Michael J. Joyce
Michael J. Joyce ()

The legal world is in a constant state of global flux: new statutes, varying interpretations of existing law and new law firms sprouting up throughout the country. Perhaps the most mobile and ever-changing part of the industry, however, are the very lawyers who make up the profession. My generation especially has rarely been described as loyal with regard to their period of employment with one employer, whereas some former generations pronounce a norm of lifetime employment with a single entity.

Lateral movement of lawyers has especially become a paramount target in recent years due to the state of the progression at large. Since the outset of the economic dark ages for the legal industry triggered by the overall recession in the United States, entry-level hiring has seemingly stalled (although there are numerous reports that the industry is recovering and new hires are increasing at optimistic rates). With the tough economic times, it appears as though firms and companies are avoiding the costs of new hires and looking more to lateral hires to fill more senior roles, even in the associate ranks of law firms. With lateral movement, firms and companies are able to benefit, with much less financial output, from the costs and efforts expended by previous employers in training and experience.

During my short career, I have experienced numerous cold calls from recruiters boasting various once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. For the most part, however, I politely listened to a short sales pitch, and immediately rejected the advances. However, a few months ago, an opportunity came along and, even to my own surprise at the time, I decided to make the move to a new law firm. Lateral movement can be a daunting task, both physically and mentally. Changing firms reincarnates the adolescent fears of the first day at a new school, such as the task of making new friends, settling into new surroundings and learning the social mores of a novel area. At the same time that these basic apprehensions arise, so do higher-level concerns of career advancement, opportunities for partnership and leadership, and other long-term career-based worries. Along the way, I learned a few helpful hints that made the transition easier and less stressful, and helped ensure that my choice would certainly not turn into a wrong and regrettable decision.

Perform due diligence. Of course, the most important element during evaluation of potential lateral opportunities is to perform due diligence on the new location. Lateral movement should not be a leap into the unknown, but should instead be based upon sound research regarding the new location, the practice area, the working conditions and all of the other factors that combine in a place of business. After all, a career is a pathway that occupies the majority of the average person’s life, and it is vital to make major career decisions in an informed manner to ensure that the twists, turns and speed bumps do not derail the ultimate goal. Especially in the digital information age, the power of knowledge is often just a few keystrokes away.

Meet the people. Normally, like many lawyers, I generally spend more time in the office and with my co-workers during the average week than at home with my family and friends. With such a substantial amount of time spent with co-workers, it is often necessary to have some sort of friendly, or at least civil, working relationship. Laterals should take time, if the recruiting process allows, to have a meal with potential future co-workers, or at least schedule a few phone calls to survey the potential interpersonal landscape of the new employer. Even a short period of time spent with such individuals will give the lateral a good sense of what to expect, and can also be an important piece of the due diligence process.

Trust your gut. As lawyers, we tend to consistently overanalyze every situation, but we often forget about our instincts. Humans (which, last time I checked, practitioners still generally qualify as), are gifted with a powerful and innate set of instincts that guide us through various situations. It is important not only for a lateral move to actually be the “right” choice, but it is also important for the move to “feel” like the right fit. It is important to shut down the brain for a few minutes during a lateral analysis and listen to what the rest of your senses have to say about the potential new location. Relying on gut feelings can be one of the most powerful and convincing weapons in a lateral’s career arsenal.

Consider the future. Again, a career is a long and extensive journey, not a short sprint. When evaluating a potential opportunity for movement, it is important to look to the future. By setting and considering personal, long-term goals alongside the career outlooks at the new, potential employer five, 10 or even 20 years down the road, the propriety of the ultimate decision may come to light in a more revolutionary way. Although some employers can offer short-term gains, the long-term fit and benefit is the true goal when a career is in mind.

Don’t burn bridges, and if you do, make sure you rebuild them. The legal community, especially in a city like Pittsburgh, is relatively small and collegial. It is never a good idea to burn a bridge. It is important to be aware of the personal consequences of lateral movement and not treat the situation as a robotic movement of gears in the machine. It may be difficult to leave friends, mentors and colleagues, but the impact can be minimized by ensuring that the move is made on fair, open and professional terms.

Make a list, and check it thrice. One helpful tool to ease my Type-A personality that was thrown into an upheaval at the very thought of any significant change or alteration in routine and comfort, was to make a pros and cons list side by side for easy comparison. This gave me the opportunity to put all of my thoughts on paper, and render an educated decision on the merits. Of course, the list was in pencil and was altered over the course of approximately one week, but it served as a vital piece of scratch paper for the future path of my career. It is difficult to balance and weigh the scales of major decisions internally and in the abstract, so a logical formulation of the forces at play can be a substantial advantage in the decision-making process.

Overall, although the future remains uncertain in any area of life, following a strategic plan to making a fully informed decision on a lateral move is important to ensuring a healthy and happy future in at least the career portion. Sometimes, the thought of lateral movement is quickly dissuaded by the maxim that the grass is not always greener on the other side. However, with the right approach during evaluation of opportunities for lateral movement, it is much easier to predict the color shade that will be revealed in the long-term at the lateral destination.

Michael J. Joyce is an associate of the litigation practice group in the Pittsburgh office of Saul Ewing, focusing his practice on commercial disputes and construction litigation matters. He can be reached at 412-209-2500 or mjoyce@saul.com.