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One of the most important decisions an attorney can make is deciding whether to stay in or leave a firm.
The future of your legal career is dependent on not just what you do but which firm you work in.
Leaving your firm can be a good or bad thing for your legal career.
Don’t let your legal career be ruined by working at the wrong firm.
Summary: Is your current law firm helping or hurting the progress of your legal career? Find out how to know if leaving your firm is a good idea.
The smartest thing that many attorneys can do is leave their firms to get ahead. Likewise, the dumbest thing many attorneys can do is leave their firms to get ahead. The decision to stay or go is so important to the future of an attorney that it is among the most important decisions an attorney can make.
At one time or another, most attorneys consider whether or not they should stay or leave their current firms. In essence, they are struggling to understand what they want to become and whether or not their current firms will take them there or not.
I have seen more careers ruined than I can count because attorneys made the incorrect decision and left their firms when they should have stayed. I have seen a similar number of careers held back and become stagnant because attorneys made the incorrect decision and stayed when they should have left.
When You Should Leave Your Current Firm to Get Ahead
When you want to work in a different geographic location, where your current firm does not have a significant presence
The best reason to leave any firm is if the firm does not have a significant presence in a market that you would like to work in. People want to switch markets all the time. They may want to be closer to family, may have grown up in the market, may have a spouse who works in the market, may want to do more sophisticated work done in that market, may want to be closer to a certain type of work, or may want to live in a lower cost area. Regardless of the reasons why an attorney may be interested in relocating, if the attorney does not believe that he or she has a future in the market that he or she is currently in, the attorney will be better off relocating to another market. There is never any sense for an attorney to remain in a market where the attorney is not planning to remain unless the attorney is simply there to get training, or save money, for example. Once the attorney has exhausted the training and other benefits of that market, however, the attorney is always better off working in a market where the attorney plans to spend the remainder of the attorney’s career.
The problems with working in a firm in a geographic area where the attorney is not planning on spending the rest of his or her career are numerous. The attorney will not be developing contacts in the local market that the attorney can use for business (or jobs) later on, and the attorney will not be developing political capital and goodwill that the attorney can draw on later. In most instances, an attorney should relocate to the market he or she is interested in spending the rest of the attorney’s career, and when the attorney is certain that the market is where he or she wants to be.
There are many firms that are going downhill and have been for an extended period. These firms are easily recognizable because they are shrinking, the attorneys are not busy, and other attorneys are trying as hard as they can to get out. There also are also many branch offices of law firms that for various reasons do not look like they will survive—or ever grow—and these firms are often also good ones to leave. Other firms may be embroiled in scandals, malpractice suits, and have other issues that make them places with difficult futures. Many attorneys justify staying at firms that have no future due to the salaries these firms may pay, or the presumed security that the law firm may temporarily offer. Regardless of the reasons, you are almost always going to be better off leaving firms like this as quickly as possible rather than sticking around.
When you want to do a different type of work (either within your practice area or in another practice area not supported by your firm)
It is quite common for attorneys to leave firms when they are seeking to do a type of work that is not supported by their current firms. If you have an attraction to a certain type of work, or are used to doing a given type of work that the firm you are at does not do, it is often in your best interest to leave your firm and find a different one that does that sort of work. There is very little sense remaining at a firm that does not do the sort of work you want to do unless you believe that you can attract the work on your own, or that things will change at some point shortly, or you are happy doing another type of work completely.
You should be careful, however, to not simply pick up and leave when your law firm is not bringing in the sort of work that you want to do at that moment. Law firms may take months, or even a few years, to bring in different types of work that may interest you. In the interim, there is nothing wrong with doing other types of work that are related to the sort of work you want to do—as long as you can stay busy. It is extremely important not to be shortsighted and leave simply because your firm does not have the sort of work you are interested in doing at the moment.
Some law firms will simply come out and declare that they no longer have an interest in doing a certain type of work. For example, because the billing rates are not as high, many law firms often will decide to cease doing labor and employment related work. Other law firms may decide to exit patent prosecution work because they are not making money doing it. When a law firm chooses to exit a practice area that you have dedicated your career to, then you should leave.
When you know what you want from your future and your current firm will not get you there
An attorney may have goals like eventually going in-house, starting his or her own law firm, going in the government, working in a larger firm in the future, and so forth. There are certain firms that are going to be better for an attorney to reach these goals than others. If an attorney desires to eventually go in-house, the attorney is going to be better off working for a large, brand-name national law firm that works for the sort of large corporations that typically will have in-house jobs. If an attorney is interested in going into the government, then depending on the sort of government position the attorney is interested in, the attorney may be better off switching firms. Many law firms are feeders to the US Attorney’s office in many cities, for example. An attorney who desires to start his or her own practice may often move from a larger law firm to a smaller, more entrepreneurial law firm, where he or she can learn how to attract smaller clients and develop business.
Regardless of what the attorney is interested in doing long-term, there may be another law firm that will provide the attorney a better entrée into that goal than his or her current firm.
When the firm becomes overly efficient (when the consultants arrive)
As a law firm grows and ages, it makes mistakes along the way. Chief among these mistakes are advancing people it should not be advancing and paying people more money than it needs to. In short, the law firm will often be in a position where it could get the same result for less money and less commitment. The law firm will develop all sorts of procedures to squeeze more work—for less money and less commitment—out of the people whom it hires and who are working there. The law firm learns to make sense out of all the money that is coming in, so the people at the top make more. The law firm becomes run like a business.
The problem with all this is that once a law firm becomes very businesslike, it stops relying as much on things like the commitment of its workers and relying more on things like hiring lateral partners with business. Instead of making associates partner, or paying its existing partners well without the corresponding amount of business, it goes out and gets new ones on the lateral market. Older and more established law firms become numbers-driven, formula-driven and become more difficult to get ahead in (unless an attorney has something significant to sell them). Many of these changes are driven by consultants that law firms hire as they grow. From the standpoint of existing partners and associates, what this means is that their loyalty and commitment to the firm will become less important than the money they produce regarding hours and business brought to the firm.
As the brand of a law firm and presence in the market improves, the law firm becomes less dependent on any particular attorney and more dependent on the systems it uses to squeeze the maximum amount of money and productivity it can get out of every attorney in the firm. Attorneys who realize this will often (smartly I may add) go to law firms that are more disorganized and where they can exploit this vulnerability for their gain. These attorneys often will use their big firm credentials, educational credentials and “connections” to intimidate these vulnerable law firms into paying them more money than they should, giving them titles that they should not get, and hiring them in the first place. I have seen this game play itself out in the market on a consistent basis when big firm attorneys leave for smaller firms. This is often a good career move because the savvy attorneys can get ahead when they could never hope to at the firms they are coming from.
When the firm is not a good platform for getting clients
Both partners and associates may also leave their firms to go to firms that are better platforms for getting clients. What makes a better platform for an attorney to get clients will be dependent upon a given attorney’s situation.
An attorney from a large law firm with a very high billing rate may want to attract smaller clients and build his or her practice this way. Since smaller clients will not pay big firm billing rates, going to a smaller law firm is often a good career decision. The amount of business that an attorney has will often determine the amount of job security the attorney has (because the attorney can always take this business to another firm) and also will directly correspond to the sort of income he or she receives. Most large law firms are more interested in their associates being “worker bees” than “business generators.” Large law firms will frequently not give their associates a lot of help bringing in business because they want them to do their firms’ work. Therefore, many attorneys wisely conclude that the only way they are going to get ahead is to leave their firms and go to firms where they can generate their own clients, even if this means taking a significant pay cut.
Many attorneys who have existing business may desire to go to larger law firms so they can work on more sophisticated matters for existing clients. Many large clients will not work with smaller law firms without the reputation for doing significant work. Large clients are important to many partners. Larger clients tend to have more ongoing work and are more willing to pay high billing rates than smaller clients.
One of the best ways to know whether or not you have a future in your current position is to look around you and ask whether or not you would like to be your bosses and superiors. This applies to all attorneys in most firms. Do you admire the people who are above you? Does it look like the people who are above you have good jobs? Do you aspire to be like these people? For many attorneys, the answer is a resounding yes. For others, however, the answer is no. If you have no interest in being like the people you are working for, then the odds are pretty good that you have no future in the firm you are working at. You need to want to please these people and be like them to have a future where you are working. There may be a case for spending some time at the firm to be trained, but other than that you probably should not be staying at the firm for very long. You will be better off using your skills in another forum.
When you have a bad reputation at your current firm that time will not cure
Many attorneys get bad reputations at their law firms for a variety of reasons. This reputation may come from not completing assignments on time, being caught not telling the truth, making careless errors, not billing enough hours consistently, not meeting revenue-generation targets, and more. Regardless of why an attorney gets into trouble and develops a bad reputation, if it is something that it appears that time will not fix, then the attorney will be held back by his or her poor reputation as long as he or she remains at his or her current firm. The best thing that an attorney with a poor reputation can do is to find a firm where he or she can develop a new reputation that is much stronger than the old one. In the practice of law, an attorney’s “brand” is very important. The attorney’s brand within his or her firm will determine things such as the work he or she gets from other attorneys and his or her advancement.
When there is too much competition to get ahead and people more talented than you cannot get ahead
After a few years of working inside of any law firm, most attorneys will get a sense of where they are regarding their talent as compared to other attorneys. They will watch each class that comes up for partner and get a sense of who is making it and who is not. When they start seeing attorneys who are smarter than them, bill more hours than them, who are better politically than them, and who have other characteristics superior to them who are not getting ahead, that often is a very clear sign that they likely will not get ahead either.
Law firms like to promote the idea that “every class is different,” but this often is simply not the case, and attorneys will quickly get the sense of what their fates are likely to be when they compare themselves to others they are up against. If the people that they are competing against seem much stronger than they will ever be, they often are going to be better off being a big fish in a small pond than small fish in a big pond.
In New York City, in particular, many attorneys would be better off leaving their giant firms and moving to smaller ones to get ahead—and they do. The largest law firms require unbelievable amounts of hours, political skill, and more for an attorney to get ahead in the market. The best way that most attorneys can get ahead is to leave these conditions and go to work inside of firms that provide them with the ability to look the strongest in the eyes of the management of the law firm. In these sorts of cases, you have talent that would be better rewarded elsewhere. You also will have more employment stability if you are the strongest person in your class and not the weakest.
When your talents are not being rewarded (ability to bill, bring in business, and so forth)
Many law firms do not reward their most productive attorneys the way they should. The failure to reward their most productive attorneys is often the catalyst that drives many to leave their firms.
One of the most common reasons for partners leaving firms is being undercompensated for the hours they bill and the business they generate. Law firms become dependent on their most productive partners and often pay them just as much money in their most productive years as they do in their least productive years. When partners start to see that the money they are bringing in is being allocated at their current firm in a manner that makes it clear they could make more money elsewhere, the partners are often much better off leaving.
One situation I see frequently is productive partners in smaller law firms being surrounded by lot of “dead weight” and not being compensated commensurate with their value. Rather than supporting these unproductive partners, the productive attorneys may be better off moving their practices to other firms where they will receive a larger percentage of the revenue they generate.
Similarly, associates may often find themselves billing 3000+ hours per year and making an amount of money that is not much different from what associates in the same firm are earning who bill 2000 hours per year. While this discrepancy could be justifiable if the associate billing 3000+ hours per year wanted to be a partner in the firm, or even had a chance of making partner in the firm, where this is not the case the associate’s compensation may be his or her only justification for billing these sorts of hours. Many law firms believe that there is no reason for them to compensate their hardest working associates differently from their least hard working associates. Rather than spend a decade or more working extremely hard for limited pay, an associate will often be better off working elsewhere.
Attorneys at smaller firms often will make one-third to one-half of what attorneys in larger law firms earn for the same amount of work. Therefore, it may also make sense for the attorney from the smaller law firm to move as well.
Something I have learned in my life is that when I am around unhappy people, they often rub off on me. For whatever reason, certain people do that to me. Likewise, there are certain organizations that will have that effect on various people. If you are unhappy in a given law firm and it is not changing, then the smartest thing you can do is leave. There is not much that will change this.
When I was younger, an older man who fancied himself a mentor to me gave me a list of maxims that he thought I should follow in my career. One of these maxims was “never rehire anyone.” This was a maxim that I have violated several times. People would quit our company and then sometimes weeks or months later come back and want their jobs back. Most often, I would hire these people back. Every single time, within six months or so the person would leave again. The organization was not a fit for them, and they were not going to be happy working there no matter what. Just because someone leaves and then decides to come back does not mean that whatever they are unhappy about the first time they left will be fixed. Organizations are often what they are and have a certain DNA and character about them that often does not change.
If you are unhappy at your current firm and have been unhappy for some time, the odds are that this is not going to change and you are always going to be unhappy there. The best thing you can do to change your state of mind is to find another firm (or if the practice of law and not your firm is making you unhappy, find another career). You will have a difficult time getting ahead anywhere if you do not like what you are doing and are unhappy.
There are law firms in which you may simply not be a cultural fit. It could be that the firm is not organized enough, is too organized, is too social, is not social enough—who knows. If the culture of the firm is not a fit for you, then you are going to be much better off working somewhere else. Law firms reward people who are like them and fit in with their cultures and expel those who do not. The most important thing you can do is feel comfortable with the people you are working with and feel understood. If you do not identify with the culture, then the law firm is unlikely to be a good long-term fit for you.
When there are much better opportunities that match your interests elsewhere
Many attorneys are often presented with opportunities elsewhere that look far better than the opportunities they see at the place where they are currently working. These may be better positions inside of a law firm, in-house, or in another profession completely. In the case where there are much better opportunities elsewhere, it may make no sense to stay where you are at if you can maximize your self-interest somewhere else.
What makes a better opportunity? Here are some things I have seen attorneys leave firms to do in the not too distant past:
Take jobs in different law firms.
Take teaching jobs with law schools.
Join tech start-ups as initial employees.
Become fiction writers of books.
Become computer programmers.
Go to business school.
Get a Ph.D. in English.
Start a bike shop.
Start a bed and breakfast.
Take a job in-house.
Become a solo practitioner.
Run for political office.
Become an actor.
Start a company teaching marketing.
In the calculus of the attorneys who took these jobs, they were all better positions.
When everyone you know who has left your firm is happier after doing so
Happiness is something that is very important. One woman at a large law firm who I was speaking to recently told me that she was interested in leaving her firm because everyone she knew who had left in her ten years there was much happier after having done so—and most went to other firms. That is to say—her law firm was likely just not a very happy place to work. If people are unhappy at a given law firm, it may have something to do with the management of the law firm, which sets the tone for how people feel working at the firm. In many cases, how people feel that are no longer at the firm is a good indication of how you too will feel if you leave.
When there is no clear reward for being loyal to the firm
In many law firms, loyalty is rewarded. People who are there the longest will be advanced, and the law firm will treat the people who are the first in the door differently than those who come later. The law firm will be more likely to lay off lateral hires than people who were summer associates at the firm, for example. Most law firms are not like this though. If there is no clear reward for being loyal to the firm, then an attorney may be making a wise career move by leaving that firm when a better opportunity arises.
If someone is stuck in a relationship or friendship that no longer works for them, they will often know it instinctively and simply feel like they should leave. Most people do not have much trouble reaching these sorts of conclusions in their interpersonal relationships and know when it is time for them to leave. In a similar vein, attorneys often have an instinctual “gut” feeling that is persistent and does not go away when it is time for them to leave their current firms. If you have this feeling, then it is likely time to go. However—a cautionary note—one of the biggest mistakes an attorney can make is leaving a job without having another job lined up. Before you leave your firm, it is important that you do as much soul-searching as you need to while still employed so that you can find something that is better for you. This may mean another firm, or it may mean working in another employment environment completely.
People like you at the firm—you are part of the in crowd
If people like you at your current firm, there is probably a reason for that. It could be because you are a good cultural fit, that attorneys like your work, or because you have a good overall reputation in the firm. It is difficult for any attorney to find an environment where he or she is a good match, so if you are a good match in your current firm, then you should always think twice about leaving. Your odds of getting ahead increase dramatically when people in your current firm like you a lot and you also are likely to be much happier working in an environment where you are well-liked (as opposed to one where you are not well-liked, or where people learn differently than you). Many attorneys mistakenly believe that their popularity at one law firm will carry over to another. This is not always the case because every environment values different sorts of people.
If you admire and aspire to be like your bosses and superiors, then it may be a good idea to remain at your current law firm. Many attorneys have a sort of visceral understanding that they do not want to be like their bosses and superiors and this can be a very good reason for not sticking around a given law firm. In contrast, if you see your bosses and superiors and believe that it would be quite meaningful to you to be like them, then this gives you something to aspire to and will motivate you to work hard.
You have a future at the firm, and the firm is telegraphing this to you
When a law firm likes an associate, the firm will often give the associate many clues that he or she is on the right track and doing well and should stick around. The law firm will do this with associates they like by putting them on their most important matters, introducing them to clients, giving them good reviews, and paying them good bonuses. Also, the best associates often will be working directly with the best partners in the law firm. If all of this is going on in your existing firm, then you are doing something right and likely have a strong future.
The firm is growing and there are opportunities for growth
A firm that is growing and expanding will take the people working there with it—creating more opportunities for them as well. Most law firms are at one of a few stages: (1) growing, (2) stable, or (3) shrinking. The stable and shrinking firms are risky places to work and most often have the fewest opportunities. The growing firms will have the most opportunities and during their ascent will create opportunities for the people working there. One of the largest factors in an attorney’s success is being at the right place at the right time. Joining a growing law firm can create this sort of opportunity that would not otherwise exist.
If you feel like you are growing at your current firm, then you may be making a mistake if you choose to leave. Growth can mean many things—from having your skills challenged to learning how to generate business and more. Regardless of what growth means to you, if you feel like you are growing at your current firm and being challenged, then you may be making a mistake by leaving.
People you know who have left regret doing so and are not doing as well as the people who have remained at the firm
Throughout your time at any law firm, you will see others leave the firm and you will hear about how they are doing after having left. In some law firms, people who leave end up doing better after having left than if they had remained. In other law firms, they end up not doing as well. When you start hearing about others who have left the firm, ask yourself how they seem to be doing compared to those who have remained. If people seem to be not doing as well—regarding their happiness, security, and income—this may be a sign to you that your remaining in the firm you are at was a wise decision and you should be careful about leaving unless something you truly believe will hold a better future comes along.
An unhappy attorney frequently thinks about leaving his or her law firm and is continually unhappy with his or her job. If you are unhappy with your job, then you will know it. If you are not unhappy, then this is often a sign that you are doing exactly what you should be doing with the firm you should be doing it at. There may be arguments that you could work at a more prestigious firm, make more money, get exposed to more sophisticated work, or even do the opposite—and be happier. Nevertheless, if you are happy at your existing firm, then you should consider yourself lucky and not worry too much about doing something else unless more status and money are very important to you.
Deciding whether to stay or leave a firm to get ahead is one of the most important decisions an attorney can make. If you are at this kind of crossroad in your law firm career, you should carefully consider the “pro” and “con” factors discussed in this article in order to help ensure that you make the right choice.
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