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Steps to Take Before Seeking a New Job in the Legal Industry

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Changing firms within the legal profession is becoming more common. The days are gone when a young associate fresh out of law school joins a law firm and remains with that firm for the entirety of their career. 

Today, such a career path is the exception, not the rule. The new rule is effectively “lateraling” from one firm to another. Lateral moves by attorneys have spiked in recent years. For example, between 2014 and 2018, there were close to nine thousand lateral partner moves from one large law firm to another. Furthermore, approximately ninety-seven percent of major law firms in Florida and across the country made a lateral partner hire within the past five years.

So, if you are an associate or partner at a law firm, does it make sense for you to explore the possibility of departing your current position and lateraling to a new firm? What steps do you need to take first?

The action you take will depend on the reason you want to make such a move. First, we’ll highlight ten of the most common reasons attorneys decide to depart their current jobs and lateral elsewhere. Then, we’ll share the steps to take to prepare for finding a new job in the legal field. 

Top 10 Reasons To Leave Your Current Law Firm Job and Look for a New Position

1. You don’t mesh with the firm’s culture

It’s a big deal-breaker when you’re working for a firm whose values and culture don’t align with your own. Even worse, you might feel that it’s a toxic environment due to drama, infighting between the partners, etc. With any job, a toxic environment is just that: toxic. A shift away from such an environment will do you good both personally and professionally. 

2. You’re not handling the types of cases you thought you would

Maybe you expected you’d be representing clients in certain areas of the law where you’re most passionate or skilled, but that’s not how things turned out. For example, you may have aspired to practice environmental law, but you joined a large law firm out of law school and are stuck in financial services litigation. This is one of the fastest ways to start feeling burned out. 

3. You’re bored with the work

This might be rare, but it does indeed happen. Some law firms have so many attorneys that a fairly new associate, or even a junior partner, could get lost in the shuffle and not have enough work to stay busy. If you find yourself in this situation, it may make sense to leave the firm before they opt to let you go due to under-billing. Not to mention, a lack of work coming in could be a sign of bigger problems for the firm.

4. You physically or mentally can’t take it anymore

The law profession seems to be laced with mental health issues due to the tension between productivity and wellness. When the various dimensions of wellness are not in balance, your health or work will suffer the consequences and it might be best to make an exit.

5. It’s taking a toll on your personal relationships

This is closely tied to the need to take care of yourself physically and mentally; you may have found that your caseload is causing you to work more hours than anticipated. Your spouse or significant other, your children, or whoever is important to you in your life is telling you you’re never around, creating tension at home, which doesn’t fare well for anyone.

6. You want to relocate

Maybe you took the first opportunity that came your way after law school, but you aren’t where you want to be geographically. The great news is that there are thousands of law firms all over the country. Fine one where you really want to be.

7. You’re not being paid what you expected or what you’re truly worth

Those seven years of schooling didn’t come for free (unless you got lucky and had a free ride), and now what you expected to bring in and what you’re actually making are not one and the same. This could also be a sign of bigger issues brewing at the firm such as financial challenges, or worse, maybe they don’t value you the way they should.

8. You don’t feel as though you are growing and improving as an attorney

As with many careers, attorneys want to grow and improve. If your firm hasn’t invested in your ongoing improvement or training, that can be a real drain and hindrance to your ability to prepare yourself for bigger and better cases down the road.

9. You no longer want to practice law

It happens. You go to school to become an attorney, believing that this is your professional calling.  Either soon after you graduate or sometimes after years of practicing law, you realize it’s simply not for you. Although a very difficult conclusion to reach for myriad reasons, sometimes the decision to completely leave the field of law is the right one to make.

10. A better opportunity with a different law firm is available

Perhaps a new opportunity at a different law firm has come along and there is a standing offer for you to join. This should be the situation you aspire to – having options and being able to leave your current job with the security of knowing you have an even better position lined up.

Whatever your reason is for wanting to make a change, be sure that your decision is well thought out. There are pros and cons to making any career move. It is imperative that you take the time to understand the positives and negatives specific to your situation so you can take the correct next step. 

If You’re Ready To Look for a New Job in the Legal Field, Follow These Six Tips

Conduct a Thorough Self-Assessment

Before pursuing a new job in the legal industry, it is important to go through a candid self-assessment to determine if a particular job is the right fit. This self-evaluation can provide insight into which areas of the legal profession you are most viable for new employment. 

For example, if you’re a senior associate at a mid-size Florida law firm who has spent the past five years specializing in commercial transactions, pursuing a new job as a trial attorney with a boutique law firm or as a tax attorney with the Florida Department of Revenue may be quite challenging. This is because your skills and experience may not automatically translate into the new position.

When you conduct a self-assessment, create a detailed list of your strengths and weaknesses. Objectively review your work experience, educational background, professional connections, and references to help determine whether it’s realistic to pursue the new job.

Your self-assessment should also contain a pros and cons list addressing the benefits and risks of pursuing a new job. Complete a probabilistic analysis of the possible outcomes associated with lateraling to a different law firm or making a dramatic shift to a different specialty in the legal industry.

Changing Specialities May Require Additional Education

If you’re unsatisfied with your current legal position and want a fresh start in a completely different area of the legal industry, it would be prudent to consider furthering your education. For example, it is possible for paralegals, e-discovery professionals, legal secretaries, etc. to obtain certifications in their area to highlight a level of expertise that may help differentiate them from other applicants for a new job opening. 

Lawyers can also expand their options in the profession with additional education. For example, if you’re interested in practicing tax law, it may make sense to pursue an LL.M. degree with a specialty in tax. An LL.M. is a post-graduate “Master of Laws” degree that may be pursued by an individual who already holds a Juris Doctorate or by someone who holds a legal degree from a foreign country and wants to practice law in the United States.

Other advanced degrees that may be pursued include a JSD (i.e. Doctor of Science of Law) or an MLS (Master of Legal Studies).  The JSD is a research doctoral degree that is typically pursued by someone who wants to specialize in legal education or legal science. The MSL is a master’s degree offering the ability to study legal theory or a particular aspect of the practice of law.

Research the New Job or New Practice Area Thoroughly

When you decide to pursue a new job within the legal industry, you should approach the change with eyes open and an in-depth understanding of the implications associated with that career change. For example, if you decide to leave your paralegal position with a large Florida law firm to become a contract administrator with a Florida real estate company, make sure you take into consideration the differences in compensation structure, the work-life balance offered, and the prospect of further advancement within the company. 

The same rationale applies to a junior associate at a boutique law firm who is considering a lateral move to a large Florida law firm. Make sure to weigh the additional demands on your time that are likely to occur with such a move and assess the viability of pursuing a partnership track with the new firm.

Revamp Your Resume

If you’ve been at your current job for a number of years, don’t blindly send your resume from 2010 to a prospective employer. Open up the document and revamp it to ensure it encompasses the experience you’ve attained at your current job and still has relevant information that would interest a new employer in the legal profession. 

If you’re targeting a specific new job, consider tailoring your resume to that job, if possible. Keep in mind that every word on your resume should serve the objective of helping you secure the new job.

Related: Top Tips for Attorney Resumes

Touch Base With Your Professional Contacts

What many candidates usually forget when they start looking for a new job is to confer with their professional contacts, especially the people who may be asked to provide a recommendation by your prospective employer. 

Talking with your professional contacts can help you in landing that new legal job since a colleague at a different firm may know someone who works at the firm you want to join. You’d be surprised at how small the world can seem when you start asking colleagues who they know at other firms, government agencies, businesses, etc.

Improve Your Technical Skills

One of the best ways to improve your marketability as a professional in the legal industry is to improve your understanding of legal technology. This includes having a general understanding of technological applications used for document proofing, document automation, contract analysis, transaction management, and legal research.