Summary: Avoid making any of these major mistakes made by attorneys that are thinking about switching firms, as they could seriously damage your legal career.
NOTE: There are certainly circumstances where the morale at your firm may be so poor that leaving is your only option. Nevertheless, in general most law firms always have low morale to some extent and spending your time around people who do not have low morale is often your best choice. If your law firm is collapsing and this is the cause of the low morale then by all means look for a new job. This is rarely the case, however.
NOTE: If people simply do not like you at your firm and it is not a good cultural fit then you may be better off leaving. If people simply do not like you and this is clear to you—and if you cannot fix it—the best thing for you to do is often to leave. No question about it. You need to be able to tell the difference between people trying to develop you (for your own good and for the benefit of the firm) and people actually having it out for you. If people have it out for you then you generally should leave the firm.
NOTE: Some law firms are simply cheap and there may be financial reasons to leave. For example, there may be firms that simply see you as a commodity that is easily replaceable. You should get out of firms like these as soon as possible. There are other law firms that will do everything they can to undercompensate you – or that are pinching your pay because they have their own financial problems. If this is the case you should get out – money does matter.
NOTE: A law firm job is generally something that to the extent you can you should never arbitrarily leave. If you do arbitrarily leave then you are going to hurt the goodwill you have generated, the loyalty the firm may have towards you as a result of all the hard work you did and the relationships and other connections you made. You will need to start this at a new firm and things may not go as well for you there. You need to be careful about leaving for no reason.
NOTE: There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting a better job. The danger you face is the risk involved in pushing out of your comfort zone and failing on the other side—which happens when you make bad career decisions more often than you might think. But if you are unhappy and really want something better you should always follow your dreams—no question about it.
NOTE: I am not saying that going to a more prestigious firm is not a good idea. The most prestigious law firms typically give you a “credential” that never goes away and can help you throughout your career. In addition, the most prestigious law firms have very high quality work standards and will provide you with a range of very high-level contacts that will remain with you throughout your career. Moreover, the most prestigious law firms will give you the opportunity to do work for more important clients and on more sophisticated matters. If your long-term plan is to go in-house, the most prestigious law firms are also often a very good bet for your career.
NOTE: Just because the market is hot and active for your practice area also does not mean you need to, or should, move. When the market is active you are in a position to move if you choose but may be better off staying put – the market always slows down. When it does, you are more likely to stay employed if you remain at your current firm where you have seniority, access to work, goodwill and people to protect and look out for you.
NOTE: There is nothing wrong with applying to only a few places if you already have firm connections somewhere and are confident in your decision. The issue is that when you only reach out to a few places you do not have different personalities, types of work, financial offers and so forth to evaluate and this can hurt you.
NOTE: Some candidates will automatically get a lot of offers if they have extremely strong backgrounds and law firms may hand them out a bit recklessly in good markets. For example, in Silicon Valley a corporate attorney with an incredible educational and work background at the right class year will get lots of offers in a strong economy. Notwithstanding, this is rare. If you are a strong enough candidate and you know it—then turn down offers you do not want by every means. I’ve had candidates turn down 5+ offers and continue to get offers (I am not proud of this, because it is better for a firm to only make an offer if it knows you will accept it). Nevertheless, the legal market is such that there are generally not a lot of offers for attorneys of a given class year in a given practice area and a given location to go around.
NOTE: For some attorneys taking the first job offered may be the right thing do to. But you should never take a position if it feels wrong. If the position somehow feels like one you will leave eventually, or that you could do better, you should not take the job.
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