How difficult is it to transition to the West Coast legal market from another region of the country? Is it imperative to have the bar in my state of interest as well as ties to the area?
As someone who has made the transition from East Coast to West Coast and has helped several attorneys do the same, I can tell you that making the move to practice in California, Oregon, or Washington is immensely rewarding but has some inherent challenges (though not insurmountable ones). It's easy to see why this might be; these three states boast some of the most beautiful and livable communities in the country and are highly sought after destinations. The focus on quality of life and work/life balance on the West Coast stands in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of many East Coast and Mid-Western metropolitan areas and is a very attractive counterpoint for burned out associates living in other regions. Obtaining a legal position in any of these three states is challenging but worth it-and having the Bar and ties to the area are immensely helpful, if not imperative in some cases. It's important to know what to expect, what is possible, and how to best proceed in your search. Below are some quick pointers that may be useful.
California is one of the most sought after destinations for attorneys in the country (and increasingly the world) and has become an increasingly competitive market, particularly in general litigation where jobs have been scarce. Both Northern and Southern California boast beautiful terrain and weather and high quality of life. But obtaining a position here as an out of state lateral can be difficult. Two very important tips: First, sitting for the California Bar (or at least stating your intention to do so) is an absolute imperative for anyone seeking to make the move here. California does not offer reciprocity with any other state in the US so all new attorneys must take the Bar exam in either February or July (considered by many to be the toughest exam in the country with pass rates averaging around 35%). There are several firms with whom we work who will not even look at resumes of candidates who do not yet have the California Bar. If not yet admitted, stating on your resume (under Bar Admissions) that you are sitting for the next California Bar exam is a must. There is some latitude here with transactional attorneys; firms are more willing to consider out of state transactional associates than they are litigation associates. That said, litigation superstars will often be considered (Top 5 law school and stellar grades and experience) with the expectation that the candidate will take the next bar exam.
Second, ties to the state or area are also very important. We are almost always asked by firms, "What are this person's ties to the area? Why do they want to move here?" This matters more in some areas of the state than others but being able to state that you have family, former connections to the area (lived there previously; attended school there), or at least friends residing in the state is key. Firms want to know that you are serious about making the move before they invest precious time and resources in your candidacy, so clearly demonstrating any connections to your city or region of choice is imperative. For smaller markets like Sacramento or San Diego, ties to the area are non-negotiable. I recently had a recruiter in Sacramento tell me that the firm would not consider my candidate because she couldn't demonstrate that she had ties that were strong enough to the city (this is also true of Seattle and Portland, by the way. More on that below). It's as if firms decide for you that you will not be happy in an area if you don't have sufficient, existing connections (and are afraid you will leave) and will therefore not take you seriously as a candidate.
Oregon and Washington
These two states are sufficiently similar in their approaches to hiring out of state attorneys that they can be adequately grouped together. Like California, Oregon and Washington offer beautiful landscapes, relaxed and friendly communities, and a work/life balance that includes a heavy focus on the outdoors. However, breaking into these markets can be quite daunting for non-locals.
When thinking of working in Oregon and Washington, think about a stereotypical New England town: they like their own! Oregon and Washington are two of the toughest markets in the country to penetrate for this reason; ties to the state are not just important-they are the primary jumping off point for consideration. Oregon and Washington firms are notorious for only wanting candidates who are originally from these states or who have lived or studied here in the past. The reason is simple: weather! Practitioners in Oregon and Washington have seen their fair share of attorneys who decide they want to practice there and then leave within a year or two because they can't handle the cold, the fog, the rain or all of the above! Firms are even more wary of candidates coming from the Southern California region who are used to perpetual sun and warm weather.
Unlike California, there is reciprocity with the bar in both Washington and Oregon. Admission requirements are different for each state to be sure and check the bar websites for both states before beginning the process. It is also important to note many law firms in these states prefer candidates to have the Washington and Oregon bars (once you are admitted to one, you can waive into the other). There is a lot of collaboration and cross-over work between the two states, so firms are requesting this more and more (many current job postings state that they prefer admission to both states' bars).
When beginning a job search for any of these states, it is of course wise to be realistic about the desirability of your practice area. In California, IP Litigation and Patent Prosecution (specifically for associates with technical degrees) are practice areas where the demand exceeds the current pool of viable applicants-so there may be more flexibility in these areas regarding the Bar and ties to the area. Corporate M&A associates are also in high demand in both Northern and Southern California. In Oregon and Washington, Intellectual Property is also a strong practice, as are Tax, Trusts & Estates, and Corporate.
Remember that any job search can take up to several months but this time frame is always lengthened when making a move to another state, particularly competitive states like California, Oregon, and Washington. To ensure success, become familiar with the practice areas that are in the most demand in your state of interest as well as the cultural mores and requirements that drive hiring decisions.