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Q: I am a partner in one of the city’s biggest law firms. Although I have been with my firm for many years and generally like it here, a number of recent events are leading me to consider moving. I am friendly with a partner in another firm that I respect who has long been after me to join them. I have built a strong portable practice and think I know my market value. If I do this, I just want to call Joe and quickly strike a deal that is fair, as I don’t want to put a bull’s-eye on my back in the other firm. Any quick tips you can offer me?

A: There are two key aspects of your question: making a move on your own (and only considering one firm) and the reticence you have to seek top dollar – the so-called bull’s-eye effect you mentioned. I’ll address each separately.

I’ll first note the obvious self interest that is inherent in addressing your potential move, since, if you do it on your own, it cuts recruiters like me out of the loop. I won’t apologize, though, for the prism through which I look at this situation, as my prior experience as a candidate at different stages of my career and the work I now do amply illustrates how much of an impact can be made here.

Let me recount some of the details of a meal I shared a few years ago with a partner I know well.

Our meal started a bit awkwardly as the partner sheepishly apologized for not having called before making her move. She explained that things happened very quickly after she had talked with a partner at her new firm and it just “felt right,” so the deal was done. As we discussed the details, the sweet and sour shrimp she was eating tasted much more like the latter, as was evidenced by her pained expressions.

After conversing about clients and the nuances of her practice, this experienced lawyer discussed with me her compensation at her former firm and current one. Like you, she had spent many years at her prior firm and thought she knew her market value. In fact, based on work I had done with other partners in her practice area, it was eminently clear that she had been lagging partners in similar firms in the city by approximately $75,000 per year (and this had occurred over a three- to four-year period). She also left another $125,000 or so on the table at her new firm, as, unbeknownst to her, the market had placed a premium on the particular niche in which she practiced.

As compensation is only one piece of the puzzle, she was more chagrined to hear about the broader array of firms that may have coveted her. After all, as she noted, she thought she knew the firms well, and the one that she joined made the “most sense.”

What she did not realize is that there were a few others that were gearing up to expand into her practice niche, had ready-made client bases (which could have helped to grow her business exponentially) and were prepared to throw significant marketing dollars behind a lateral partner.

She also was unaware that two prominent out-of-town firms were similarly prepared to open an office in her market if they could find someone just like her, as they, too, had clients in tow that needed her expertise. Needless to say, her anguish over the conversation led me to pick up the tab for that lunch!

Knowledge of the market, or, in this case, apparent market knowledge, is just one factor that must be considered. The need to remain focused on your practice while exploring a move, the complexity of the deals that are now being cut (and vary widely at firms), the importance of keeping matters confidential, and the nuances of the negotiation and vetting process are just a few of the other factors that you must be mindful of in determining how best to approach a move.

The second facet of your question concerns that bull’s-eye effect that many lawyers espouse. At a surface level, this actually is laudable, as it reveals that someone is not out for every last dollar and likely has a team-oriented compass that guides his life. My thesis is that if you go deeper, it becomes apparent that taking this to an extreme can affect your standing in your new firm and can cause significant (and injurious) economic impact to you. This is troubling, since, if handled correctly, you can get to a better place without suffering those harms or the intensified glare from the spotlight you fear.

Initially, it is important to focus on the mindset that underlies your desire to slip in under the radar and to only seek “what’s fair.” As you are an accomplished attorney, surely you remember those years in college, and especially law school, where you may have outworked your peers and skipped some parties and other pleasantries to study a bit longer for important exams. Similarly, you likely eschewed some happy hours you would have loved to attend as a young associate, expended extra effort to make sure your work product was letter perfect, and, in building your practice, spent more time than others (and took greater risks) in writing articles and speaking, getting out to forge relationships, and generally developing your name.

As such, why would you cast some of that aside, which you worked so hard to develop, which is what you would be doing by essentially taking less than market value so that you can avoid that bull’s-eye? More to the point, why would you do that to slot yourself behind others who have not built the type of practice you have, likely have not worked as hard as you have, and may have not had the temerity to take the risks that you did?

Get comfortable in believing in yourself and that you are seeking nothing more than what is deserved for what you have achieved.

A few other points to consider in adopting this approach include the following:

Be straight up, do not puff as to your portables and be professional at all times. The intense scrutiny that you fear most often follows those who join a firm with too much bravado and overly optimistic representations about business that will follow.

As noted, deals are more complex, and it is important to be aware of all the permutations. Nevertheless, remain focused on the big points, and don’t “nickel and dime” all on the small stuff, as those can be the ones that people most remember.

There are significant consequences to leaving money on the table. In many cases, your compensation will be fixed for a two-year period, which thus doubles the impact of what you have foregone. Additionally, as some firms compensate their lawyers in bands, which are hard to escape except incrementally, the longer-term impact of coming in too low can be much more significant. When one considers that most professionals, including lawyers, move at least several times throughout a career, you may never make up what you lost in a particular firm.

As a corollary to that point, consider my aforementioned lunch partner. She left at least $300,000 on the table, and probably more over time. That is a big number that, if invested wisely, could accelerate retirement by at least a few years. It also would defray a lot of college tuition costs, could be that down payment on a vacation home, or for those with more altruistic leanings, could be contributed to some important charitable and community activities.

Law firms, like other businesses, do not pay what they cannot. If a firm is ultimately inclined to offer you X dollars, it has done so because that is the value that it believes you command. The intensifying pressure on most firms to increase profits should be ample evidence that a firm is not demonstrating largesse in structuring an offer that you may feel “pushes the envelope.”

In closing, remember that your successes to date have put you in this enviable position. The fear of the unknown and whether you can replicate your achievements at a new firm may underlie your concern. While there are no guarantees, the odds are heavily in favor of those who have achieved before, since, if you employ the same work ethic, remain strategic in building your practice and otherwise don’t rest on your laurels, your chances for success going forward are quite good. So don’t worry about that spotlight, as you just may bask in the luminescence.

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 AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at [email protected].

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