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Sideways: Success doesn’t always mean moving up

Is a lateral move the best way to jump-start your career?


Most of the time the answer is yes, provided the timing is right, recruiters agree.

Lawyers who make one or two well-timed lateral moves during their careers frequently attain “impressive levels” of success, outperforming lawyers who stay with the same firm, according to Lisa Pavia, a recruiter with BCG Attorney Search in Washington.

 “It is through change and transition that human beings develop their potential,” she writes in an online article. “The distinction is between being comfortable and stretching. And it is when we stretch that the steps can become leaps in development.”

When is the best time to make your move? After about three years, says Harrison Barnes, CEO of BCG Attorney Search.

 “By this point you aren’t senior enough to create track-to-partnership problems, but you are senior enough to possess a solid foundation from which to work in another firm,” he writes in an online article.

That rule isn’t carved in stone, he adds, but moving sooner raises suspicion unless you have a good personal reason to do so; waiting too long could set your career back.

“Keep in mind that if a firm has to retrain you in an area from the ground up, it’s often more economical to hire an entry-level associate,” Barnes says.

In Canada, anecdotal evidence suggests that more practitioners are making lateral moves. There’s no official data tracking lawyer movement here, however, a 2009 survey of lawyers called to the bar between 1984 and 1990 revealed they held an average of three professional positions.  The movement reflects job changes ranging from going from associate to partner; moving out of private practice; going solo; or moving laterally or upward, according to the paper Leaving Law and Barriers to Re-entry by Fiona M. Kay of Queens University. 

In the U.S., a 2008 statistic from the National Association for Law Placements suggests 75 per cent of all associates leave their first law firm within five years.

How can you be certain you’re making the right move? Making good choices depends on good research, and good research starts with knowing exactly why you want to move and what you want from a new employer. Interview current and former associates to learn whether a prospective new firm has what you’re seeking, whether that’s mentoring, training, or a better work-life balance. Ask why former employees left. 

Take some time to examine your current job to see if any changes can be made to satisfy your objectives, especially if what you need to be happy involves changing practice areas.

“As a known commodity, it’s easier for you to make a dramatic switch internally than it is to convince someone outside the firm that you can do the kind of work that you would like to do [but have not done],” says recruiter Stephen E. Seckler.


Tips for a good lateral move

1. Determine what the purpose is behind the move:  Is it to work in a certain field, or with a particular mentor? Know what you want to achieve.

2. List the positive and negative aspects of making a move and of staying where you are.

3. Ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to improve your current situation enough to stay – change practice groups, for example, or ask for more of the kind of work you like.

4. Decide what you want in a firm, and then find a firm that meets your requirements.

5. Interview current and former employees to find out whether your target firm is as good in practice as it looks on paper.