One of the first questions I ask any potential candidate I might work with is

One of the first questions I ask any potential candidate I might work with is “what is your current situation, and why are you looking to move?”

Frequently the answer is very straightforward, such as “my spouse got a job in a different city,” or “we want to be closer to family,” or “a couple of key partners recently left, and I am concerned that my practice area is no longer sustainable in my current office.”

Those are all great reasons to make a lateral move, and it is relatively easy from the recruiting side to both identify potential target firms for a lateral move, and to explain the candidate’s reasons for seeking a new position to potential employers.

Unfortunately, I also frequently encounter attorneys who are not happy in their current position, but cannot particularly articulate what they are looking for in a new position and, more importantly, how it is going to significantly improve their practice and line up with their career goals.  In fact, most of these attorneys do not have clear career goals, and this is the problem.

A good recruiter should be familiar with the market and able to help you meet your career goals, just as a good taxi driver should be familiar with the city and able to get you to your destination as quickly and as efficiently as possible.  But the analogy stops at the point where you can get into a cab, hand over a $20, and tell the cabbie “just drive.”  There is no such thing as “just drive” in the lateral recruiting market.

Very likely, the “just drive” approach towards your legal career is what got you lost in the first place.  You went to law school because the job market was bad, or a relative told you that you were “good at arguing.”  You went out on interviews and took the first available job that paid well, even though you didn’t know very much about litigation, or that doing transactional work was going to give you much more flexibility later on in your career.  And all of a sudden, you are a few years in, not enjoying your job, and without a very good sense of what else you’d like to be doing.

If you are looking to make a lateral move simply because you are unhappy, you really need to think through both why you are unhappy and whether or not a lateral move to another firm, or a new practice area, is going to change the calculus.

For instance, a lot of unhappy commercial litigators looking to make a move to or within Los Angeles convince themselves that they want to do “entertainment law.”  But if you have no transactional experience, no firm is going to hire you to work on production deals, content licensing, etc.  Your skills are in litigation, so if you get an interview and an offer, 100 times out of 100, it will be for an entertainment litigation position.  And then guess what?  You’re still doing litigation!  All the discovery, briefing, depositions, and everything you perhaps don’t like about your current position is going to still be the vast majority of your workload, you’ll just happen to have different clients.

Focusing on the “why” and what you want, in concrete terms, from a future position will save you a lot of time and effort down the road.  It will also give you a solid selling proposition for your candidacy, which really, really matters for the application and interview process.  You do not root for an aimless protagonist – you root for the hero with a goal.  Similarly, a law firm is not going to hire you simply because you have a good school on your resume – they will hire you because you are actively interested in achieving a goal that will mutually benefit both yourself and the firm, preferably for the very long-term.

You do not want to go through an entire job search, interview process, conflicts check, proving yourself all over again, learning an entirely new set of office politics and firm culture, etc., just to wind up doing the same thing(s) that made you unhappy to begin with.  If you can’t articulate very clearly what you are looking for in a new position, it is likely you are not ready to make a move.