Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World


The world of lateral hiring in law is nuanced. 

For law firms, the decision to bring in an attorney from a different market involves a meticulous evaluation that goes beyond the resume. 

They weigh the candidate's expertise against potential risks and costs, and question how well this new piece would fit into their existing puzzle. 

On the flip side, attorneys looking to make a lateral move grapple with their own set of challenges. 

They must identify markets where their skills will not only be in demand but also where they can envision building a life – professionally and personally. The journey is fraught with questions of requalification, cultural adaptation, and establishing oneself in a new, sometimes daunting, legal landscape.

As we explore the intricacies of this subject, we'll examine both sides of the equation – the law firm and the attorney. 

It's a tale of ambition, adaptability, and the often-overlooked subtleties that govern the legal job market's ebb and flow. 

So, what does it really take for an attorney to successfully navigate this transition, and how do law firms decide who's worth the gamble? 

Let's find out.

Understanding Lateral Hiring: The Law Firm's Perspective

When a law firm contemplates hiring an attorney from a different market, it’s like a chess grandmaster planning several moves ahead. 


Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World

The decision is far from impulsive; it’s a calculated strategy, enveloped in layers of consideration. 

At the heart of this decision-making process are a few critical factors: the candidate's area of expertise, the potential risks and costs involved, and how well the attorney might integrate into the firm's culture.

The expertise of an attorney is the first checkpoint. 

Firms look for a unique blend of skills and experiences that align with their clients' needs and the firm's long-term objectives. It's not just about having a stellar resume; it's about filling a specific niche that the firm is looking to develop or strengthen.


Next comes the evaluation of risks and costs. 

Hiring an attorney from another market isn’t just a matter of covering moving expenses. It's about weighing the potential return on investment. This includes considering the time and resources needed for the attorney to requalify, adapt to new legal frameworks, and assimilate into a new cultural environment. 

For instance, a firm might ponder whether the attorney will pass the local bar exam or how long it will take for them to build a significant client base.


Cultural fit is an often understated, yet crucial element. 

Law firms are not just workplaces; they are ecosystems with their own unique environments. An attorney who thrives in one setting might struggle in another. 

Firms assess how a candidate's personality, work ethic, and values align with their own. This compatibility is vital for long-term success, both for the attorney and for maintaining the harmony of the firm's existing team.


Lateral hiring is a balancing act for law firms. 

They must consider the immediate benefits of an attorney’s expertise against the backdrop of longer-term implications, both financial and cultural. It’s a decision that requires foresight, a deep understanding of the firm's current and future needs, and an assessment of whether the attorney in question can meet these expectations.

For attorneys considering a lateral move to a different market, the journey is akin to navigating a labyrinth, where each turn presents its own set of challenges and potential rewards. 

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World

This process is more than a career move; it’s a life decision that encompasses professional aspirations, personal life, and the adaptability to new environments.

The first step in this journey often involves identifying markets where an attorney's skills and experience are in high demand. 

It's not just about finding a job; it's about finding the right fit – a place where their expertise can flourish and contribute meaningfully. 

This requires a keen understanding of different legal markets, the types of firms operating within them, and the specific needs these firms have. 

For instance, a patent attorney with a background in biotechnology may find more opportunities in markets known for their biotech industries.

However, professional considerations are just part of the equation. 

Personal implications play a significant role in the decision to relocate. This includes evaluating the impact on family, lifestyle, and personal goals. 

For some, this might mean weighing the benefits of career advancement against the challenges of uprooting their family or leaving behind a well-established personal network.

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World


The prospect of establishing oneself in a new legal market can be daunting. 

It often involves requalifying, such as passing a new state bar exam, which in itself is a significant undertaking. 

Beyond the legal qualifications, there's the task of adapting to a new professional culture. Each market has its nuances, from client expectations to work-life balance. 

Building a new professional network is also critical. Attorneys need to forge connections not just for business development, but for mentorship, support, and integrating into the local legal community.

Attorneys embarking on this path must be prepared for a period of adjustment and learning. It requires resilience, a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone, and a proactive approach to building new relationships. 

This journey, while challenging, can also be a pathway to new opportunities, personal growth, and a renewed sense of professional fulfillment.

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The Role of Supply and Demand in Legal Markets

The legal job market, much like any other sector, operates under the fundamental laws of supply and demand. 

These economic principles play a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of attorney hiring and relocation. Understanding this dynamic is crucial for both law firms considering lateral hires and attorneys contemplating a market move.

In regions where certain legal expertise is scarce, but the demand is high, law firms are often more willing to overlook the risks and costs associated with hiring from outside their market. 

For example, if a city's burgeoning tech sector creates a surge in demand for intellectual property lawyers, firms in that area may look beyond their local talent pool to fill this niche. This scenario presents a prime opportunity for attorneys with the sought-after expertise, offering them a chance to leverage their skills in a market where they are highly valued.

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World

Conversely, in markets saturated with legal talent, firms have less incentive to recruit from afar. 

Take New York City, for instance, a legal hub teeming with highly qualified attorneys in almost every specialty of law, such as corporate law, workers compensation, education, municipal law, family law, real estate law and more.. In such an environment, local firms have a vast array of candidates to choose from, reducing the necessity to bear the additional costs and uncertainties of hiring someone from a different market.

For attorneys, understanding these market dynamics is key to identifying the best opportunities for lateral moves. 

It's about aligning one's skills and experience with markets where they are most needed and valued. This alignment not only increases the chances of a successful transition but also positions the attorney to command a better role and compensation.

However, this isn't just a numbers game. Supply and demand in the legal sector are also influenced by economic trends, regulatory changes, and evolving industry needs. Attorneys who stay attuned to these shifts and are flexible in adapting their career paths accordingly can navigate the market more effectively.

In summary, the interplay of supply and demand forms the backdrop against which all movements in the legal job market occur. For both law firms and attorneys, a strategic approach that considers these economic principles can lead to more informed and successful hiring and career decisions.

Unique Challenges and Hidden Costs of Relocating

When attorneys ponder a move to a new market, they often focus on the visible aspects of the change – new opportunities, career growth, and a different work environment. However, lurking beneath the surface are several hidden challenges and costs, both for the attorney and the law firm involved.

From a law firm's perspective, the decision to hire an attorney from another market is not merely about filling a vacancy. 

It's an investment that comes with its own set of risks and expenses. 

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World

These range from the tangible – like relocation costs and expenses related to the attorney passing the local bar exam – to the less tangible, such as the time and effort invested in helping the new hire adapt to the firm's culture and work practices. 

There's also the risk that the attorney may not integrate well into the new environment or may decide to move on sooner than expected, rendering the investment a loss.

For the attorney, the costs of relocating are more than just financial. There's the emotional toll of leaving behind a familiar professional network and support system. The stress of adapting to a new legal environment, building new relationships, and perhaps facing a different work-life balance, can be significant. 

If the move involves a family, the decision becomes even more complex, with considerations around spousal employment, children’s education, and overall family well-being.

Another often-overlooked aspect is the time and effort required to familiarize oneself with the local legal landscape. This includes understanding specific local laws and regulations, court procedures, and client expectations, which can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another. 

The process of establishing credibility and a reputation in a new market can be slow and challenging.

These challenges underscore the importance of thorough research and consideration before making a move. 

Attorneys need to weigh not only the potential benefits but also these hidden costs. 

For law firms, it’s about looking beyond the immediate skills and experiences an attorney brings and considering the broader implications of such a hiring decision.

In the end, while relocating can offer new vistas of opportunity, it’s a decision that needs to be navigated with eyes wide open to both the visible and hidden costs involved.

Regional Cultural Nuances and Hiring Preferences

The legal landscape across different markets is not just defined by the law; it's also shaped by the unique cultural nuances of each region. These cultural aspects play a significant role in the hiring decisions of law firms and the success of attorneys relocating to new markets.

For law firms, understanding and respecting regional cultures is paramount when considering lateral hires. 

In cosmopolitan areas like New York or Los Angeles, the diversity and pace of the market might attract a wide range of candidates, making cultural fit a less pressing concern. 

However, in smaller or more homogenous markets, the cultural fit becomes a crucial aspect. Firms in these areas are often looking for candidates who not only bring the right skills but also resonate with the local ethos, values, and way of life. This alignment ensures smoother integration and reduces the risk of a quick turnover.

Attorneys, on their part, need to be cognizant of these cultural differences when considering a move. 

In some markets, there might be an unspoken preference for hiring 'locals' or those with a connection to the area. In others, the professional environment could be heavily influenced by local customs and business practices. 

For example, an attorney moving from a high-paced market to a region with a more relaxed approach to business might find the adjustment challenging both professionally and personally.

Cultural nuances also extend to client interactions. In certain regions, clients may prefer working with attorneys who have a deep understanding of the local community and its particular legal needs. For attorneys relocating, this means not only adapting to a new work culture but also building a rapport with clients who may have different expectations from what they're used to.

Navigating these regional cultural nuances requires attorneys to have a high degree of adaptability and emotional intelligence. It's about being open to learning and respecting new ways of working and interacting, both within the law firm and with clients.

For law firms and attorneys alike, recognizing and adapting to these cultural differences is not just about ensuring a successful hire or a smooth transition. It's about building lasting relationships and establishing a presence that resonates with the local market.

Prestige and Experience: Critical Factors in Hiring Decisions

In the realm of legal market relocations, two factors often tip the scales for both law firms and attorneys: 

The prestige of the originating law firm and the experience level of the attorney. 

These elements are crucial in determining the feasibility and desirability of a lateral move.

For law firms, the prestige of an attorney's current or previous employer can be a significant consideration. A candidate coming from a highly regarded law firm often carries a mark of quality and competence. 

This perception can be especially important in markets where the competition for clients is fierce, and the firm's reputation is a key differentiator. 

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BCG Law Firm Prestige Ranking

BCG categorizes law firms into rankings based on prestige levels, providing a clear structure for understanding the hierarchy within the legal industry. These rankings are as follows:

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World


  • Rank 1: Serving individuals with the most constrained budgets, these firms provide essential legal services at the most accessible price points.

  • Rank 2: Focused on smaller businesses and individuals, these firms work with clients who have limited budgets.

  • Rank 3: These firms often cater to middle-market clients and occasionally smaller ones, offering services at a more moderate cost.

  • Rank 4: Comprising primarily AmLaw firms and elite boutiques, they serve a mix of large and mid-sized clients.

  • Rank 5: Representing the pinnacle of prestige, these firms handle the most significant and complex legal matters for the largest clients.


Attorneys often find greater success in securing positions when transitioning from higher-ranked to slightly lower-ranked firms in different markets. 

For instance, moving from a rank 5 to a rank 4 firm, or from a rank 4 to a rank 3 firm, is generally more feasible. 

This is because law firms are more willing to take a chance on attorneys from prestigious firms, perceiving them as having more marketable experience. 

However, it's typically more challenging to move from a rank 3 firm to a rank 2 firm due to the significant differences in work environments and client types.

Attorneys at rank 5 and 4 firms usually work on similar cases with comparable pay scales, making transitions between these firms less risky for the hiring firm. 

On the other hand, attorneys moving from a rank 4 firm to a rank 3 firm face different challenges, as they transition to working with mid-sized to smaller companies, potentially leading to dissatisfaction and impacting the morale and dynamics within the new firm.

In contrast, law firms ranked as 1 or 2 often cater to smaller clients and have lower hiring standards compared to higher-ranked firms. 

As a result, these firms have less incentive to recruit attorneys from outside their local market, especially since sufficient talent is typically available locally through state law schools. 

Consequently, these firms focus on attracting attorneys suited to their specific market needs and client base, often offering competitive pay within their market segment.

However, it's not just about prestige for its own sake. 

Firms are looking for attorneys who can bring not only their legal expertise but also potentially valuable client relationships and a level of professionalism that aligns with their standards.

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World

On the other side of the coin, attorneys from top-tier firms looking to move to a smaller or less prestigious market might face their own set of challenges. 

They need to demonstrate that they are not just seeking a temporary landing spot but are genuinely interested in contributing to the new market. This might involve adjusting their expectations around work culture, compensation, and the nature of the legal work available.

Experience level plays a similarly critical role. 

Law firms often have specific needs based on the seniority of the roles they are looking to fill. 

A seasoned attorney with years of specialized experience might be highly sought after in a market lacking such expertise. Conversely, a mid-level attorney might find more opportunities in markets where firms are looking to build depth in their teams without the cost associated with very senior attorneys.

For attorneys, understanding how their experience level fits into the target market's needs is vital. It's not just about the years of practice but the relevance of their experience to the market's demands. 

An attorney's ability to articulate how their background and expertise align with a new market's needs can make a significant difference in their success in securing a position.

In essence, when considering a lateral move, both law firms and attorneys must carefully assess how prestige and experience play into the larger picture of market dynamics. It's a delicate balance of finding the right fit, where an attorney's background is both valued and valuable, and where a law firm can leverage these assets to enhance its practice and market standing.

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In conclusion, the decision for an attorney to move between legal markets, and for law firms to hire laterally from different markets, is a multifaceted one. 

It's a blend of professional aspirations, personal circumstances, market dynamics, and cultural nuances. 

Law firms must weigh the potential benefits of a new hire's expertise and experience against the risks and costs involved, including cultural integration and long-term commitment. 

Attorneys, on the other hand, must navigate the complexities of adapting to new environments, establishing themselves in unfamiliar legal territories, and aligning their skills with the market's demand.

Navigating New Horizons: Mastering the Art of Lateral Moves in the Legal World


This intricate dance between law firms and attorneys in the realm of lateral moves underscores a larger narrative about the legal profession. It's a narrative that speaks to the ever-evolving nature of legal markets, the continuous quest for growth and opportunity, and the delicate balance of professional and personal fulfillment.

For those considering such a move or hiring decision, it's about more than just the immediate change. It's about a strategic, well-informed approach that considers the long-term implications and opportunities. 

The journey, while fraught with challenges, can lead to rewarding new beginnings and avenues for growth. 

In essence, while the legal landscape offers a spectrum of opportunities for mobility, it demands not just legal acumen but also a strategic mindset, adaptability, and a keen understanding of the unique tapestry of each legal market.

So, as you stand at this crossroads, considering a leap into a new legal market or contemplating bringing in talent from afar, ask yourself: Are you ready for the challenges and rewards that such a move entails?

For a deeper insight into the legal industry and more resources, visit BCG Attorney Search. Explore a wealth of information and opportunities tailored for your legal career.