Generally speaking, attorneys do not tend to be risk-taking personalities. This means that we are often loyal, and want to believe the best about our employers. We place our faith in them and hope for the best. While this is often an excellent policy, it is also important not to turn a blind eye to red flags.
Here are some common warning signs that your firm or group may be in trouble.
En masse attorney departures. I am talking here about a large group or portion of a group, rather than regularly anticipated attrition. Group departures can be a very bad sign, since partners tend to know more than associates about the firm’s financial health. If several partner-led groups leave the firm within a short time frame, pay attention.
Loss of clients. Again, clients come and go in life, so I am not talking about isolated losses of clients. I’m talking about noticeable, sometimes published, losses of one large client or several significant clients within a short period.
A change in treatment. Are your superiors suddenly treating you differently? Do your normal work providers have significantly less work to give you and other associates? Has their attitude towards you chilled? They may be preparing themselves for the possibility that they may need to let you go.
Light or no bonuses. This is pretty self-explanatory. If this happens in a firm that normally pays substantial bonuses, the cat’s pretty much out of the bag.
Senior Associates being passed over for partnership. If not every single person eligible was put up for partner, there is no need to panic. However, when that superstar whose work screams “future managing partner” doesn’t get put up, there may be cause for concern. If several of these superstars are passed over, it is almost certainly a red flag.
Cuts in support staff. Again, this refers to firm-wide cuts.
Although these signs may seem obvious, you might be surprised how many attorneys ignore them until it is too late. I recently had an attorney call me and tell me that half of the offices on her floor had been vacated this year, and she still wasn’t sure if she should be looking elsewhere. Recruiters often notice patterns and know which firms are not doing well before associates do, so a good recruiter can be very helpful in this regard. We know which firms attorneys are trying to leave.
If some or all of these signs are there, I highly encourage you to at least talk to a recruiter, and possibly, talk to other firms. You may be doing yourself a favor, since an offer from another firm may result in your making a more informed decision about whether to stay in your current firm. Here’s how: once you have an offer on the table, your firm may come clean with you as to the state of its finances, or try and convince you to stay on with the hope that the firm will recover (prefer a reduced schedule? There may be some flexibility now). It also gives the firm the chance to definitively negate any rumors of trouble, if everything is, in fact, okay. In short, having an offer on the table gives you leverage to obtain information (and options) from your current firm that may not otherwise be available to you. Armed with that information, you can make the most informed decision possible about whether staying or moving on is the best choice for you.