners, something that may not have seemed relevant before. Lateralling provides the opportunity to go through a more strategic and selective process and select a firm that better aligns with who they are now and the future they want. 

SJL Recruiter: It also offers the opportunity to enhance their network by building relationships with new colleagues and clients and finding new mentors who can provide a fresh perspective on career guidance. Another key benefit that is often overlooked is the ability to do a ‘brand reboot’ – redefine who you want to be without any of the baggage that accompanied you at your prior firm.

“The New York market is comprised of thousands of well-credentialed associates, which means serious competition.”

With this in mind, when is the best time for junior associates to lateral?

SJL Recruiter: We typically see the greatest number of law firm openings for associates who have been practicing between two and five years, which tends to correlate with when associates first start thinking about next steps. By that time, successful associates should have gained significant experience and have a greater sense of what they are looking for, so the time frame aligns with their interests as well. That being said, there are times when it makes sense for attorneys to consider opportunities earlier on. For example, if an associate is in a niche practice that typically does not have many openings, it may be worth considering those when they pop up. Likewise, if an associate wants to retool to a different practice area, they don’t want to wait until they are too senior (a.k.a. too expensive) as they may no longer be marketable.

SJL Recruiter: Expanding on that last point, associates aren’t always aware of the fact that they have a ‘shelf life’ – a window in which they are the most marketable to lateral to another law firm and, in turn, will have the greatest ability to dictate the types of opportunities that are available to them. To the extent associates foresee a move down the road, they should be mindful of their value in the marketplace and when that value is likely to wane. 

SJL Recruiter: Logistically, associates should also consider the time of year. Since many firms pay bonuses at the end of December, there tends to be a lot of attrition in January. Firms will often beef up their lateral recruiting in the 4th quarter in anticipation of those January departures (the expectation being that any such associate will start after they receive their bonus) and sometimes may be more open-minded at that time about the profile and seniority that they consider. 


Collateral Damage: The Challenges Of Changing Firms

What are the biggest challenges associates face when lateralling in the city?

SJL Recruiter: One of the biggest risks facing associates is the impulse to jump at the first opportunity that presents itself rather than investing the time necessary to understand the larger marketplace and their marketability in it. The current legal market is robust, which means that well-trained, well-credentialed associates will have options readily available to them. While the first opportunity may ultimately prove to be the right one, we recommend that associates take the time to understand the range of options available to them and really dig into how they align with their long-term career goals. 

SJL Recruiter: Another clear challenge that associates don’t always consider is that the New York market, while robust in terms of searches, is comprised of thousands of well-credentialed associates, which means serious competition for those coveted opportunities. As a result, potential employers can be incredibly selective when looking to hire. Associates are sometimes surprised at how difficult it is to get hired by a particular firm that intrigues them.  Chances are, if it intrigues them, it probably intrigues other associates as well.  To enhance their competitiveness, associates should make the most out of their initial law firm experience regardless of whether they consider it their long-term home. They should be proactive about seeking out the best experience and maximizing their skill set, network and training while there. 

“Another challenge that New York associates encounter is appreciating the differences between firms and practice groups.”

What additional challenges are there that lawyers in New York face if they want to lateral that perhaps aren't as prevalent elsewhere?

SJL Recruiter: Lawyers in New York tend to be more specialized in their practice areas. For example, as they get more senior, corporate associates may focus on M&A, capital markets, private equity or funds rather than being corporate generalist. The same is often true with litigators. This specialization can limit the opportunities that are available to potential laterals especially when they want to make some kind of pivot in their practice. While ‘retooling’ is occasionally possible for associates on the more junior end, it is more difficult as you become more senior and, if even possible, is usually accompanied by a class year and pay cut.

SJL Recruiter: Another challenge that New York associates encounter is finding the time to educate themselves on the differences between firms and practice groups given the overall size of the market. All law firms are not created equal. The differences can certainly be bold, but they can oftentimes be subtle and not discernible unless the associate takes the time to shake some hands and have face-to-face conversations.


Top Tips For Success

What are employers looking for in lateral associates? How can junior associates best showcase their abilities?

SJL Recruiter: While potential employers want to see strong law school and law firm credentials, experience is also important and, as you get more senior, likely more important. Employers want lateral associates who are operating at or above their level, have relevant experience in the area in which they are looking to join, have taken initiative to forge meaningful relationships with clients, and are invested in their career. 

SJL Recruiter: Unlike 20 years ago, potential employers don’t necessarily need to hear that a lateral sees themselves at the firm for the remainder of their career. In fact, many firms encourage an open dialogue with associates about their desired career path. But they do want to know that the associate is committed to maximizing his or her time there and is going in with an open mind as to what their future could hold. As a result, associates should be able to clearly articulate the ‘why’ part of their story – why are they looking for a new opportunity at this moment and why are they interested in this firm. 

“Be proactive but also be methodical, patient and open-minded.”

Can you give an example of a success story you’ve seen?

SJL Recruiter: We recently worked with a transactional associate who had been at an elite firm since law school. Partnership was important to him and he believed he’d made the necessary sacrifice to work towards that goal. While the associate had consistently garnered top reviews and was extremely well-respected, the firm was inexplicably non-committal when it came to his future prospects, occasionally attributing any delay to some issues he had as a junior lawyer. He considered the partners his friends but could never seem to get them to see him for who he was now as opposed to who he was at the outset of his career. He was ultimately recruited with great enthusiasm to another elite firm where he has compelling partnership prospects and has already received a title promotion. His success was due in large part to the fact that the new firm viewed him through an objective lens which focused on his current ‘brand’ as opposed to difficult-to-shake preconceived notions.

Any final words of wisdom for readers who might be contemplating changing roles?

SJL Recruiter: Be proactive but also be methodical, patient and open-minded. Not all New York law firms are created equal and there is tremendous variation between them in terms of the experience associates will get, the people they’ll work with, the clients they’ll meet and the career path they’ll forge. The process of lateralling can reset an associate’s career in many different and often unimaginable ways, so associates should embark on it with the goal of gaining enough information to make an informed decision. 


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