There was a time when becoming a partner at a law firm meant that you would stay until death or retirement. But over the last few decades, that has changed.
Partners now work for firms more as free agents than lawyers immutably bound to the firm.
This isn’t just a question of partners wanting to move; almost all firms now see adding lateral partners as a vital component of their growth strategy. So not only is it now acceptable for partners to switch firms, but firms also rely on these moves for survival.
If you are daydreaming about packing your briefcase, book of business, and casebooks and making a lateral move to a new law firm, you are not alone. Studies show that 56% of lawyers are unhappy with their careers.
The good news is that according to the 2020 Major, Lindsey & Africa Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey, 86.2% of lateral partners were happy with the move. 79.8% reported that they would still move to their current firm if they had to do it again. And 66.6% of laterals increased their originations since joining the new firm.
In my years helping rainmakers find their exact right perfect-fit law firm, I’ve encountered no shortage of different circumstances leading lawyers to decide to make the jump to a new firm. Every partner’s set of reasons for making a lateral move are unique. However, there are a few common factors that tend to crop up.
If you’re unsure whether your lateral move daydream is something you should consider further, understanding these common reasons other rainmakers have chosen to pursue a change may help guide your decision-making. In this post, I go through the top 5 reasons law firm partners make a lateral move, both according to the MLA study and my experience.
After reading this post, you may be one step closer to that new corner office at your exact right, perfect fit firm.
Reason 1: Lack of confidence in firm management/strategy
In the MLA Satisfaction survey, 44% of respondents said they left their former firm because they lacked confidence in its management and strategy.
This often looks like firms are unwilling to move into new geographies, industries, or practice areas.
Suppose you are a partner in Salt Lake City with clients that need support in Atlanta, and your firm does not have representation in Atlanta and is unwilling to fix the situation. In that case, this can make supporting your clients impossible.
Or if you are interested in exploring new industries such as Cannabis or start-ups and your firm takes a much more conservative stance and is unwilling to explore these industries, that can be an issue.
Also, the opposite can be true: perhaps you think moving into riskier industries is a bad idea while your firm is gung-ho on the concept and forcing you into issues you’d rather not tackle.
Practice area can be an issue when your client needs support in a practice area that your firm cannot and will not offer. This ends up impacting your ability to serve a client and limits the origination credit that you can earn.
Many other strategic decisions can affect a partner’s practice, including hourly rates and staffing decisions, cross-marketing initiatives, and investment in business development support.
The question to ask yourself is how aligned you are with the firm’s decisions.
Reason 2: Lack of support to build a practice
This is one of the most common complaints that we come across when we work with rainmaking partners.
According to the MLA satisfaction survey, 35% of partners leave because they lack support. The problem is that they can only serve their clients or build their practice with associates, staff support, and marketing support.
There are only so many hours in the day, and if you are stuck writing every brief or changing the toner in the printer (true story), you are not out developing business and supporting your clients.
As an associate, the value you bring to a firm is the time you can bill and the hours you put into the business. But as a rainmaking partner, the value you provide is the business you bring in so that others do the work. Often partners cannot make that transition, or the firms don’t support partners with the staff they need to make that transition.
If you find yourself working nights and weekends, both bringing in the business and doing the work, know that others have faced the same challenge, and this is one of the top reasons partners make a move. Other firms will support you; you don’t have to do it all.
Reason 3: Don’t like the firm’s culture
If you don’t like the people you work with or the culture you work within, you will often dread returning to the office. This was third in the MLA study, with 31% of respondents citing culture as their reason to move.
One way to think of it is that some people prefer a competitive eat-what-you-kill environment, while others prefer a more collaborative approach.
But culture can be more subtle as well. Maybe you don’t like the people you work with or how they work.
Sometimes a firm does everything to support its partners, but it is the wrong support for you.
One example is someone at a firm that agreed not to work from 5-7 in the evening so that they could have dinner with the family and take care of the kids. After the break, they’d all jump back on Zoom and work through the evening.
That was great for everyone except one of the lawyers, who didn’t have kids but wanted to get married and have them, so he needed to date. He would have much rather worked those two hours to go on a date later and maybe, someday, end up with a family.
The point is: that there is no right culture; there is only a right culture for you. If you aren’t happy where you are, then there is another culture that will be a fit. And finding that fit is a principal reason partners leave.
Reason 4: Compensation
People are often surprised that compensation isn’t the top reason lawyers leave, but it is undoubtedly in the top five. According to the MLA report, 31% of lateral partners leave for better compensation.
Truthfully the other top reasons are related to compensation: if you don’t have the support, you can’t grow your practice. You can’t grow your practice if the firm’s strategy is wrong.
But some things directly impact your compensation, and one of the most common complaints is origination credit. Often newer partners end up doing the work to bring in business from a client, while the origination credit goes to the partner who initially brought the client to the firm decades earlier.
We’ve even worked with candidates whose clients tell them to move firms because the clients themselves think the compensation structure is unfair to the lawyer who solves their problems.
There is an infinite variety of compensation structures– if your firm’s compensation structure doesn’t work for you, we can find one that does.
Reason 5: Firm’s financial health
According to MLA, 22% of lateral partners switch due to their current firm’s financial health.
A law firm is a business, and business decisions will impact your ability to serve clients and your earning potential.
Bad decisions include taking on too much risk, expanding too quickly, or perhaps overpaying partners and underpaying associates.
I’ve seen aging partners starve a firm of resources to pay themselves. Or management that may burden a firm with debt or assets that don’t generate a return.
Several financial decisions can impact a firm’s viability, and if you question your firm’s financial health, it may be time to move.
These aren’t all the reasons.
There are as many reasons to leave as there are partners who go. Other causes include client conflicts, age or succession issues, gender discrimination, and more.
Ultimately if you are unhappy at your current firm, whatever the reason, it is not only acceptable to consider making a switch; it is expected.
You are a rainmaking partner, so you should be happy with your firm. If you’re at your perfect-fit law firm, you should stay there. But if not, you deserve a work environment that fulfills and nurtures you, and you deserve to enjoy practicing law again.
If you are ready to move, let’s schedule a time to discuss the future.