Lawyer Transitions: Money Isn’t Everything

Lawyer Transitions: Money Isn't Everything

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
August 2, 2010

The legal job market is waking from its doldrums brought on by the recession. In the optimistic hope that this means more lawyers will be able to land a job -- if not the dream job, at least one that moves them one step closer -- we are presenting a series of articles aimed at helping you through the transition of your career move. We will cover various aspects of assessing and negotiating offers, juggling multiple offers (if you are lucky!), handling counter-offers, giving notice, gracefully leaving your old job (if you have one), and settling in to your new environment.


Money should not be the primary motive in making a career move, but it is often an important factor. With the legal press reporting salary information, and the advent of such blogs as "Above the Law" and their ilk, expectations can run wild. Coverage in the legal press skews towards the larger firms in major cities, however, and does not reflect reality for the vast majority of lawyers who work outside those parameters. Moreover, even Big Law salaries shrank during the belt-tightening of the past few years.

Astronomical salary figures may also not be as attractive in reality as they first appear. As compensation goes up, so must billable hours in order to generate the funds to pay those inflated salaries. Once the hoopla over money has died down, you are left with the realities of the job.

Therefore, when contemplating a change, look beyond the salary negotiations and focus on the opportunity itself. Evaluate the non-monetary aspects of each situation, especially career growth and business development potential. The best offer overall may not be the one with the highest current economic value. Consider the potential move for what it has to offer in terms of future challenge, training, exposure to a broader or more sophisticated practice, variety of work, more responsibility, chemistry with your new colleagues, the ability to attract and better serve clients, stability and growth of the organization, and a more balanced lifestyle.

How does the opportunity align with your long-term career goals? Sometimes trading top dollar for other considerations can lead to higher earning power later on. Ideally, a move should make career sense first and economic sense second.


Besides the opportunity to earn more money, in the early years of an attorney's career, enhanced partnership potential, better training, or a preference for a particular type of practice are important considerations in evaluating a career move. If your ultimate goal is to move in-house, consider not only where you will best develop the relevant skills, but also whether a firm will allow you to build relationships with firm clients who may want to bring you in-house down the road.

As an attorney's career develops, and rainmaking potential becomes increasingly important, other factors may take precedence. Assessing a potential move based on its effect on your ability to attract and service clients is crucial. 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 focus 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 to another firm. Moreover, "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 often have more visibility and an attendant aura of credibility. 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 is 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. 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. Furthermore, 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 and financial compatibility, there 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 administrative 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, alternative fee arrangements, typical hours worked and billed, and business generation requirements.


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?


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, develop a broader practice or, conversely, a specialized expertise, or take on a more visible role in the legal community? Rather than merely fleeing an unsatisfactory situation, a well-thought out move can make all the difference in terms of career satisfaction and success.


Read articles in the "Lawyer Transitions" series:

  1. Lawyer Transitions: Money Isn't Everything
  2. Lawyer Transitions: The Art of Negotiation
  3. Lawyer Transitions: Talking About Compensation
  4. Lawyer Transitions: What's on the Negotiating Table?
  5. Lawyer Transitions: Figuring Out Multiple Offers
  6. Lawyer Transitions: Giving Notice Without Burning Bridges
  7. Lawyer Transitions: Encountering Counteroffers
  8. Lawyer Transitions: It's Time to Go
  9. Lawyer Transitions: How to Succeed in Your New Job