In today’s dynamic legal market, it is possible to change jobs without leaving your desk. With the increasing pace of partner moves, practice group acquisitions, spin-off firms, and law firm mergers, you might find yourself working for a progression of different law firms, without making a job move personally. This can have an important impact on your career development, however, as each new law firm iteration may bring changes in culture, expectations, career paths, and opportunities.
Law firm mergers, practice group acquisitions and spin-offs, and lateral partner moves are well established trends in the legal marketplace. Last year the number of law firm mergers continued to rise. A 2006 follow-up study of lateral partner moves found that at least 72 of the 253 law firms surveyed in 1996 no longer existed, having been disbanded or acquired in the intervening decade. And, in each of the last five years, an average of 2321 partners moved laterally just within the largest 200 law firms in the United States. At the same time, both independently and as a result of the increasing mobility of lawyers, client loyalty has decreased, as well. Such movement has become a fact of life that must be dealt with over the course of your career.
If you are fortunate enough to get an offer of post-graduation permanent employment with the law firm of your dreams, you may discover that, by the time you complete your third year and graduate, study for and take the Bar exam, and start to work approximately a year later, the firm has completely changed. It could be that the attorneys you expected to work with have decamped for another law firm. Or, the firm has lost or gained major clients, deals, cases, or specific types of work. You may have accepted the offer, expecting to work in a particular area of practice, but find that the firm no longer has needs in that area. In all of those circumstances, you may be assigned to work in a different practice group, for different clients, or on different types of cases or matters. Or, you may be asked to join the attorneys you summered with at their new firm. Sometimes, these changes can be a blessing in disguise but, other times, you might be less than satisfied with your circumstances.
Or, you may have been happily billing prodigious numbers of hours and one day be surprised to learn that your department is moving en mass to another firm, spinning off to form a new firm, or your entire firm is being acquired by or merged into another. Sometimes this requires that you show up to work at a different location but, other times, physically, only the name on the door has changed. But, don’t let appearances fool you. Each time the firm changes, other important factors must be taken into account.
You used to know the rules of the game, but expectations may have changed. The new law firm incarnation may have an entirely different culture and priorities. There may be different billable hours requirements, partnership tracks, compensation structures, bonus and benefits programs, and attitudes towards pro bono work and business development activities. Changes in the firm structure may require that you report to different partners, or get your assignments through new channels. Furthermore, each firm may have preferred modes and styles of communication, which may require more than just learning new computer systems and passwords.
With any important change in your law firm’s landscape, the smart tactic is to keep a low profile until you’ve scoped out the true lay of the land. You want to discover any variations and nuances in the power structure and alliances, and which partners, practice areas and clients are most valued, or where any backwaters may lie. You want to adopt and adapt to any new styles and refrain from saying “this is the way we used to do it”.
Once you have settled into the situation, you may also want to take a look at how the new version of your firm fits into the legal marketplace as a whole and how it suits you in light of your personal and career goals. Ask yourself: Is the firm stronger financially? What is its reputation and stature in the legal community? Do the practice mix and billing rates lend themselves to the types of clients that I wish to service and want to pursue when I build my own book of business? Would I like to be a partner here and, if so, do I have a realistic shot? If you are comfortable with the answers to these and similar questions, hunker down and work hard. If not, polish your resume and look for a situation that suits you better.
One last note: When you update your resume, make sure that it reflects the fact that your firm changed around you; you did not change jobs. In other words, explain on the resume that you followed a partner or group to a new firm, or your firm disbanded, merged, was acquired, or spun off from the previous firm. You can include the various firm names in one entry if, indeed, it was not a job move on your part. You want to minimize the appearance of being a job-hopper, when it really was a case of “same job, different firm.”