In today’s dynamic legal market, it’s possible to change jobs without leaving your desk—whether your desk is at home or in a commercial office building, or both, depending upon the day. 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. Law firm merger activity increased over the past several years and the trend is expected to continue. Meanwhile, a growing number of law firms are being disbanded or acquired, disappearing from the legal landscape altogether.
Lateral partner movement also is up, even in a period when inflation and uncertainty about a coming recession were expected to slow firms’ hiring efforts. Increasingly, we’re seeing large groups of lawyers moving between firms en masse. Such constant movement has become a fact that must be dealt with over the course of your career.
Changes around you
If you were fortunate enough to get an offer of post-graduation employment with the law firm of your dreams, you may have discovered that, by the time you completed your third year and graduated, studied for and took the Bar exam, and started to work approximately a year later, the firm completely changed. If, for example, the attorneys you summered with and expected to work with come fall decamped for another law firm in the meantime, you may have been asked to join them at their new firm or find a new “home” within the firm.
Perhaps you accepted the offer, expecting to work in a particular area of practice, but the market changed or the firm lost or gained major clients, deals, cases, or specific types of work, and the firm no longer has a need in that practice area. You may be assigned to work in a different practice group, for different clients, or on different types of cases or matters.
Or you could be billing prodigious numbers of hours at your firm 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.
What really changed?
Sometimes these changes require that you show up to work at a different location but, other times, physically, there’s just a new name on the door. But don’t let appearances fool you. Each time the firm changes, other crucial 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. Differences 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 necessitate learning more than just new computer systems and passwords.
Assess the circumstances
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.”
These changes can be a blessing in disguise but, other times, you might be less than satisfied with your new circumstances. Once you’ve settled into the situation, you may also want to take a look at how the latest 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 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’re 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 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.”