Lateraling is not always the panacea it's made out to be
The prevailing BigLaw wisdom is that if you are experiencing any hint of job dissatisfaction, then the solution is obvious—lateral! Often working until midnight? Lateral! Partner emails you over a holiday weekend? Lateral! Looking for a permanent WFH arrangement? Lateral! Curious about a change of scenery? Lateral!
Needless to say, there are many circumstances in which lateraling can be a great move. But lateraling isn’t the best solution for every problem. Contrary to what many associates believe, lateraling is not the only way to create a better working environment for yourself. More often than not, lateraling isn’t even the best way to negotiate things like permanent WFH, a flexible work schedule or a switch to a different practice area. What’s more, lateraling can sometimes send you in the wrong direction. Even if you think you can negotiate a big signing bonus (which is admittedly harder now than it was 6 months ago), it’s important to slow down and carefully consider both what lateraling can do for you, and what it can’t.
Full disclosure: we have never lateraled. We’ve both been in the same law firm for many years, so we are undoubtedly biased and our experience is admittedly limited. But, by the same token, we also believe that we owe much of our success in BigLaw to having stayed in one place long enough to build up the necessary goodwill and cultivate the necessary relationships to get what we really wanted—flexible, remote, part-time, alternative-track roles where we largely dictate our own schedules.
When considering a lateral move, it’s critical to diagnose your true motivations and emotions. We’re not at all against lateraling when it is a thoughtful part of larger strategy or a necessary escape from an especially toxic environment.
Too often, however, we see associates lateral because they are afraid. Afraid to set boundaries. Afraid to stand up for themselves. Afraid to ask for what would make them happy. Afraid that what would make them happy is impossible. Afraid to disappoint someone. Afraid even to take a vacation! In BigLaw, fear rules the day.
Today’s associates didn’t create BigLaw’s culture of fear, but they have accepted it as an indelible part of the BigLaw experience. That’s a mistake. To repeat, there are many situations in which lateraling will make perfect sense.
Our point is simply that lateraling as a fear-avoidance strategy just punts the real solution to the larger problem to another day. Lateraling may (or may not) provide a quick fix to an immediate problem, but crafting a BigLaw job that truly works for you typically requires a lot more than a lucky lateral move. Someday, somewhere, you’re going to have to face your fear.
With that introduction, here are 5 questions to ask yourself before pulling the trigger on a BigLaw lateral move.
1. What steps have you already taken at your current firm to set boundaries?
If you’re considering a lateral move because you’re burned out and your answer is essentially ‘none,’ then lateraling is probably premature. Setting boundaries is a skill and, like any other skill, getting good at it requires practice. A lot of practice. And even if you think you’ve taken concrete steps to set boundaries, have you really? Setting firm but fair boundaries in BigLaw involves a lot of pretty difficult steps (discussed in a series of posts here), and associates often don’t follow through on them. We know from personal experience that setting boundaries can be downright scary, but you can’t let that stop you. Sadly, unpleasant feelings are unavoidable when learning to set boundaries, so you may as well accept that and get to work.
The simple truth is that if you don’t face your fears head on and learn how to set boundaries, then your problems will follow you to your next firm. Lateraling does not provide a long-term solution to poor boundary-setting skills. The idea that some BigLaw firms respect boundaries while others don’t is mostly myth, or wishful thinking.
Our conversations with countless BigLaw associates have convinced us that setting boundaries is exceptionally hard everywhere.
Fortunately, though, the success or failure of your boundaries largely depends on you. So why not start today, right where you are? After all, if you’re already thinking about lateraling anyway, what do you have to lose?
Needless to say, you may get more or less push back on your boundaries in certain environments versus others. But, no matter the environment, you’re going to need to cultivate good boundary setting habits eventually. With boundaries, you get to choose the battlefield, but you have to fight somewhere. Do you have a good reputation at your current firm? Are you respected by your colleagues? If so, maybe the best place to fight the battle is with them. A new person who doesn’t know you may be less willing to give you what you want. (Or, if you don’t have the leverage where you are, the inverse may be true).
2. Have you had honest discussions with partners and/or administrators in your current firm about your BigLaw career goals? Or are you making untested assumptions about what’s possible at your firm?
If you’re thinking about lateraling, ask yourself: are you avoiding a discussion you’re scared to have with your current employer? Fears and insecurities might sound like this:
‘I don’t think my firm will allow me to work remotely so I’m thinking of lateraling to another firm and negotiating remote work upfront.'
‘It’s up or out at my firm and I don’t want to be partner, so I have to lateral if I want an alternative role.'
'I dont think my firm will allow me to switch from transactional to litigation—our litigation department isn't rearlly hiring right now—so I'm going to lateral to another firm to get the litigation position I want.'
We’re firm believers in asking for what you want instead of assuming that it’s not possible.
When we both asked to go on a reduced-hour schedule as childless fourth-year associates, it was commonly assumed that this accommodation existed only for working mothers. When we asked for permission to work remotely from rural Wyoming in 2019, remote work didn't exist. Nor were we aware of any other firm attorneys within an 800-mile radius of our new home.
We’ve spoken with dozens of associates who have received some pretty incredible accommodations just by asking. This is especially true for very strong associates being groomed for partner but who are open to non-partner roles; this group seems to be able to negotiate almost anything (but not if they don’t ask!). If something feels impossible at your firm, it could simply mean that no one has asked for it yet. Associates vastly underestimate what’s possible.
Associates also tend to grossly overestimate the supposed risks of asking for what they want, also known as catastrophizing. Often, associates tell us they are afraid to ask for what they want because they fear they may burn bridges, or even get fired. While we can’t pretend to know what partners will do or think in every circumstance, the truth is that these outcomes are exceptionally unlikely.
It has been our experience that discussing your career goals with partners strengthens rather than weakens the personal relationships that can help you get what you want. People generally want to help you, but they can only do that if you ask.
3. How would you assess the strength of your reputation, professional network (allies) and goodwill at your current firm? What would it take to rebuild these at a new firm?
Good things take time. The BigLaw careers that we’ve enjoyed took many years to build. We didn’t luck into a good situation. We created it ourselves by playing The Long Game; by strategically deploying the leverage and goodwill that we had so carefully cultivated.
We sometimes wonder whether we would be able to recreate what we have now at another firm. We believe that we could because we’ve developed the skills required to steer our careers in the direction we want them to go. Skills such as breaking down limiting assumptions, reflecting on our values, acting with intention, advocating for ourselves, saving money, and others. But, despite what we’ve learned, we don’t believe we could recreate our situation elsewhere on day 1. Perhaps on day 1,000. The reason is that even with healthy habits, you still need leverage to get what you want.
Leverage doesn’t come easily in BigLaw. A strong work ethic and intelligence count for something, but these qualities are expected of every associate.
The true source of your leverage is not your intelligence or work ethic, but your reputation, relationships and goodwill. Cultivating these qualities takes time, and there’s really no shortcut. Even if you make a great first impression, reputations and relationships don’t form overnight. In our view, the biggest downside of lateraling is that you hit reset on these all-important ‘soft' factors. You start over.
So do you have a strong reputation, but something is missing? You may have more options that you think. Even good junior associates have more leverage than they realize. Partners are often willing to help good associates, but only if you ask. It is exceptionally unlikely that anyone will ever proactively come knock on your door with solutions. It’s not because people don’t care—they simply don’t know what your issues are unless you tell them. And don’t think to yourself: ‘But they see how much I’m billing, they should know I’m at a breaking point.’ Even the nicest people in BigLaw are busy. If you’re burned out, you have to tell them that you’re burned out and brainstorm a solution.
Think of it this way: you’re asking for a solution either way—you can either ask a new employer where you are unknown and unproven, or deploy your leverage to ask your existing employer who holds you in regard.
The inverse may be true if you don’t have the best relationships at your current firm, in which case lateraling may provide you with a valuable clean slate to start over and build goodwill. Sometimes the leverage you have in the hiring process at a new firm that needs you will be more than the leverage you have at your current firm if your relationships and reputation are weaker (but be careful here with untested assumptions!). You have to know where you stand.
4. Are you getting swept up by signing-bonus FOMO or recruiter hype?
BigLaw associates often think that they’re leaving money on the table if they don’t lateral. By now, we’ve all heard the stories about how in-demand senior associates are sometimes able to negotiate big signing bonuses (though these market dynamics are starting to turn). Amid all the hype, recruiters—who make $0 if you don’t move—also tend to ratchet up the pressure to move quickly before you miss out on this free money!
In our point of view, however, the signing-bonus money isn’t free. You pay a price, which is hitting reset on all the hard work you put into building your reputation, allies and goodwill at your current firm. If you are well liked where you are, then this may actually be a steep price.
Try to keep things in perspective: even the most generous signing bonuses are the equivalent of about 3 months’ worth of a BigLaw salary. While this is obviously a good chunk of money, its value is tiny when compared to the value of a longer-term BigLaw career.
From a wealth-maximization perspective, crafting a BigLaw job with firm but fair boundaries is often a lot more profitable because you will actually stay in BigLaw long enough to bank the seven figures (or your desired amount) rather than quit.
Thus, in our view, 3 months’ salary is typically not a good enough reason to abandon existing relationships and goodwill. These ‘soft' factors can be far more valuable. Leverage your reputation, goodwill and relationships to get a BigLaw career that meets your own specifications, and you’ll be happy earning BigLaw salaries for many years to come.
5. Are you so burned out that lateraling (with some time off between jobs) feels like the only way to catch a break?
Of late, BigLaw associates are so burned out that it’s become fairly common to lateral as a means of taking a stress- and guilt-free break between jobs. If this is the only (or main) reason why you’re lateraling, then you should hit the pause button.
Associates often say that it’s not possible for them to take a work-free vacation at their current firm. This often sounds like this:
’We’re so busy right now, I can’t abandon my team.’
‘So many people have quit, there’s no way I can find coverage.’
‘I have so much institutional knowledge on this matter, I don’t think it’s possible for someone else to cover for me.'
If you’re experiencing BigLaw burnout to the point where you feel like you can’t get any time off, then lateraling is almost certainly not your best option. In fact, if you’re working that hard then you probably have a lot of leverage and goodwill that you should deploy rather than torch. You don’t take any leverage with you when you leave.
Typically, better options than lateraling would be to (1) stand up for yourself, take the damn vacation and tell people you won’t have access to email during that time, and/or (2) ask for help from your mentors, supervisors or even HR, explaining that you’re looking for some changes. In this situation, lateraling is just a means to cut and run. But why abandon all that goodwill? Fear of standing up for yourself or asking for what you want isn’t a good enough reason.
It’s also worth reflecting on the fact that—while your partners and supervisors want you to work hard—they certainly don't want you to flame out and quit. On this point your interests and your firm’s interests are more aligned than you may realize. Retention problems are a massive hit to BigLaw’s bottom line. If you’re a good associate who is about to lateral, your firm would much rather you take an extended vacation (or a leave) and recharge than lose you entirely. Don’t sell yourself short!