Is the Grass Really Greener? Evaluating a Move at the Senior Level

Is the Grass Really Greener? Evaluating a Move at the Senior Level

It's the age-old question: Is the grass really greener on the other side of the fence? In the early years of an attorney's career, enhanced partnership potential, more money, better training, or a preference for a particular type of practice are important considerations in evaluating a career move. However, as an attorney's career develops, and rainmaking potential becomes increasingly important, other factors come to the fore. Assessing a potential move on the basis of its effect on your ability to attract and service clients is crucial. Experienced attorneys contemplating a move need to think about the "s-word"-synergy. We hear that word quite a bit these days, but what, exactly, is it? Strictly speaking, synergy means "working together", where the total effect is greater than the sum of the individual parts. How does one evaluate synergy?

Often, attorneys join forces in order to take advantage of economies of scale, shared expenses, and streamlined administration. For some attorneys managing their own firms, an opportunity to turn over the day-to-day business aspects and thus focusing on rainmaking efforts and the actual practice of law, is very attractive.

In this competitive environment, joint marketing and cross-selling also are important considerations when making a career move. Moving your practice to join lawyers who have clients you can service, or who can service your existing clients, can be an effective way to increase revenues without having to find new clients. Simply having colleagues with expertise in areas outside your specialty will allow you to keep business that you previously would have referred out. And, "double teaming", or joint marketing with your new colleagues may prove more cost-effective and successful than your previous business development efforts. Clients often like one-stop shopping.

Some attorneys find it advantageous to move to a larger law firm to achieve "critical mass". Bigger firms generally have more visibility and an attendant aura of credibility. A larger organization has the advantage of being perceived as a "major player"-and success breeds success. The bigger firms tend to serve a larger, more diverse client base, and have the capability to provide their clients with more services. Often, larger corporate clients are more comfortable dealing with larger law firms; they give the bigger deals to bigger firms in the belief that a smaller one cannot properly staff the matter. Furthermore, in this increasingly global business environment, a law firm with more offices spread across the country and around the globe often are called upon to service the needs of clients with far-flung operations. It's a matter of following the clients around the world, so you are there when and where they need you. And, finally, a larger law firm has a bigger pool of talent, with varying perspectives, which can be an advantage in seeking innovative solutions to complex legal problems.

On the other hand, there may be some downsides to joining a larger law firm. A significant negative, from your clients' point of view, is that big firms usually have higher and more inflexible billing rates. Also, above a certain size, law firms can have reverse economies of scale. For example, a law firm of 50 or fewer lawyers is not expected to have a full library or round-the-clock production capability, while a law firm of 100 or more attorneys is expected to have those more expensive services. Furthermore, the larger the firm and its client base, the more potential for conflicts with one or more of your clients.

Regardless of firm size, staffing, support, and financial compatibility (beyond your compensation package itself) are other important considerations when contemplating a move. Will your new firm have associates or paralegals available to assist you with the less sophisticated work? Is there sufficient secretarial support for your type of practice? Is there flexibility in staffing matters? Is it possible to offer blended billing rates in order to be more competitive? Often, it makes good business sense to leverage partner, associate, and paralegal time. Additionally, in determining your financial compatibility, it is important to look at factors such as the balance of hourly versus contingency work, billing rates, typical hours worked and billed, business generation requirements, and-last but certainly not least-compensation structures, levels, and expectations.

Of course, non-economic issues are extremely important as well. You must evaluate the fit between you and the prospective firm in terms of practice, clients and potential conflicts. Common values matter; attitudes regarding attorney credentials, pro bono and community involvement, and long-term goals should be investigated. Most importantly, can you live with these people? Are they like family? What is the firm's culture and personality?

You also must evaluate your long-term career goals, and make an assessment whether your chances of achieving them are enhanced by the move to a new firm. What kind of career growth opportunity is available at the prospective firm? Will you have the chance to head a group, open a new office or practice area, or take on a more visible role in the legal community?

Economic, career development, values, and cultural "fit" factors give you much to consider when trying to determine whether the grass truly is greener on the other side of the fence. In our many years of experience in legal placement, we have seen that, often, it is. Rather than merely fleeing an unsatisfactory situation, a well-thought out move can make all the difference in terms of career satisfaction and success.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie is a member the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) and serves on its Ethics Committee.
Valerie Fontaine

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