Gone are the days when it is assumed that an attorney will join a law firm out of school, work as an associate for a given number of years, make partner, and retire from that same firm many years later. While it has become the norm to make some moves during the course of a legal career, how many moves make you a job hopper as opposed to a candidate with a strategic career plan? Although there is more tolerance for career moves these days, prospective employers remain wary of candidates who move too often. Candidates who have more than a few jobs on their resumes are viewed as demonstrating a lack of commitment or judgment. With the high costs of recruitment and training, prospective employers are looking to hire candidates who have a track record of staying on the job for a reasonable period of time.
So, what are some strategies to handle the issue of job-hopping on your resume and in an interview? First and foremost, always tell the truth. However, there are ways to present the moves in a favorable light. On your resume, note if you followed a partner or group from one firm to another, or if you joined a spin-off of your original firm. If possible, group these firms together in one entry, noting the dates and changes in names, thus visually reducing the appearance of many jobs. A relocation, new office of the same firm, or acquisition, can also be drafted on your resume to look like one job. The truth is that it is one job.
Another resume strategy is to describe your expertise in a single paragraph, followed by a list of firms with the dates of employment, rather than describing your practice separately under each firm. And, yes, you always need to include the dates you worked at each firm. If you had a career before law, you can separate your work history into "legal employment" and "other employment". We sometimes recommend that you list clerkships and internships held during school as activities under your law school rather than under your employment history, to further minimize the appearance of having held many jobs. Moreover, any clerkship or summer associate position that led to a permanent employment should be listed in the same entry as the permanent position.
On an interview, it is imperative to have reasonable, non-defensive, explanations for each move. In addition to a firm dissolving or following other attorneys to another firm, acceptable reasons include: a geographical move, following a spouse or life-partner, seeking increased responsibility/training in a new area, an economic slowdown in a particular geographic area or practice, avoiding a client conflict or needing a different "platform" to better serve clients' needs (i.e.: a firm with more resources, geographic coverage, different practice capabilities), or positioning for a better chance at partnership/promotion. Avoid over-stressing the financial benefits of your moves, however, because it may lead to concerns that you will move again just as soon as another dollar is offered. You want to assure a prospective employer of your loyalty.
Never speak negatively about a prior employer; always couch your explanation in terms of moving toward a better opportunity rather than away from an untenable situation. While it is acceptable to mention a downturn in practice, high turnover, or the exodus of key partners at a prior firm in a matter-of-fact manner, avoid discussing personality conflicts or other problems in your previous employment. A defensive attitude or too many negative comments can give rise to the concern that you are difficult to get along with, not a team player, or that your work is not up to snuff. It also might arouse the concern that you will seize the opportunity to share your prospective employer's dirty laundry should you join the firm and then decide to change jobs again in the future.
Be proactive; emphasize the positive aspects of your career moves. In an interview, communicate what you accomplished and any contributions you made (such as business or practice development) at each previous position. Describe the broad range and depth of your experience, and your ability to adapt and thrive in new environments. Package your moves as a pattern of strategic moves; note that with each move you bettered yourself, increased your skills, took on more responsibility, and thus have become more valuable to the prospective employer. Discuss how your combination of skills will be of value in the position for which you are interviewing. Offer writing samples or a list of representative transactions, along with a list of references. A strong reference from a partner at each of your previous employers will be critical to bolstering your candidacy and alleviating any concerns regarding your moves. (Thus, it is important to leave each job on amicable terms. See: Making a Graceful Exit.)
With today's "free agent" attitude in the legal marketplace, staying at the same firm for most of your career can be almost as suspect as moving too often. If you are interviewing after having been at one firm for many years, explain how your career has progressed. Prospective employers wonder whether you were challenged to grow and develop as a lawyer. Are you a go-getter, or are you afraid to take risks? Are you too comfortable and out of touch with the marketplace? Even partnership no longer is forever. A certain amount of strategic movement is almost expected and sometimes even required for a successful career. The trick is not to be perceived merely as a job-hopper, but to show that you've made the right moves to reach your career goals.