Should I stay or should I go? Five reasons why moving can invigorate your legal practice
When I started in the legal profession, it was not uncommon for lawyers to spend the entirety of their legal career in private practice at one firm. The “lifers” had built a career at the same firm, were known for their affiliation with that firm and there was never any question that they would leave before getting their retirement do, a thank you from the senior partner and a substantial parting gift. You would often see the “articled partner”, who had trained with the firm and stayed there, moving through the ranks, embodying the firm’s values until they called it a day after decades of service.
It is more than possible that there will be “lifers” starting at law firms right now, who will bunker down and provide their skills to clients and colleagues of one firm. There is nothing at all objectionable about this; if you like the law firm you are working in and feel that you will be supported to grow your practice at that firm without the potential disruption of a move, then all well and good. And even if you stay in one place, you will still have to face the challenges of economic and legislative changes, political changes, mergers with other practices, office moves and COVID disruptions to name but a few. I know of many lawyers who are still at the firm I started with (now Hogan Lovells). They are fine lawyers, great people and they have built practices to be proud of.
But for many lawyers, moving firms is now much more prevalent, as opportunities for growing their practice emerge elsewhere. The options are plentiful, ranging from large nationals with specialist teams through to boutique firms, with alternative law firms, like my firm Spencer West, providing an attractive new opportunity to push on with your career. Of course, the promise of a move does not always result in the unqualified success you have been looking for; we often hear about the challenge of delivering a following with a number that can be too much of a stretch in a particular environment. But whilst that means a failed move, that does not mean a failed career. It may often require several moves before expectations are mutually met.
So, whilst there are no guarantees that a move in your legal career will work out for the best, there is much to be said for it. The change of scenery can in itself be energising, which will be vital as you start the challenge of getting your practice up and running. In my career I needed to do this on a number of occasions: when I came back from the US, when I joined a regional commercial practice, when I returned to the City and when I looked to have more autonomy over my practice at Spencer West.
Whilst no two lawyers who have made moves will have the same list, I have identified five reasons why moving your practice can be an exciting step forward.
1. A good client is a loyal client that is invested in you
Many commercial clients are what we call “multiple” users. Larger corporates will often have a panel of law firms that they will use for certain specialisms and at tiered value levels, but even smaller entities will go to lawyers that they trust in different firms. This leads to significant competition amongst firms, where there is a seemingly endless drive to convert a good litigation client to a regular real estate client, but that means pulling them from the vice-like grip of that annoyingly good lawyer over on Chancery Lane…
In my experience, many clients are comfortable with not placing all their eggs in one basket. They will use the lawyers that deliver the best value to them, wherever they are. They can also like the fact that their retained lawyers are fighting the cross-selling game, keen to get all their work under one roof, determined to deliver peak performance and show a sparkling alternative. If you are a client that is the subject of such efforts, that is utopia!
Again, there may be some clients that will, for their own reasons, only use one firm. If they have business overseas, they may use that firm’s local offices as well. But some law firms might mistakenly assume that they have such a client, when the reality is that they are a multiple user, even within the firm itself. To say that such a client is “our client” can be questionable when the client is either a multiple user and/or has individual relationships with the individual lawyers in that firm.
The chances are that if your client knows you, likes you and trusts you, they will be sufficiently bought in to you to be interested in a move with you. This can be even more the case of you have represented them through the good times and the bad and a bond of loyalty has built up. Of course, this will tested on a move, with the likes of garden leave, compliance with applicable restrictive covenants and the overall relationship that your client has with your firm and individual departments put to the test. And if your core relationship is with a claims manager at your client rather than a senior decision maker, the more difficult a transition may become.
But bear in mind that if some of your hoped-for clients don’t follow, that may not be the end of the story. Sometimes they may take time to see how things unfold and then decide to send some of their work to you, and more of it over time, as the tug of war over the relationship with the client unfolds. And there will be clients who you perceived as lukewarm who were more loyal than you thought, who will be waiting for you at the doors of your new surroundings.
When a client makes the choice to follow you to a new practice, that is both gratifying and energising, as it is a testament to the excellent service you have provided to them and the effort you have put into the relationship over time. You are nothing without clients, but a highly compelling proposition when they back you with their loyalty. And they are your best sources of referral – see below.
2. Clients may prefer your new firm and send more business through you
In addition to investing in you on your move, clients may also see benefits in your new firm that make your new proposition more attractive. There may be new people that they deal with on the support side that they find easier to deal with, or new billing or IT systems that fit better with their organisation. Equally importantly, they may find fellow lawyers at your new firm that are a match for those that were at your old one; you are recommending these colleagues after all, which will mean something to your client (see 1 above).
You may hear a conversation along the lines of “I never wanted to say anything, but I wasn’t so keen on CJ at your old firm, your new corporate lawyer gets me much better.” This is where things get very interesting, as they could go on to say “I have a cousin who’s looking for an exit, I thought I would recommend your new firm to them.” Suddenly, your client is not only the best marketing tool for your work, they are now blowing the trumpet for your new firm as well.
Of course, in reality not everything in your new firm is likely to be better than your old one; if it was, you would be wondering what you were doing there all that time. There may be some new colleagues that are not as strong as your former ones. But the potential for your practice and your cross-selling capabilities to be upscaled with the help of your clients should not be underestimated.
3. Moving can often reinvigorate your contacts
Many of us find change unsettling. But on the other side of that coin, there is the prospect of refreshment through a new challenge, which can be stimulating for you and your contacts. News like this can be interesting and shake up some contacts that have possibly been dormant for a while. The power of social media outlets like LinkedIn amply demonstrates this.
It may be that through work commitments or the business development focus at your old firm, certain contacts were in sectors or geographical locations that were not on your main hit list. On a move, there is an opportunity to re-evaluate your contacts list again, often with positive results.
Through news of your move and reaching out to your contacts afresh, new opportunities will emerge. Don’t forget, as with clients, they will have got to know you, like you and trust you over the years and many will want to hear about your new venture and how they could support you in your endeavours. Equally, there may have been things they didn’t like about your old firm, but were too discreet to say.
There is no guarantee that the stimulation of contacts will result in the generation of leads, but with new surroundings and a new focus this may at least warm up potential sources of referral that were otherwise destined to drop away from you.
4. You may have greater freedom and flexibility to maximise the potential of your practice
If you move to a firm that is willing to give you the freedom, time and space to grow your practice as you see best, the results can be remarkable. This can mean doing what you want to do, when you see fit, to act for the types of clients that have the matters that you want, in the sectors you want to focus on, on the terms of business that suit both parties. Some or all of these factors may not have been in play before, with firm strategies and business plans dictating a course that may not have suited you or the types of clients that are best aligned with your practice.
Suddenly you have control of your own scoreboard, which can be very empowering. Of course, you will have to work hard to achieve the objectives you set yourself, but now you are setting them. Freedom brings opportunities to try things, some of which may succeed and some of which may not, but the opportunities are yours. This brings a new sense of purpose and motivation to what you do, with the likelihood that you will be optimising the potential of your practice.
The ability to tailor things more to your specific needs does still need discipline. Adopting new initiatives should always be governed by what is realistic. Don’t go chasing rainbows because you can; focus on looking after your clients and contacts and building new relationships (often with their help) with the types of clients that are in reach. There should be plenty of them, meaning there should be no need (or the time) to chase work unnecessarily beyond that.
5. Former colleagues can be business allies
Whilst relationships with former colleagues can become strained in some instances when you have decided to move on, try your best not to burn bridges. Whilst that isn’t always easy as you walk out of a building you may have worked in for many years, with garden leave beckoning, there may well be at least some colleagues that quietly empathise with your decision. And there will be more amicable instances where your old firm is willing to maintain a co-operative relationship with you, to share future referrals and hope that one day you may come back!
It is right to say that not all moves work out, and unless the thought of returning to your old firm is anathema to one or both parties, that can be a possibility. And it that did happen, you may return a more energised and motivated lawyer than the one who left, having had useful experience elsewhere and seen at least some of the benefits. Who knows, you may return to a higher position in the firm compared to when you left it.
But if the move works out, do keep a positive channel with your old colleagues if you can. In addition to being a source of referral, some former colleagues may decide to become colleagues again as they see how you have thrived in your new environment and would like a piece of it themselves!
I hope some or all of the above will resonate with you and give some insight to those who have itchy feet, or those who didn’t until now think that they had! Being a lawyer in private practice is a tough assignment. Whether you stay or go from the desk you are currently occupying, I wish you all the best with your career and hope you can enjoy it to the full.