Succeeding after an early lateral move

Succeeding after an early lateral move

Ten years ago, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young attorney, fresh from a federal clerkship and eager to start my litigation career. One year later, I was a sleepless, burned-out basket case on my way out the door asking myself, “Did I make an awful mistake when I went to law school?” Fast forward almost a decade, and I can answer that question with a resounding no.

I’m not alone in recovering from a poor fit with my first-year firm to go on to succeed in a thriving legal career. In law school, we are often told that our first year will make or break our career, and an early exit will stain our resumés and make firms question our ability to cut it in the “real world.”

Yet statistics show that younger lawyers are moving around more often than ever before. In 2022, the International Bar Association reported it had surveyed 3,000 lawyers ages 40 and under about their plans for the next five years and found that 54% said they were either highly likely or somewhat likely to move to a new workplace, 33% wanted to switch to a different area of law and 20% were thinking of leaving law behind.

The trend in law mirrors the trend across the U.S. In 2016, Gallup found that 21% of millennials surveyed reported changing jobs within the last year—more than three times the rate of the other age groups. The Gallup report shows that the trend in career switches isn’t purely pandemic-related since it predates COVID-19 by three years.

With lateral moves becoming more common and therefore less frowned-upon even among young associates, navigating the changing job market means learning to see a switch early on not as a sign of failure but as a chance to build a career that fits your goals and skills.

When your first-year experience falls short, your instinct may be to take the false start as a reflection on whether you can make it as a lawyer. Instead, think of the setback as a step on your legal journey. Before you leave your old firm, identify where you can improve and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Making a mistake almost never spells the end of a career, but being able to accept constructive criticism is a skill you must build to ensure you don’t repeat it.

Look for mentors and work to build the skills you might be missing. If it’s legal knowledge, take CLEs and attend meetings of professional associations. If it’s social connections, join groups to build social skills. The groups don’t have to be legal; in fact, you might benefit from simply pursuing hobbies with people who share your passion and give you perspective. The worst thing to do is hide in shame—now is the time to tap into your network.

Leaving an old firm is a great time to consider what worked, what didn’t and where you want to go. Remember how much you’ve learned about our profession after working in the industry, and be open to the fact that your goals might have changed since you graduated. As Mireille Guiliano, former CEO of Clicquot, Inc., says in her book business book Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire, “Life is lived in episodes and stages.” You don’t have to do the same thing all your life to be successful at each stage of your life.

Now that you’ve done the hard work, you’re ready to look for your next job with a strong sense of what you’re looking for and what you have to offer. At the interview, don’t bash your previous employer; rather, make it about why you’re excited to work with the new firm. Having been both an applicant and a hiring committee member, I believe that unless you have a pattern of hopping from job to job, employers are less concerned with why you left than why you’ll be a good fit.

What did you learn at your old firm that you could bring to the new one? Are there missing pieces in the range of services it offers that you could fill? A good firm is as diverse as its client base, so if everyone at the firm looks the same and follows the same path, they may not be able to see the issues from every angle. Nontraditional industry experience can help bridge that gap.

The interview is also your chance to confirm that you really want to work at the new firm. Do your research and tap into your network for the inside scoop. Then ask questions to make sure the firm culture fits your lifestyle.

Is the compensation structure reasonable, are marketing opportunities available and is the firm’s business model financially viable? If you are newer to the practice, what will the firm offer in terms of CLEs, mentorship and building your network? Is the firm open to remote work, at least after you’ve gotten your feet wet? What can you expect to learn at the firm in your first six months, first year and first five years?

Be open to opportunities, but don’t be tempted to take a job just because you got an offer if it’s not a good fit or you can’t see how it would help you reach your goals. In the immortal words of Judge Judy, “For better or forget it.”

Finally, you make it to the big day and start a career with a new firm! Don’t set yourself up for failure by judging the new firm based on your experience at the old one or by seeing every mistake you make (and you will make many of them) as a sign that history will repeat itself. The firm hired you for a reason and wants you to succeed.

Now that you’ve spent time in practice, you’ll find you’re better able to understand not only what you’re doing but also why you’re doing it. The more you engage with your clients and take ownership of your projects, the more you’ll feel like you’ve earned your place at the table. Remember everything you bring to the table—including a broad perspective and life experience.

In many legal actions, someone wins, and someone loses. But just because a litigator has lost a motion doesn’t mean that they themselves are a loser. Treat a setback in your career as you would a setback in your case—a sign that you perhaps need to reevaluate your strategy, but not necessarily throw in the towel.

In her article “3 Pieces of Career Advice You Won’t Hear Anywhere Else,” Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and founder of the investment platform Ellevest, proudly owns the fact that she was fired on the front page of the Wall Street Journal—twice. Her philosophy is, “If you want to have a big career and you’re not making some real mistakes along the way—faceplant stuff—you aren’t taking enough risks.” Remember that everyone who has succeeded has also at one point failed. A poor fit in your first year is not the end—it’s the beginning.


Xenia Tashlitsky is a construction and insurance litigation attorney based in San Diego who enjoys Star Wars, yoga and cat cafes.


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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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