Author’s note: Two of the most common questions received in the past few months have been: "Should I be more open to at least considering a move to another law firm, especially in the midst of this recession?" and "If I do decide to explore a move, what factors should I examine when looking at other firms?" In this two-part series, each question will be addressed. This month’s article discusses the issue of whether a move should even be considered.
Law firms create a sense of inertia that can put a strangle hold on even the most hard-driving, proactive attorneys. This was underscored recently when I received a call from a partner who told me that it took him two years to finally dial my number to discuss a possible move. The partner remarked that it took considerable willpower to bust through some psychological barriers to even make that call, as he felt he was in a cocoon-like existence in his firm.
Conversely, I called a partner last week to discuss a search for a firm that has a practice-specific need that is tailor-made for him. This partner is in a firm that is struggling. I barely had announced my name when the partner curtly cut me off and made it rather clear that he wouldn’t consider leaving his firm under any circumstance. This was actually rejuvenating, as it brought me back to my youth, as I had not been so unceremoniously and quickly rejected since being shot down at teenage dances!
Skeptics may think that since I am a recruiter, this analysis is skewed toward convincing everyone that they should make a move — after all, facilitating such transitions results in placement fees. Although I understand that view, I beg to differ, as I changed law firms earlier in my career and understand the effects of a move. I also have met with lawyers who are very likely to retire some day from the firm they call home today. In those cases, despite being prompted to meet by those lawyers, I advised them to stay put, as we concluded they had found the seemingly perfect situation that fit them in all respects.
One may wonder why someone who has such a perfect situation would take the time to address a move that may not ultimately be pursued. Two salient reasons come to mind. First, one of the hallmarks of an intelligent person is that he tends to make important decisions after considering all the key facts. A decision to stay in a firm, after all, is as much of a decision as it is to leave — in both cases one is making a conscious election to take a course of action. In major markets that are stacked deep with many different law firms, it is impossible for someone, no matter how tuned in he may be, to fully know the ins and outs of each firm. A periodic assessment of one’s firm against the competition is an important way to verify that your firm is, in fact, the place to be.
Second, as underscored by the recent dissolution of firms that previously were regarded as bellwethers in their respective markets, things change (and quickly). The so-called perfect firm today could be on the watch list tomorrow. Moreover, apart from the ills that could infect a firm, more partner-specific impacts, such as conflicts that could imperil a key client relationship, can unexpectedly arise at any moment. Being apprised of what lies outside your firm’s walls helps to insulate you against the havoc that can be wreaked on your practice by the vagaries of these developments, as you can react much more quickly, and smartly, if you know what exists elsewhere.
Going through this evaluation process does not mean that you have to ultimately move. As noted, I have often advised against such changes. The upshot though, even if you stay put, is that you will have become much more educated about your profession. Learning more about other firms, and competing practices, may prove to help you competitively, as you may have been unaware of how other firms are operating and pursuing the same type of clients you are. If you should dip your toe in the water and meet with others, you likely will have expanded your network of contacts, who could be good referral sources should you remain in your firm. Most importantly, armed with a deeper understanding of the market, you likely will feel empowered that you really are in the right firm if you decide to stay put, which can remove lingering doubts and will have a positive psychic impact.
If the evaluation process does result in a conclusion that it makes sense to speak with a few firms, it is important that you only take that step if you are mentally ready to make the move if the elements on your checklist are satisfied. You are doing a disservice to all involved if you test the waters "just to see what’s out there." For those who believe that bringing an offer back to their current management team is a win-win that will either result in a counter-offer from their firm or their suitor, think again. While your potential new firm may remain interested, your current firm, if you should accept the counter-offer, will never forget that you almost walked out the door. This can have a bearing on future compensation and can have other subtle implications. It has been estimated that about 80 percent of people who accept counter-offers end up leaving their firms within a year, as the changes that were promised normally fall by the wayside as time passes.
In the July column, we will examine some of the key factors that should be examined in evaluating a prospective new firm in this economic climate. •
Frank M. D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.