A common situation we see as legal recruiters is law firm partners looking to make a change for the wrong reasons. You may not expect to hear this from a headhunter but most of the candidates we speak with about moving to a new firm, say they are not satisfied with their present firm. However, when we ask further questions, we usually find that they haven’t drilled deeply into their problems or tried to improve what they don’t like at their current firm. That seems to be the case even more so now compared to the past few years. There is significant competition for partners right now and they are being wooed with generous offers of compensation and other support to build their practice. However, if you’re thinking of a move before you take the leap, we recommend that you consider the questions discussed in this article and how you may be able to get what you want by influencing your current firm to make changes. If you don’t succeed, then you’re still better armed with the knowledge of exactly what you want from a new firm.
Why Are Law Firm Partners Changing Firms?
Last year, demand and rates for legal services increased significantly over 2020 and reached new highs compared to the 2010s. Thomson Reuters’ third quarter Peer Monitor Index reported that on average, legal demand was up 4.4% over 2020, while rates were up 3.7%. However, some of the good news was negated by rising legal expenses driven largely by high salaries in the war for talent. Many attorneys are taking advantage of the hiring frenzy to move to a new firm or in-house position.
According to Thomson Reuters, the average turnover at midsize law firms was 10.9%, and 15.0% at Am Law 100 firms. While the high salaries being offered certainly is contributing to turnover, it is not the only reason. Thanks to shifts in how lawyers have been working in the last two years, issues like remote work and job flexibility are becoming factors. Associate complaints about compensation, work-life balance, training, and other issues are also a problem for partners. The more associates leave, the harder it becomes to provide quality client service, so partners want to move to another firm that is focused on retention issues.
While everyone would like to make more money, it is clear that compensation is not and should not be the sole driving force in switching to a new job. The work environment plays a major role in job satisfaction and that environment is affected by how firms actually operate on a day-to-day basis. While those taking part in the “Great Resignation” are often getting more money, leaving a job should not just be about compensation. Law firm partners, in particular, have a lot at stake and a decision to change firms should only be made after carefully assessing their current situation and whether switching legal jobs is best for them and their clients. So, what could you do to help your team?
Is Your Current Firm the Right Place for You?
The first step in considering a job change is deciding whether your firm is a good fit for you and what opportunities may exist to make it better. Before taking the leap, it is important to consider several key questions.
Can you practice law effectively at the firm? Your firm’s management and strategy should support your practice, so ask yourself: Does the structure of your firm allow you to work efficiently? Are associates and staff treated well and properly trained so you can focus on business development and high-value work? Are you compensated fairly? How much control do you have over your work environment, hours, and compensation? Do you have the ability to build your practice in a manner that you feel is best? Have you been given the resources to grow your practice to its full potential?
Does your firm’s culture fit with your personal philosophy, mission, and goals? “Culture” is difficult to define. Typically, it encompasses how a firm treats members and employees as reflected by things like compensation structure, workload demands, job flexibility, business development and training opportunities, time off, and the like. Importantly, a firm’s culture is what it actually does, not what it claims to do. Are the work expectations, compensation, and values of the firm in line with your own? Even if you are generally satisfied with the culture for yourself, is it adversely impacting associates and staff, such that your firm is experiencing high turnover?
Is Your Current Firm Right for Your Clients and Prospects?
The next step in deciding on a job change is considering your clients’ (and potential clients’) best interests. No matter how much you like your current firm, you also have to weigh how staying affects your ability to provide the legal services your clients and prospects want. Accordingly, ask yourself the following questions.
Does the firm’s culture fit with the needs of clients and prospects? As with examining whether your firm’s culture fits with your values and goals, it is important to consider how the firm’s actual practices are affecting clients and prospects. For example, is the firm unwilling to consider alternative fee arrangements, which may cost clients more money? Does cronyism prevent you from working on certain clients or matters, interfering with your representation? Are associates treated poorly resulting in high turnover and affecting client service?
Are clients asking for services the firm does not provide? If your firm does not have experience in practice areas that your clients need, they will go to another firm. That means they must oversee and coordinate multiple law firms. It also potentially jeopardizes your position since they may decide to choose another law firm that provides everything they require.
Are business or legal conflicts preventing you from working with potential clients? Larger firms and those with niche specialties are more likely to have conflicts of interest in taking on new clients or new matters for existing clients. If you are turning down business because of such conflicts, then looking for a new firm may be for the best.
Can You Fix the Problems If You Stay at the Firm?
Many complaints by partners are essentially about the firm’s management and strategy and there may be ways you can address some of the concerns on your own. For example, if you feel that you are being hindered in building your practice, ask the firm for the specific support you want rather than being vague about it. Make the case why your practice area or industry niche should be a priority for the firm.
If your concern is about compensation, demonstrate to your firm why you should be paid better. One thing to think about is your billing rate with your clients. Does it reflect your true value and should you increase it? What else can you do to add value and have an impact on the revenue of the business to justify a compensation increase? If you don’t have an answer to this question, then you either do not deserve a pay increase and/or you belong at another firm.
You may also be able to affect firm culture and management by seeking leadership roles to improve issues like cronyism and associate retention. Partners are often afraid to be a “squeaky wheel” but the alternative is not communicating your frustration(s) to try to solve them. A related issue regarding culture is that partners don’t have a solution for what could be better. In that situation, we often give them examples of how other firms do things to see if this may be done at their firm.
The point is that before you give up, look for opportunities to make the changes you want.
When Should You Switch Firms?
Succinctly, in order for you to make a change, you should be able to answer these questions affirmatively:
(1) Is the new firm better than your current firm for your clients, and if yes, how?
(2) Is the new firm better for you than your current firm, and if yes, how?
If you are not happy in your present circumstances, it is easy to imagine that making a change is the solution. That is particularly true now because firms are aggressively competing to bring in new talent and business. Everyone wants to feel that they are in demand and be enticed by significant compensation packages. However, it has to be the right change. By asking all of these questions, you can determine whether your current situation can be improved and if so, what steps you should take. If that is not possible, then the next thing to do is to talk with an experienced Law Firm Partner Headhunter to guide you through a process that creates a win-win outcome for you, your legal team, and your clients, and for your new law firm.
Just as you evaluate your current firm, you must ask many of the same questions of potential new firms and a recruiter can provide invaluable information about the firm’s culture and management. Do not settle, especially in this market. The right position is out there. It may be at your current firm or it may be at a new firm, but you will avoid regrets by taking the time to understand the right fit for you and your clients.