Are you happy at your law firm? For many partners, that can feel like a very loaded question. The dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment or a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Since COVID, there has been a renewed focus on job satisfaction, and it has led to rising turnover at many law firms. There is no shortage of resources on what this means in the context of work, including a new course on happiness offered to Harvard MBA candidates. The top factors that tend to make people feel happier include meaningful work, feeling valued by employers, fair compensation, career development, job flexibility and autonomy, and work-life balance, among others.
Sometimes, happiness is more about a gut feeling. Maybe you are no longer feeling passionate or excited about your work. The questions posed in this article provide a way for you to determine whether you are happy and what issues are most important to you. If you find yourself answering many of the questions in the negative, there is likely significant room for improvement, even though there is nothing seriously wrong with your position or law firm. As a result, it may be better to think about this as whether you could be happier somewhere else.
As a legal search consultant, I often talk with law firm partners who are comfortable at their firms, but aren’t necessarily happy. When I contact them about a potential opportunity, their initial reaction is to say they are not interested in moving. However, some of them are still open to listening, under the premise that information about “what’s out there” is always welcome.
Realistically, you can’t know what you’re missing before you hear about other possibilities. So the next time you are approached by a legal search firm, should you get more information about the other position even if you aren’t actively looking to make a change? I suggest asking yourself the following questions to get your answer.
How Can a Conversation About a New Opportunity Benefit Me?
When I reach out to partners who may fit the bill for a new job opportunity, often I find someone who has been contemplating a change, but for some reason, has not taken the next step to start looking for a new firm. This situation is very similar to a second common scenario that occurs when I have a discussion with a partner who initiates the conversation with me, except perhaps in their degree of dissatisfaction with their present firm. Essentially, in both situation, the partners know that they are not truly happy in their present situation, but they remain unclear as to whether another firm would be better.
In a third common scenario, I reach a partner who is relatively happy at their current firm and may initially reject the idea of moving elsewhere. While this may be the right decision for them in the end, it’s important to remember that exploring an opportunity is not a commitment to making a change. It is only a discussion that will lead to the informed conclusion that it is best to stay in the same place, the realization that there is a viable path to improvements at your current firm, or in some cases, that a better situation does exist at another firm.
In short, before declining a conversation with a headhunter about a new opportunity, consider whether there is room for improvement in your current situation, because the conversation could be enlightening on several fronts.
Is Your Law Firm a Good Fit for You Right Now?
The first step in considering a job change is deciding whether your firm is the right fit for both you and your clients and what opportunities may exist to make it better. We recommend partners ask themselves these questions when they evaluate their readiness for a change of firm:
- Can you practice law effectively at your firm?
- Does your firm’s culture fit with your personal philosophy, mission, and goals?
- Is your firm’s culture in line with the needs of your clients and prospects?
- Are clients asking for services the firm does not provide?
- Are legal or business conflicts preventing you from working with potential clients?
Going through this exercise helps partners fully understand what issues are driving their decision to make a change and the best way to address them. You want to answer these questions regardless of whether you initiated contact with a recruiter, or the recruiter came to you.
Importantly, even if you answer some of the questions in the negative, you may still want to remain at your firm if there is potential to affect change and make improvements. However, the benefit of hearing about available opportunities is that it provides a frame of reference for comparing what is happening at your own firm to what is going on at other firms in your market. Otherwise, you may think that all firms are similar to your own.
Where Do You See Your Practice in Five Years?
Today, you may be satisfied with your practice at your firm, but how do you feel about the future? Will you be able to continue to develop the relationships you need to grow your practice over the next five years? For example, to service certain types of clients, you may need to be at a bigger firm. Further, your network at your current firm may be too limited to reach the prospects with whom you want to work. Moving to a new firm may allow you to expand your contacts and practice capabilities.
It’s also important to evaluate your firm’s long-term plans. Where do they want to grow? How do they want to grow? Is that vision in line with your own? While thinking five years ahead is realistic, it doesn’t hurt to also consider the rest of your career. Do you see yourself retiring from your current firm? If not, then start asking yourself why, and whether you want to know more about other law firms, because it may be wise to start seriously considering when the timing could be right.
When Do Law Partners Leave Their Firms?
In my experience, partners are most likely to leave because there are obstacles to building/growing their practice. For instance, the firm’s culture, staffing, compensation, and rate structure can make it difficult to service clients effectively. When there is high turnover and too much competition for firm resources, it can significantly affect client relationships.
The firm’s strategy may also inhibit growth. As discussed above, law firm partners need to ask questions about where their practice area fits into the firm’s business plan. If developing their practice area is not a priority for the firm, there won’t be the support to handle more work. The firm may also lack the expertise or desire to expand into complementary areas, limiting cross-marketing and selling opportunities. For example, a partner with a transactional practice, with clients that need regulatory guidance, will not be able to service all the client’s needs unless the firm has sufficient regulatory attorneys capable of handling such matters.
Compensation also plays a role. Both associates and partners should expect competitive rates, particularly in this job market. However, they must also consider whether the firm’s compensation structure favors competition or collaboration among partners at the firm and how they feel about that. Compensation is also dependent on the profitability of the firm and the partner’s practice and client base. When analyzing other opportunities, it is important to understand how compensation is determined at the current and new firm. Speaking with a partner-level attorney headhunter can be beneficial to learn more about law firm partner compensation and what other firms are offering at all levels.
What Should Be Your Next Step?
Let’s say you have reevaluated your current situation and you’re still not sure you’re ready to make a move. Should you talk to a search firm? In most cases, the answer is yes. Unless you truly feel that there is no possibility of making a change, it makes sense to have a conversation. As I mentioned earlier, a discussion is not a commitment. It may even result in making your existing firm look better by comparison or highlight ways you can improve your firm, making it more attractive to other attorneys.
Educating yourself about the job market is rarely a bad thing and it could present a golden opportunity for change. So, listen up when a recruiter comes calling.