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We are all holding our breath as we edge out of the recession and are optimistic for the return of the “golden age.” Unfortunately, firms have learned that they can and have to survive on a leaner staff and fewer associates. This is part of what the market is calling the “New Normal.”
While some firms have successfully navigated the New Normal and have passed through relatively unscathed, other firms are still adjusting as the economy corrects itself. As a consequence of this, there continue to be residual layoffs among staff and associates.
According to The American Lawyer, seven prestigious firms cut payroll of staff (six from the AM Law 200) and three firms laid off associates this year already. Six of these firms saw a notable decline for profits per partner in 2013. While everything may be going well from your perspective, it is valid and advisable to be cautious under such circumstances.
The ultimate favor you can do yourself and for your career is to be aware of your surroundings. If you are happy in your present position, great! I caution you, however, to not let present happiness blind you to circumstances that could potentially harm your career. Of course happiness is a priority, but you must be in tune to what is happening in your firm as a whole.
Have you noticed staff or other associate layoffs? If so, looking into other possibilities is certainly not an overreaction to this circumstance. Keep in mind - it is always easier to find a job with a job. The fact that your firm has had to lay off staff should not be taken lightly. Firms will not typically disclose financial troubles to associates. We all witnessed this first hand with the fall of Dewey LeBouef. It is in the firm's interest to assure associates that everything is fine, so they can keep them happy and working until the last possible moments. As recruiters, we often know of a firm's potential trouble before their own associates.
Does your firm have too many service partners? In my opinion, s are quickly going the way of the cassette tape (with a few exceptions, of course). If there is only one partner in your group that is bringing in the business and the rest are servicing her clients, this leaves the entire group dependent on that one person. Think about it, would this partner eventually seek to transition to a firm where she is not the sole income source but there is more of an equitable share? Very possibly. This leaves you in a vulnerable position. Unless this partner brings you aboard to the new firm, it is entirely possibly that you could be out of job as your firm loses the partner's clients.
If either (or both) of these circumstances are true, but you are otherwise very happy with your position, it is a good idea to conduct a passive search. Typically, you do your best interviewing when you are content with your firm and are under no type of time constraint or pressure. As soon as you feel a hint of anxiety, or a creeping thought that your position might be in jeopardy, the most calm, confident, high energy interviewer can lose his cool and miss the mark.
As I always tell my candidates, give yourself as many options as possible! The only career move you would potentially make would be to a better opportunity that would allow you to grow your career. You are not interested in side or down-stepping, so in an interview you will come across as someone that is looking to run toward something (to enhance your career), not someone who is running away. This always makes for a stronger candidate.
Since you would be targeting opportunities that would likely strengthen your career, it is possible that you could find a better situation and end up accepting an offer with another entity, in which case, great!
If some time passes and it becomes clear that there is nothing to worry about with respect to your present firm and you haven't found anything better, then at least you were able to investigate some opportunities that gave you solid insight as to the landscape of the market. While interviewing, you were also likely to have met people that you could possibly work with in the future and forge some instrumental relationships. This is still a positive outcome!
If it turns out that your firm is going through a rough patch, then you have successfully provided yourself with the best opportunities to move forward and to keep yourself marketable.