Why Lateraling as an Attorney Makes Sense | BCGSearch.com

Why Lateraling as an Attorney Makes Sense


Print/Download PDF

Font Size

Rate this article

71 Reviews Average: 5 out of 5

Summary: From an associate's point of view, what strategy is most likely to optimize a legal career in today's market? Find out in this article.
Making a lateral move as an attorney makes sense in today's market

From all indications, making a lateral move is the hottest ticket in town these days for associates looking for a shortcut to the top.

Lateraling, driven by the war for legal talent, has become an efficient and accepted means of escalating earnings and parlaying experience into valued expertise, not to mention a viable means of erasing past errors and indiscretions from the conscious memory of colleagues and supervisors.

In fact, serial lateraling - now a pandemic phenomenon - belies a legendary myth about law careers: that stars stay and losers leave. Today, more than ever, stars are on the move. Their mobility suggests that changing jobs is both an opportunity and obligation as they stake a claim for long-term professional development and career agility.
The lateral phenomenon is actually neither new nor surprising. Private-practice lawyers have always made job changes, moving in and out of prestigious positions with the U.S. Department of Justice or other government agencies, taking positions as in-house counsel for revered clients, and pursuing sought-after terms as elected officials. But for the most part, those were diversions that concluded with a heralded return to the firm that championed their temporary hiatus.

But current data reveals that lateral hiring is outpacing entry-level hiring.

Despite the pleas of those who yearn for the way things used to be, an active lateral market is probably here to stay. Even when the economic bubble bursts and the legal market comes tumbling down, there is little reason to believe that lawyer careers will ever return to the models of yesteryear, when young attorneys gave complete loyalty to their first employers, endured their lot as associates, and for all of their devotion, earned job security for life.

The traditions of loyalty and job security in the private practice world have been set aside and now function as the primary catalysts for lateral movement. The fantasy of associate job security was revealed for what it was several years ago with a recession that came on the heels of huge associate pay raises (in late 2000 through 2002).


Associates got pink slips because in the end, they were a "fungible cost center," no matter that they may have both worked hard and kissed up. Today, associates are a commodity susceptible to downsizing and rightsizing, and the prospect of making partner is still a longshot, given the widely quoted figure of a "20 percent chance" in law firms nationwide.

The lessons learned are now legendary. Loyalty has been repealed from the associate protocol book. It has been replaced with a new expectation - one that establishes associates, especially the most talented ones, as free agents in a market hungry for top talent.


Some suggest that what we are witnessing is a replacement of the "Peter Principle" (people rise through the ranks until they reach their level of incompetency) by the "Paul Principle" (people rise through an organization until their work there stops being rewarding. Then they leave.)

The latter philosophy seems to align with the perspective that is attributed to GenerationX workers, who are adamant in the belief that a career is not linear, and more importantly, a job isn't your life. Rather, careers are webs with intersecting opportunities made possible by the deliberate acquisition of highly valued skills. And life is what you do to give meaning to your work.

The new view suggests that job security is equated with marketable skills and the ability to manage career transitions. Thus the age-old protocol of life-long loyalty has been redefined to suggest that lawyers are obligated to work hard and dedicate effort to an employer only as long as they choose to work for that employer.

Lateral movement for career transcendence sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? In some respects, it is too good to be true - and associates teetering on the brink of a decision are wise to consider the shades of green in the grass they are eyeing on the other side of the fence. While there may be compelling reasons for job changes related to practice interests and work-life balance, associates whose heads are turned by the allure of higher compensation may be making short-term choices that have long-term consequences. Seasoned veterans note that the old "last hired, first fired" adage could reverberate in the legal profession just as it does elsewhere.

Still, the lateral phenomenon is a sea change in the legal profession, and the impact of lateral movement on private practice is profound. Law firm culture, previously deeply embedded and ceremoniously passed from one generation of lawyers to the next, is in the cross-hairs of the lateral phenomenon as firms note that they are experiencing tremendous internal churning. More than a few bemoan a threadbare culture and they are asking, like adolescents going through puberty, "Who are we?"

Moreover, mentoring and training, both of which typically engage partners in coaching and nurturing associates, are now perceived to be somewhat like parasites eating away at the production of the billable hour, given the lack of long-term associate loyalty. The pressures to bill are enormous and the incentive to mentor and train mobile associates often minimal. Investing in associates who might carry the mantle of the firm in the future (but who are not committed to do so) is far less certain to pay dividends.

Still, the question stands: Does changing jobs optimize lawyers' careers?

Myth or truth?

Some young lawyers who have augmented their salaries by as much as one-third with a job change will point to their bottom lines as evidence of the truth of the statement. Others will point to exciting practice opportunities and autonomy from a job change as evidence of how their move was a good decision at the right time in their careers.

But only time and targeted research will offer the empirical data to support or refute either view. Surely some lawyers find the greener pastures they have been looking for in a job change. And just as certainly, others find that they will need to keep looking and, thus, keep moving. In the final analysis, the career decisions - mobility or stability - of a majority of lawyers over time will reveal the truth. As one observer noted, "Those who find the practice, priorities, colleagues, and work-life balance that align with theirs are those whose careers are truly optimized."

Million-dollar quiz show questions aside, see if you can answer this query: From an associate's point of view, what strategy is most likely to optimize a legal career in today's market?

a) working like a dog

b) kissing up to the partners

c) changing employers

d) all of the above.

The answer, as documented by the actions of today's associates - and notwithstanding the probable influences of working like a dog and kissing up - is "c," changing employers.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog, HarrisonBarnes.com, and BCGSearch.com, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

Download the BCG Attorney Search App for the Latest Articles

Article Categories

AGREE/DISAGREE? SHARE COMMENTS ANONYMOUSLY! We Want to Hear Your Thoughts! Tell Us What You Think!!

We've changed thousands of lives over the past 20 years, and yours could be next.

When you use BCG Attorney Search you will get an unfair advantage because you will use the best legal placement company in the world for finding permanent law firm positions.