There comes a time in many a partner’s career when they become unhappy with their role and wonder if it is time to make a change and go in-house. This can be a natural next step or it can be a wrong impulse that leads to career change for the wrong reasons.
How do you know when to follow the impulse – are you just having a bad year or is it time to make the move?
As a search consultant I have found myself on the other side of this sort of conversation hundreds of times. There is nothing wrong with having the impulse to make a change. Having an impulse is one thing: but acting on it is best done after thorough analysis.
The first step in deciding whether it is time to make a change is to clarify what motivates you. Some of the most senior and successful partners I have ever placed have one thing in common – clarity about their motivators. I always take the time to work through what a partners’ motivator’s are before proceeding further. It is like building the foundation for a house; you have to know yourself and understand what is motivating you so that any decision you make is based on sound analysis:
1. Clarity about your push factors – spend time becoming clear on what is making you unhappy and “pushing” you out of your current firm. Is it your team, is it your peers, is it the direction of the firm, is it fee pressure, client pressure about the firm, client conflicts or is it a lack of career progression? Once you are clear then first exhaust all avenues to solve the issue at your current firm. Is it time to performance manage that difficult and unproductive S.A. or junior partner? Is it time to meet with your managing partner/CEO and discuss the direction of the firm, vision for your practice area or opportunities for equity? What have you not done where you are currently?
2. Clarity about your pull factors – Sometimes your current firm is not that bad but you can see that you or your practice might thrive in a different firm that has a different positioning or culture. Be clear about what makes you happy. Some examples of pull factors include:
- Size of firm
- Global versus local
- Large versus boutique
- Starting your own firm
- Being a part of your clients rather than working for them as a lawyer
- Management responsibility
Strategies for making a good change
3. Tweak one element of your current situation at a time. E.g. if you are a salaried partner in one firm then try another type of firm that potentially addresses most of your push/pull motivators, try equity, try working as a lawyer for yourself. By making incremental steps you will uncover new opportunities without sacrificing all of your achievements. If you have explored partnership in a couple of firms and you don’t like the business development or being outside of the business/corporate clients you are servicing, then maybe in-house is for you.
Don’t do what one partner candidate I know did – he left his role and purchased a retail franchise which failed within a few years. A change like that incorporates too many changes at once and sets you up for failure. He probably underestimated the benefits of his previous role and the business skills and retail skills required for his new venture!
4. Don’t undervalue your areas of unconscious competence. i.e. the things you are good at and do automatically. There can be a temptation to discard the aspects of your role that you are unconsciously accomplished at when taking a new opportunity – simply because you take them for granted and so you end up “throwing the baby out with the bath water”! You might be a great business developer, leader, technical expert, have a great network or reputation in your current field. Make sure that the change you make doesn’t inadvertently sacrifice your sweet spot!
5. Be conscious about what you are giving up and what you are getting– If you have done your homework, you will be clear about your push and pull factors. So before accepting a role do a list of the pros and cons for your new opportunity. A smaller firm may have greater flexibility and more influence over leadership but it may have less resources or brand recognition. If money is important to you then make sure you can command the same or more in your next role. Again if you are not using your most marketable skills any more then you may not get remunerated as well. Make a list to help you work through what you take for granted and is important to you.
6. Separate relationships at your current firm from your personal experience within the firm. Your relationships can continue into the future if you carefully manage the exiting process – they are not a reason to stay if your motivators are not being addressed.
7. Be prepared for grief – If you have been in one firm for 10 years, 20 or even 30 years making a change will feel strange at first. But it should feel exciting as well if it is the right move. The right move should enhance your position and take you personally and professionally to the next level.