Newly minted law firm associates are a bit like babes in the wood as they enter the big, vast world of all that is legal. So an associate’s first job is instrumental in shaping his/her work product, legal approach, attitude, professional relationships and overall experience in the profession. For some, this experience is positive: intellectually stimulating, fun and filled with great colleagues and high quality mentors. For others, it’s simply miserable. The misery can creep in slowly or hit a professional like a ton of bricks, but either way, it’s not a healthy or sustainable situation. And for those in this situation, the best strategy is to plot your next move and find the nearest exit…sooner rather than later.
But what if your tenure with the firm is short? Will leaving so soon compromise your career? Or should you stick it out longer in order to avoid red flags?
Leaving your first job within a year isn’t an ideal scenario, but it’s not a career death sentence either. Today, lawyers are more mobile than ever and change jobs for good reasons in the majority of cases. So employers are socialized around the more frequent movement among lawyers.
Determining whether to stay or go…regardless of your tenure is a balance of several factors which include: the severity of your unhappiness, your financial situation, how long you’ve been in your role, how many moves you’ve had prior to this job, whether legal/ethical issues exist, how much career “lift” you’re receiving from the role etc.
In your situation, you are a new associate in your first legal job and you are in an unhealthy environment that is tainting your experience and compromising your career development. And…you are miserable.
So my advice is to leave and seek another position that checks the boxes. If you cannot afford to leave without another job, create a search strategy and execute until you have found another position.
Leaving before your first year anniversary will raise a question as to the circumstances of your departure, but it won’t create irreparable career harm. In fact, when employers see a short stint, they assume there’s a story surrounding the situation and are open to learn more.
In an interview dynamic, it’s almost certain an employer will inquire about your reasons for seeking greener pastures. When the topic arises, take the high road and do not disparage your soon-to-be former employer. Because no matter how bad things are, nobody likes a trash-talker. With this said, there’s no need to paint a rosy picture either. You can tell truths and still be diplomatic – and a savvy hiring manager will read between the lines. Below are a few examples:
Employer: “So why are you looking to leave your firm after such a short period of time?”
- Candidate#1: “Since I started at Firm XYZ, I have received good training and a lot of responsibility as a first year associate – and I appreciate that. But the firm culture isn’t a good fit for me. So I’m looking for a firm that is more aligned with what will make me happy.”
- Candidate #2: “I’ve learned a lot since joining the firm, but I believe it’s an environment where there will be challenges as I try to develop as a lawyer. I understand how important my first years as an associate are, so I’d like to join a great firm now so I can continue to grow.”
- Candidate #3: “I really enjoy a small firm environment and believe it provides a great opportunity to learn quickly and take on more responsibilities. However, the culture in my current firm doesn’t align with my values. So I’m seeking to move now in order to improve this aspect of my work environment.”
- Candidate #4: “I know it’s somewhat unusual to want to move within a year of joining a new firm. However, I want to work hard, contribute and learn as much as I can as a new associate and I don’t believe my firm’s culture is supportive of that. So from a development perspective, I think it’s best that I make the move now and join a firm that can help me achieve my goals.”
No two law firms are created equal. Each one falls on different points of the employer spectrum. So as a new lawyer entering the field, it’s important to choose your first employer wisely. But that’s much easier said than done – as information can surface after the fact that can necessitate a change of scenery. And that’s ok. You have a long career ahead of you with many great experiences…and challenges that will make you a better lawyer and person. This seemingly false start, while early in your tenure with the firm is a blip on the career screen if you view it as such and put it in the rearview mirror quickly… with confidence and grace.