Thinking sideways

Thinking sideways: Lateral moves can be just the career boost you need

  • January 30, 2017
  • Julie Sobowale

Have you ever been more or less satisfied with your job, and dissatisfied all at the same time? That’s what Adrienne Boudreau experienced as a litigation associate. Even though she enjoyed the work and the people, she felt a need for a change. In March 2015, Boudreau left McMillan to work as a senior litigation associate in class actions and commercial litigation at Sotos LLP. 

“I wanted to have a practice focus,” says Boudreau. “I needed a better ROI for my hard work. Sotos offered me the best opportunity to focus and build my practice. At my new firm I found people who shared my values and a place that was the right size for me.”

Lateral hiring is a way for law firms to get experienced talent into their firm and for young lawyers to have an added boost in their career. Finding the right position can be difficult but well worth it for young lawyers looking for a change in their careers.

Law firms look for experienced associates largely due to a need in the market or an opportunity to strengthen a growing practice group. Matt Rosenberg, a director at Lateral Link, a legal recruiting firm, says that young lawyers looking to go to the U.S. will have a more difficult time.

“The three things firms look for are grades, school and experience,” says Rosenberg, who specializes in recruiting Canadian lawyers. “In the U.S., grades are more important than the school you attended, while in Canada school carries more weight. This hasn't always been the case in the U.S. For more mid-level associates, experience is most important and (a) young lawyer’s pedigree carries a lot of weight.”

When thinking about switching firms, the first step is to think about where you are in your career. Associates are most attractive for lateral hires between three to five years, because they have experience and have built a practice.

Finding a new job takes time and effort so you’ll want to be sure what you’re looking for – and that can be harder than you’d think. Sometimes you’re too busy in a stressful environment to even know where to begin in a job search. Hilary Clarke, founder and lead coach of Potentia, a firm that provides business and career development coaching and consulting services to lawyers and law firms, recommends taking some time out to reflect on your career.

“The first thing you should do is reflect on what job you want,” says Clarke. “What do you do like to do and not do? What type of work do you want, what type of client, industry, etc? You don’t want to apply for a position as a construction litigator if you are not interested in the construction process or you don't like going to court.  You also want a job that will give you the lifestyle you desire.”

Clarke suggests doing a thorough evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Go through your past assessments and consider what your goals are.

“I often hear from lawyers that they don't know what they want,” says Clarke. “You need to do research and experiment. If you think you might be interested in real estate, speak to a real estate lawyer about their practice and offer to help out on a real estate transaction. Put your toe in.”

After figuring out what you want, it’s time to make a plan. Running a law practice leaves little time to look for a job. Have clear goals with deadlines, and if you find it hard to set up a structured search, a coach can help – not least by holding you accountable for executing the plan.

 “Change can be a bit challenging but it enables many lawyers to come into their own,” says Clarke.

The key to being an attractive candidate for the job is experience. Law firms are looking for young associates who have experience on files, can be quickly integrated into the firm and cost little to train.

 “A young lawyer stands out through having the largest responsibility on files,” says Rosenberg. “Get as much drafting experience as you can get and do everything you can in talking to the client. You want to illustrate that you worked on more deals than your counterpart and that you’re trained. Firms don’t want to invest too much in training laterals. If you’re getting this type of experience at this stage in your career, you’re doing good work.”

Switching law firms can be tricky, especially when it’s time to leave your old firm. Give yourself and your firm ample time for the transition.

“Once you get the job, exit well,” says Boudreau. “You’re going to inconvenience your colleagues by giving them your case load and they may already be overloaded. I made sure to tie things up as much as possible.”

Now it’s time to dive into your new firm culture but don’t worry if it doesn’t immediately feel like a good fit – full integration usually takes up to one year. The key is to make a good first impression. Boudreau make a clear plan to learn about the staff and firm culture at her new firm.

“I made it a priority to meet everybody at the firm and integrate,” says Boudreau. “It’s a new place and a different culture so I decided I wasn’t going to insist on doing everything the same way I did before. No one wants to work with someone who keeps saying ‘we did it this way at this other firm’.”

Lateral hiring creates great opportunities for young lawyers to restart their legal career but only you know when’s the right time to make a move. 

“The bottom line is you need to be happy with your work. If you’re not happy, it’s time to move,” says Rosenberg. “It can take six months to a year, but there can be a time when it’s time to move.”

Julie Sobowale is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink.

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