When is the right time to move on from your first firm?
The days of 40-year careers with the same law firm are long gone. In today’s world, lawyers are expected to cycle through several positions during the course of a career, at least until a partnership offer arrives. It’s critical that you navigate this complex economic landscape in an adroit manner, and part of the art of career navigation is the art of timing. Only you will know for certain exactly when the right moment comes for an exit. The following, however, are some red flags to look for.
The three- to five-year mark
Three to five years after you qualify, you’re likely to find yourself in a unique and enviable position—experienced enough to work independently, but still relatively inexpensive from an employer’s point of view (in other words, not ready for partnership just yet). This state of affairs could lead to quite a number of tempting job offers (whether you seek them or not) that are likely to dry up after another year or two of practice. If you find yourself here, now might be a good time to act.
Jumping off a sinking ship
The fortunes of law firms rise and fall, and so do the fortunes of individual practice groups. Even if your firm is doing well overall, its trademark practice (for example) may be floundering due to market competition. If you specialise in trademark law, you may find yourself with more free time than you want. You’re not acting like a rat by jumping off a sinking ship—you’re acting intelligently.
It's more difficult to make partner in some firms than in others; indeed, the proverbial “glass ceiling” is impenetrable in some firms. If you haven’t made partner within seven years PQE, partnership at another firm might be your best option. A word of warning, however—such a move will be difficult unless your clients are ready to make the move along with you. It’s never too early to start cultivating client loyalty, since it could make or break your legal career at some point.
International opportunities are highly sought after, extremely competitive to land and great CV boosters. Obviously, a taste for variety shouldn’t lead you into impulsively accepting a position defending drunk drivers in Alabama; nevertheless, a corporate law position in New York or Hong Kong might turn out to be the first step in a career-long adventure. Corporate, finance and banking lawyers often find lucrative overseas positions around the three- to five-year PQE mark.
It’s said that the law is a jealous mistress. With that in mind, at some point you might be considering subordinating your career ambitions to family life, health or other concerns. If you suffer from burnout after several years in practice, numerous options may await you. Many in-house positions with corporate legal departments, for example, offer six-figure salaries combined with 40-hour work weeks. Act before the glue of circumstance hardens beneath your feet.
It’s important that you avoid the two extremes of impulsive decision-making and overcautiousness—seek to tread the middle path. Since your first career move is likely to serve as the hinge upon which the remainder of your career turns, choose wisely.