Summary: Learn why it is so important to the success of your legal job search to look at multiple markets in this article.
For many attorneys, relocating to a different part of the country can be an incredibly effective job search strategy. While some attorneys may feel a certain loyalty to the market they are in, relocating can open up a world of new job possibilities and is often a smart business choice for many attorneys.
In fact, when you are relocating, your odds of getting the best position for you are significantly increased—so much so that the majority of placements we make with the most prestigious law firms are for attorneys moving markets. Law firms tend to view attorneys suspiciously when they are switching firms in their own markets and lawyers often get better reception when they explore new markets.
In the course of my career as a recruiter, I have seen more careers restarted, started, and advanced by relocating markets than I can count. As this article explains, there are key reasons why relocating markets gives you ammunition in your job search. The reality is that failing to consider relocation is often a fatal career choice.
You Can Astronomically Increase Your Odds of Getting a Great Position If You Look in Multiple Markets
If you are looking in just one legal market, you limit yourself because you are only seeing a portion of the opportunities out there at any given time. There are a few hundred legal markets in the United States—some are large and others are small, but it stands to reason that if you are looking at more markets you are going to increase your odds of getting more interviews and offers.
I have seen attorneys “stalled” in their job searches in smaller markets like Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Orlando and others and then suddenly find themselves working in major firms in New York, Palo Alto, Dallas or Chicago almost overnight. Similarly, I have seen attorneys “stalled” in their job searches in larger markets like New York, Palo Alto, Dallas, Chicago and others and suddenly find themselves working in their dream jobs in smaller markets like Detroit, Kansas City or Minneapolis.
It is important to do the math and understand that your career prospects expand in proportion to the number of markets you investigate. A skill that could be as common as water in one market could be in great demand in another. You just never know unless you look. Here are some “mathematical” reasons why relocating should be a complete “no-brainer” for most attorneys:
If you are in a narrow practice area, you often cannot afford to not look at more markets. Attorneys in practice areas like trademark, ERISA, employee benefits, tax, antitrust, healthcare, patent prosecution, project finance and other similar practice areas often find their opportunities limited in their current markets. Even in major markets like New York City, for example, there are sometimes no tax openings. If you are an attorney in one of these practice areas and there are no jobs in that practice area—or limited opportunities—the smartest thing you can often do is open up your search to different areas.
I have seen project finance attorneys unable to find jobs in Texas end up in Hong Kong, and project finance attorneys unable to find jobs in New York wind up in San Francisco.
Each week, our company generally places patent attorneys all over the United States in relocation situations. Patent attorneys who are unmarketable in Cleveland may find homes in San Francisco, Denver, Orlando, Newark … you name it. The only way these attorneys can find themselves in major law firms is by opening themselves up to the entire United States.
It is very common for tax and patent attorneys to move all over the country.
Many trademark attorneys broaden their searches; most project finance attorneys look domestically and internationally; ERISA and employee benefits attorneys regularly look around the country.
If you are in a narrow practice area, the only way you are going to be able to be exposed to the entire market and get an accurate picture of job availability is by opening up your search to the entire country or at least to most markets. This is what people in most professions do when they are looking for new positions and you should too.
If you are in a slow market, you often cannot afford to not look at more markets. Markets get slow all the time. When the financial markets slow down, for example, New York always slows down dramatically. When this occurs, to stay employed many attorneys (the smart ones) look for jobs in their home markets (where they are from) or look for work in smaller markets (where work often goes during recessions because it can be done more cheaply in these markets). All markets get slow from time to time and there are all sorts of reasons for it. For example, the Bay Area got incredibly slow during the past few economic downturns and let a substantial portion of corporate attorneys go. Texas gets slow when oil prices are low. Regardless of the reasons, it is important to move markets when your home market slows down.
When your home market slows down, many other lawyers in that market also will be looking for positions, in competition with you. The competition will be fierce and it is more difficult to get jobs in those markets.
When your job market slows down, the odds are that there will be regions of the country where the work is not slow and where attorneys are busy. If your job is at risk in your home market, the best thing you can do is relocate.
During economic downturns, the majority of our recruiters have always done just as well as they did in previous years by moving attorneys from slow markets to busy markets. There is almost always opportunity if you do a broad enough search.
If you are in a market where you see no future, you often cannot afford to not look at more markets. Attorneys often find themselves in small to midsized firms where they feel their prospects are going to be limited. Most of the largest companies in the United States send their most important work to the largest law firms in the largest cities. For a variety of reasons, attorneys often accept positions at firms in smaller markets and then realize that the sophistication of the work, the potential income, and other factors will be severely limited if they remain in that market. In these sorts of cases, attorneys are well served by relocating. On the other hand, attorneys may feel limited by working in a major market as well. If an attorney is practicing at a large law firm in New York City, for example, the attorney may conclude that making partner at his or her firm (or at any other large firm) would be next to impossible and opt to relocate to a market with more partnership opportunities.
On a weekly basis, we relocate attorneys from smaller cities and firms to firms in major cities with more opportunity.
On a weekly basis, we relocate attorneys from New York, Los Angeles and other major markets to smaller markets with more opportunities for advancement.
Quite often, we relocate attorneys who feel limited by the culture of a given city. For example, we relocated one attorney who decided to move markets when she realized that all of the attorneys with whom she was working had gone to the same high school and caused her to feel excluded in that environment.
If a market is on fire somewhere else, you often cannot afford to not look at more markets. When a market is doing well in a given part of the country and “exploding,” it is often very wise to look at that market. Attorneys’ careers can very quickly change when a market gets busy and yields more opportunities. New York City and the Bay Area are two markets that heat up from time to time and get extremely busy. When this happens, an attorney’s career can change overnight by being suddenly thrust into the “big leagues” by getting a position with a major firm with double or triple the salary.
Recently, I placed two attorneys from small firms in Indiana into major firms in the Bay Area.
I often place attorneys from all around the Midwest into major law firms in Chicago, New York and Washington, DC when those markets heat up.
Several times a month, I place attorneys from slower markets into hot markets.
When a market is hot, an attorney can literally go from a small, no-name law firm to working in a major American law firm almost overnight. This not only changes the attorney’s income, it also gives the attorney more credibility by improving his or her credentials. Moreover, it also potentially gives the attorney better long-term career prospects if the attorney continues to handle his or her career correctly going forward.
If you have skills that are very common in one market but in demand elsewhere, you often cannot afford to not look at other markets. There are times when practice areas like corporate, real estate, bankruptcy and others get very, very active in some markets but stagnate in other markets. In addition, certain practice areas may simply be common in one market and not common in others.
Talented corporate attorneys are very common in New York City and the Bay Area and less common in other markets.
Strong patent attorneys and IP litigators are very common in the Bay Area and less common elsewhere.
Highly credentialed and skilled litigators are very common in Washington, DC and less common elsewhere.
Oil and gas attorneys are very common in Texas and less common elsewhere.
Regardless of your practice area, the odds are that it is more or less in demand in other markets around the country (or world).
If you are senior and have no business, you often cannot afford to not look at other markets. Senior attorneys with no business are very common—and attorneys with 5+ years of experience are generally considered senior. Senior attorneys with no business need to find firms that will (1) value their skills very highly, (2) have the work to support their higher billing rates, and (3) potentially have the ability to make them partners notwithstanding their lack of business. This is a challenge and extremely difficult to find regardless of the market. The only way that many senior attorneys can find these types of opportunities is by looking in more markets. In fact, this is so essential to senior attorneys finding new positions it cannot be overemphasized. I regularly place attorneys with no business into law firms all over the country—even when those attorneys are unemployed or unmarketable in their home markets. Some of my placements just over the past few months include
A senior ERISA attorney who was unmarketable in Indiana was placed in Texas.
A senior immigration attorney who was unmarketable in Texas was placed in Seattle.
A senior bankruptcy attorney who was unmarketable in Detroit was placed in New York City.
A senior tax attorney who was unmarketable in Los Angeles was placed in upstate New York.
A senior patent attorney who was unmarketable in South Florida was placed in Washington, DC.
It is worth noting that most of these attorneys would likely have remained unemployed if they had they not relocated. Relocating saves careers.
If you are in a major market and top law firms are not looking at you because of the quality of your current firm or your educational qualifications, you often cannot afford to not look at other markets. There is so much competition in some markets that you will have a very difficult time getting a position with a major law firm unless you have outstanding educational qualifications, are coming from a top law firm, or have a large book of business. Nevertheless, an attorney can often “leapfrog” this and get a position with a major law firm if the attorney markets him or herself to firms in different regions. I have seen countless examples of attorneys securing positions in major law firms by simply applying to firms in more cities. This happens all of the time and is an excellent way to improve your career prospects.
I regularly see patent attorneys who are unable to get positions in major law firms in their current markets expand their searches and get positions in other major markets. I make placements like this almost monthly.
When the bankruptcy, corporate and real estate markets are hot, attorneys who are unable to get positions with major firms in their own markets are often employable in major firms in other markets.
If you have exhausted all of the firms in your city and have nowhere else to apply, you often cannot afford to not look at other markets. Many attorneys are quite stubborn and think that if they do not get positions with top firms in their own cities that they should not have to look elsewhere and that even if they do look elsewhere they will likely get the same results. This is crazy. As someone who has been in this business for years, I can tell you that it is common for an attorney who cannot get a position in his or her own city to find success by expanding his or her search. You should always be looking at more markets—especially if your search is time sensitive and you are under pressure to find a new position.
If you have a bad reputation in one market, you often cannot afford to not look at other markets. Sometimes attorneys get bad reputations for doing stupid things—it could be related to performance, drugs, sex, or something else. If you have a bad reputation in one market, you often can get around the issue by applying to firms in other markets. For example, I recently represented a male attorney who had sued a senior attorney in his prior firm for sexual harassment. Because he had been at a huge law firm, attorneys who previously worked there were all over the city and knew about the lawsuit. He believed that his past prevented him from getting interviews and offers. He expanded his search to all sorts of other markets and ended up getting tons of interviews and offers. No one knew anything about his lawsuit in those markets.
You Can Often Dramatically Increase Your Odds of Getting Hired If You Relocate Because Firms Presume You Are a Better Attorney with Fewer Issues
When an attorney is relocating, he or she generally has reasons such as wanting to move back to the region of the country where he or she grew up or to which he or she has other ties (family, attended school in the region, significant other lives in the region, for example). While this is not always the case, these reasons are often acceptable to law firms. In certain markets such as New York or the Bay Area, no reason is generally necessary.
Attorneys in New York presume that every attorney wants to live in New York. New York is different and the training and level of practice is unique.
Attorneys in the Bay Area also presume that everyone wants to live and work there (it is the “center of tech” and there is a lot of activity there).
Regardless of having reasons for relocating or not, if a firm has a strong enough need and cannot find sufficient talent locally, the firm will hire people from outside the area. This is common all over and each week of the year our company makes one or more placements of attorneys with unique skills, in a unique practice area, who are relocating to firms in new cities.
Early in my career, I worked with an attorney who was from a three-person law firm in a small West Texas town and interested in changing firms. This attorney had never even left Texas and was at a small firm making $85,000 a year. He had such a drawl that I could barely understand him on the phone. But he had an undergraduate and graduate degree in a unique scientific discipline and a large national law firm in Texas happened to need those skills in its Pittsburgh office. He interviewed and never even got a chance to see the city, given he flew in and flew out right after a full day of interviews. To his astonishment, the firm emailed him an offer of $250,000 a day later. He could not believe his luck and the first thing he did was buy a Chevy Suburban for his wife. A few weeks later, he was in Pittsburgh. I called him and he said he was unhappy with the city.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“I’ve had chickens all my life and the landlord in my apartment made me get rid of the chickens we were keeping on the porch. We need to break our lease and find somewhere we can keep chickens.”
To make a long story short, things eventually worked out for the attorney and he is now a partner in a large law firm in the Pittsburgh area and doing well.
Law firms like candidates who are relocating because they make several assumptions about these candidates that help them get hired. First, if a candidate is relocating for strong personal reasons, the law firm can be sympathetic and want to help the person. Law firms respect it when candidates are interested in relocating to be closer to other people and believe that this is a strong motivating force that makes it in the firm’s best interest to hire the person. If someone is relocating, the odds are that he or she will stay in the region and try and make things work. Firms believe people who are relocating for personal reasons will be motivated to settle down and work hard and be less likely to leave.
Second, the attorney does not look disloyal when he or she is relocating. An attorney who is relocating generally is doing so because (1) he or she wants to be close to someone or has other ties to the area, (2) is seeking access to work where none exists in his or her current market, or (3) wants to be in a larger, more sophisticated market with more apparent opportunity. These are generally reasons that do not raise alarm bells of perceived “disloyalty.”
Third, when an attorney relocates it does not raise questions regarding the attorney having problems and issues at his or her current law firm. On the other hand, when an attorney tries to move firms within the same city, firms generally wonder—and try carefully to understand—whether or not there are problems with the attorney’s performance or whether the attorney is having political or other issues at his or her current firm. Attorneys who seem to be having problems will be rejected. Law firms want to hire people who are doing well in their existing firms.
The presumption—and it is valid for the most part—is that if an attorney is having political or work related problems at the attorney’s existing firm then he or she will have the same issues at a new firm. While this is certainly not always the case (and the fit of a firm culture can make or break an attorney), most firms will quickly reach the conclusion that attorneys who are unable to win the political games (or whatever games are occurring at given firm) should be avoided.
The largest problem with interviewing laterally at firms in your own market is that you generally need to say something negative about your current firm. You need to say things like:
It is not a good cultural fit. This may be the case, of course. The question the firm will then have is why you took a position there in the first place. An additional question will be why you are not able to fit in, and firms will presume that you will not fit into their firms either. “Not a good cultural fit” is also code for the fact that people do not like you for whatever reason—it could be you are not likable, not social enough, too unusual, too arrogant, too different and so forth. It could also have something to do with the quality of your work.
There is not enough work. This is a reasonable explanation for looking. However, when an attorney says this the attorney is often talking about law firms that have revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars are year, may have been around 100+ years, and have work of some sort. Good attorneys who do good work are always in demand from other attorneys in the firm. If you start talking about not having enough work, law firms will presume that you are not a good attorney. They also will presume that you are not able to be political enough and track down work. In addition, if you have more than 5 years of experience you will just be highlighting your inability to generate work on your own. Finally, because all law firms go through ups and downs, the law firm will quickly realize that the second things get “slow” with them the odds are you to will pick up and leave.
An important partner with business just left. That’s too bad. If he was the source of all of the work, why didn’t he take you with him? Was your work not up to snuff? When law firms are interviewing and hiring laterally, they are looking for reasons to find weakness. They will find weakness by probing your political choices, alliances and whether or not the important people in the firm wanted to give you work. In addition, the law firm will be interested in whether or not you are likely to leave at the “drop of a hat.” Important partners leave law firms all the time. They leave large firms several times a year. If you say this, the law firm is going to know you will likely leave them when this happens with them as well.
I would like to do more sophisticated work. This is also a perfectly reasonable explanation for moving law firms. If you say you want to do more sophisticated work, however, then law firms are going think you are a “diva” who will be hard to manage and demand to be staffed on only the most sophisticated projects. This is not good. What about that little litigation matter I need to staff a new person on? I guess this guy is out of the running. If you start talking about your “work sophistication requirements” then you immediately separate yourself from the crowd in a way that makes you someone who is likely to be difficult to manage. The firm knows that unless it delivers to you a continuous helping of sophisticated matters you are likely to be unhappy and leave. Also, the firm is asking questions like: (1) what about teamwork? and (2) what about personal relationships? Law firms want to hire people who are in the law firm for the long haul. If you are going to start looking because you want more sophisticated work, you will use this or a variety of reasons to leave your next firm.
There is not enough opportunity. This is another huge minefield and it generally means one thing in the minds of firms interviewing you: You are not good enough to advance in the firm you are in. You may not be good enough because you do not have enough business, cannot work hard enough, or some other reason. The fact is that there is opportunity at every major law firm if the attorney is good enough. Your job is to create opportunity and be incredibly valuable to your law firm so much that it cannot help but advance you. If you start talking about a lack of opportunity in your interviews, the law firm will think: We must be real losers if there is opportunity here and not at his existing firm. Wow! I thought we were a prestigious law firm. I did not realize we had fallen so far. You need to come across as someone who is capable of creating opportunity, getting on the right side of the right people, and becoming indispensable. When you talk about a lack of opportunity, you are also signaling to the next firm that you expect to be made a partner, be paid a certain amount of money, or advanced a certain way or you will leave. This is not a good investment of the firm’s training time and you are not a good person to put in front of the firm’s clients.
I’m Evaluating My Options and Feel It Is a Good Time to Look Around. This is a common sort of statement. This means very little and is usually a sign that something else is wrong. When you start talking about evaluating your options you are saying things like (1) you may have been asked to leave, (2) you are not doing well at your current firm, or (3) you could “evaluate your options” at any conceivable time at your next firm. Law firms do not like this.
Morale Is Very Low. This is a less common, but also a frequent explanation that attorneys give when looking at jobs. This essentially means that you are not someone who is on the side of management and, instead, are someone who follows the “groupthink” within the law firm and will not support the law firm through thick and thin. Since the people making the decision about whether or not to hire you will almost certainly be part of the “management,” you are showing them that if they hire you, the odds are good that you will be the exact sort of person who causes them issues and is not on their team.
The Commute Is Difficult. This raises all sorts of issues. Why did you take a job there to begin with—was there a reason that you could not get a job on your side of town? Why did you move away from the office location to begin with—doesn’t your job come first? Attorneys are expected to put their employer and job first. If you raise issues about your commute you open a Pandora’s Box of potential criticisms of your candidacy.
Incredibly, each of these reasons is valid for relocating. However, as you can see, these reasons will often not be useful in an attorney’s current market but can be useful if the attorney is trying to relocate markets.
One of the saddest things I see as a legal recruiter is an attorney who remains tied to a market with no opportunities in that market. It makes almost no sense for an otherwise qualified attorney to destroy his or her career for lack of envisioning possibilities in other markets. Broaden your horizons and you will broaden your opportunities and prospects.
Do you think choosing to look at multiple markets is a good idea for your legal career? Why or why not?
What do you think are the biggest issues with relocating to another market?
If you could choose any market to relocate to where would you go? Why?