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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 30, 2016

I’m an associate at a top law firm and a few partners are leaving to start their own firm. If I join them, will the lack of brand recognition hurt my career?

Julie Q. Brush

Being a lawyer at a prestigious law firm has its career perks. And a good brand is one of them. Being tethered to a high quality law firm/organization can project a variety of professional qualities about you to the world: You’re smart, you’re successful, you have good experience, you’re a hard worker, you have a good personality…you’re a winner. And these are assumptions employers often make when they see a resume with celebrity status. So top brand affiliation can provide a candidate with a competitive advantage in the market. Given this, can a move from a top ranked law firm to an unknown actually hurt a career? In some circumstances, the move can create added challenges…depending on your goals, whereas other situations won’t be as impacted. So what key factors can influence this impact in your situation?

Are The Exiting Partners “Marquee” Names?

While the new firm may not have the cache brand to start, high profile partners will give credibility and status to the new venture. This will mitigate the potential anonymity that concerns you. With this said, those reviewing your candidacy who are unfamiliar with these key legal players won’t be swayed by what they can’t appreciate.

Do You Have A Choice?

Sometimes when a group of partners leave a firm, the entire practice specialty goes with them. And the associates who do not accompany the group are often left twisting in the wind. If this is your situation…and you have a choice, bear in mind that staying at your current firm involves risk and your days could be numbered.

Your Goals.

If you want to preserve your options to move back to a premium law firm, the lack of firm brand identity could hurt your marketability. Why? Because hiring partners care about good credentials. And if they are unfamiliar with your new firm, they will wonder about the reasons for your descent from the mountaintop and fill in the blanks with something negative. There are mitigating factors in this scenario such as great law school credentials, the quality of your previous firm and the understanding that your move to your new platform was with a group of former [Top Law Firm] partners.

If rainmaking is your goal, a move to a smaller, lesser-known firm won’t necessarily impede your ability to bring in business…if you possess the rainmaking chops. In addition, smaller firms can be more flexible when it comes to billing rates and fee structures – a big plus for GCs seeking outside counsel. Finally, a smaller firm could be the ideal refuge for a company who wants to avoid conflicts.

If you envision an in house move in your future, the negative impact of a less-branded law firm won’t be substantial – particularly given your prior premium firm experience. Challenges do exist; however for those unfamiliar with the legal profession (administrators, HR professionals, some business execs) who apply filters that include “top” firms only. But the in house hiring apparatus will place far more value on the quality of your relevant experience. So if your new firm can provide great work with great clients, your marketability for an in house move can be maintained.

The Happiness Factor.

Working with terrific people is essential to career happiness. So if this new opportunity will provide job satisfaction and fulfillment to boot, it’s a positive factor that should weigh heavily in your decision.

The Resume and LinkedIn.

Finally, including an opening sentence on your resume and LinkedIn profile regarding your move with ex-premium law firm partners will help preserve brand quality and put your mind at ease. For example, “Asked to join new firm formed by former Davis Polk & Wardwell partners” or “Boutique Firm founded by former Skadden Arps partners…”

Leaving a top-ranked law firm for the unknown waters of a new venture is a big decision. And decreased brand identity is an important factor to consider as it relates to future career marketability. How it will impact your situation will depend on a thoughtful analysis of the above. So determine the effect it will have for you and then go with your gut.

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