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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

January 10, 2017
Question

I’m a 12th year corporate associate/of counsel with no partnership or business development prospects. What are my career options?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

The life of a law firm associate in today’s market is far from easy. And the more senior a lawyer becomes, the more important a portable book of business is. The absence of “a book of business” creates significant career risk – as it minimizes job security and compromises marketability for future law firm opportunities.

So what are the options for lawyers who find themselves in this situation? Below are a few:

A Move In House.

The in house market remains quite active – and overall desire for general corporate lawyers is fairly strong. So in house opportunities exist. The most highly sought after seniority range is 5-8 years of experience, but some companies will consider more senior lawyers if compensation and title are acceptable-and the other boxes are checked. As a 12th year law firm of counsel, you will encounter three primary challenges if you pursue this path: (1) Your lack of prior in house experience; (2) You may be perceived as too expensive given your law firm status; and (3) Some employers may believe that as a senior law firm lawyer, you will have too much difficulty acclimating to an in house environment. But all three objections can be overcome…if you’re prepared. Other factors that play a role in the ease or difficulty of an in house move include your credentials, quality of your current law firm experience, your geographic region, your level of proactivity in networking and applying for in house positions, your interview preparation and personal presentation.

Another Law Firm.

For a 12th year lawyer seeking to move to another law firm, the overwhelming majority of law firms will require a demonstrated ability to build a practice. $500k-$750k will be a typical minimum book requirement for a viable candidacy, but some firms will consider a lower book depending on a candidate’s seniority, credentials, business generation history, quality of the business plan and how much corporate work the firm current generates. If you have zero business, you might still have a few options depending on the type/quality of your expertise and credentials as well as your flexibility on compensation and seniority. Options could include: (1) A large international firm with a robust corporate practice that needs local capability/presence; (2) A firm that needs a service lawyer with a niche practice; and (3) A local/regional firm with a good corporate practice and many partners close to retirement (heir apparent and young blood needed).

Project Based Firms/Organizations.

If you’re being managed out and want/need work quickly, project based organizations can help bridge the gap. A few examples include FLEX by Fenwick, Paragon and Axiom. There are several others so make your list and pursue accordingly.

A Non-Legal Position.

If you’ve had it with the law, pursuing a non-legal path might be the right move for you. Your easiest transition will come tethered to the profession including: law firm marketing, recruiting, HR or other administrative roles.

Back To School.

If you can swing it financially, earning your LLM or MBA might be appealing (the better the school, the more marketable you will be upon graduation). This move will allow you to build new skills, enhance/diversify your network and create more employment options come graduation time.

Stay Put.

If your job is secure in your current firm…but you want to preserve future law firm options, use any billable hours void and dedicate the time and effort to developing your business development acumen. How? First, identify why you haven’t had any traction building a client base. Then, seek assistance to improve: engage a career coach, take classes, attend seminars, study articles, read books, speak with rainmakers you know. In addition, if the opportunity presents itself, strive to learn a new practice area and help out where help is needed. Diversifying your practice could open your options to more in house opportunities.

Retool.

Explore whether you might have the option to transition to a group within your current firm with a practice that is more marketable for in house roles such as privacy, technology/IP transactions or compliance. If you do, consider retooling your practice. You’ll have to take a cut in seniority and likely money, but the new skills will tee you up nicely for a future in house move should you so choose.

Your current situation may have you feeling anxious and fearful about your career. And while not every door will be open as you pursue your next chapter, options do exist that can move you forward. The key is to identify what appeals to you most and then cast a fairly wide net to create options. Once you do, you’ll have more confidence ability to walk through the door that fits best.

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Comments

Julie, as usual, your post is cogent and concise. I do, however, want to add one thing. If you have grown close with a recruiter over the years, call that person. We sometimes (admittedly not often) have law firm openings for senior associate lawyers with no business. A precise skill set is sought. (My current search like that is for M&A with VC preferred.) In situations like that, you can expect to work very hard for excellent pay.

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