When Should You Leave?

Law firms are in the midst of one of the most difficult “talent” markets they’ve ever faced. Every law firm I’ve worked with over the past two years has been desperately seeking qualified (or, you know, breathing) Associates and staff members to deal with business expansion, partner retirements or in particular, gaps left by those who left one firm for another.

Those Associates are being lured away by sometimes weekly calls from recruiters in search of a new commission. They’ve somehow convinced law firms to pay salaries well over industry standard, and to create signing bonuses more in line with sports teams than law firms. As a result, it’s law firm musical chairs. The market is so bad, it’s causing people like me to advise firms to restructure to rely less on Associates and staff and more on technology going forward. Ultimately, if this continues then the role of Associate might suffer in the long run. So, this posting is for Associates to help them understand what’s at stake, and to develop a better decision-making matrix to determine if and when they should leave their law firm.

  1. Before you decide your current firm won’t support your career, decide what you want that career to look like. If you don’t know what you want your life to look like, you can hardly blame those around you for not getting you there. Take the time to create your own life/career plan. Then make sure that your firm knows what you want to accomplish. Give them a chance to step up before you step out. Don’t make assumptions about what they are and are not willing to do. Let the firm make that decision once they know what you need. You might be surprised at how accommodating and helpful they can be. They wouldn’t have you at the firm if they didn’t want you to succeed. Give them a chance to show it.
  2. Don’t believe that moving to a new firm will solve all of your issues. Young lawyers tend to leave a law firm when someone entices them away with money, and when they can point to one or two issues that might help to justify the departure. Here’s the truth: the challenges you’re facing now will probably follow you to your new job. The geographical cure rarely works. Instead, take the time to understand and try to deal with those issues where you are. Then if there are still compelling reasons to move, by all means do so. But don’t try running from issues that might be more about you than the other person. You’ll never outrun yourself.
  3. Don’t just chase the higher salary. It is true that most people can secure raises by moving from one firm to another. But there’s also a cost, and that’s usually in your legal training. The more you move around, then less access you’ll have to “growth” work. That’s the files that are more complex, more diverse in their issues. Each time you move, you’ll always be starting back at the more junior level of work until you can prove yourself, or until you can find a mentor who trusts you enough to start handing you decent work. Otherwise, one day you’ll realize that you’re a six-year call operating at a second-year call level. The firm, realizing you’re being paid too much for your skills, will then put the pressure on, but it might be too late to fix it.
  4. Don’t believe everything you hear. Associate have told me that recruiters (and in some cases, law firms) will say what they think Associate wants to hear in order to entice them over. But those conditions don’t necessarily make it into their employment letter, and don’t materialize once the job starts. I recently heard of one lawyer who left a smaller firm to join a larger firm in downtown Vancouver. They were promised work-life balance; but found themselves regularly working until 11 p.m. Another was promised mentoring by a senior lawyer and access to files in that area of law. But when they arrived at the firm, they were expected to build their own client base and teach themselves the area of law.

So, when should you leave?

  • Leave when you’ve developed a career plan, shared it with the firm, but are receiving no support for it.
  • Leave when you’ve requested but not received training, mentoring and other support to make you a better lawyer.
  • Leave when you have to work with those who disrespect you, and the firm has been unsuccessful at getting them into line.
  • Leave when your salary is significantly under the average for your practice area and year of call (and there’s nothing else of value keeping you there, like a strong mentoring relationship).

Mid-level to senior Partners at your firm have all been offered opportunities to leave. Find out why they’ve stayed with the firm. You might come to realize that opportunity and happiness are not all about money. There are many things that can contribute to a satisfying workplace.

Before you leave:

  • Think long and hard about what you want to go to (not just why you want to leave).
  • Take charge of any discussion with recruiters. Don’t let them lead you like a donkey to a carrot. Have a list of conditions/requirements that need to be met for you to realistically consider another position. Make the recruiter work for their commission. Don’t let them say “well, you can certainly talk with them about that”. They should be having some of those conversations and clarifying the role before you step in for an interview.
  • Have another conversation with your firm to see if there is a way to address any of your concerns before you leave. Many firms have told me “If only they had told me what was wrong before they left, we could have dealt with it”.

Some movement in a marketplace is normal. This degree of movement is inflated by short-term benefits, recruiter persuasiveness, and bad decision-making. If you’re going to leave your firm, make sure it’s for the right reasons and will serve you best in the long run.

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