Market Report: Evaluating “Lateral” In-House Moves

The definition of a lateral move is subjective.  Most attorneys believe that a career move is ‘lateral’ (and therefore not worthwhile) if the title and compensation are similar to his/her current situation.  With the current market, however, that premise no longer holds true.  A move ‘up’ may be a perceived lateral move providing you with similar title/compensation, but also giving you something else that is valuable.  Some of these value-adds that lawyers are seeking include (1) companies with more upward mobility in the future; (2) the opportunity to gain management experience; (3) a lower risk profile, for lawyers who feel burned by consolidation/acquisition/restructuring; (4) conversely, joining a smaller, more nimble company in which he/she will have a voice and more autonomy; and (5) the opportunity to gain a broader skillset and acquire skills to help in seeking that higher spot one day.

A lateral move can set you up for future upward movement.  Career moves that are perceived by the outside as merely ‘lateral’ can be smart, if such moves will propel your career.  For example, making the move from a large company to a smaller company where you can report directly to the lead lawyer may set you up for better and bigger opportunities in the future.  A career move that will provide you with exposure to a Board of Directors and/or the chance to manage others, for instance, can in turn lead to future growth opportunities, as most of the top positions require those experiences.  We have placed lawyers in roles that are seemingly similar on paper but in actuality offer a better chance at promotion in the future.  Indeed, we have placed lawyers at companies that are launching commercial products, giving the lawyers the chance to lead the launch and report directly to management.  Recently, we placed a lawyer in the No. 2 lawyer spot with a company that promised a real opportunity for advancement to the General Counsel role.  Title, compensation and the level of the move may seem lateral, but these intangibles make it a step forward toward future growth.

There are more lateral opportunities to explore in this market than the top jobs.  In a perfect world, you would be up for a promotion at your current company – after putting in years of hard work and commitment.  The reality of the market is that those promotions – those “dream jobs” of managing a team and being the lead lawyer – are not plentiful.  There are a host of factors that contribute to the lack of upward movement for in-house lawyers including later retirement of higher-ups, flat organizational structures, tighter budgets, and consolidation of companies.  Lawyers in those top roles are holding on tightly and the reality of the math is that the higher up you climb, the fewer spots are available.  Even if you are not seeking the General Counsel title, lawyers report that they are finding fewer and fewer opportunities for growth/advancement at their companies.  As a result, we are seeing lawyers make career moves that on the surface may seem ‘lateral’ but in actuality will help propel them forward in their careers.

Accepting a lateral (or even lesser) position may be savvy if you are looking to switch industries.  Most of our clients want to hire lawyers that have industry experience, in addition to great credentials and top-notch lawyering skills.  Indeed, previous industry experience is often the deciding factor among candidates because companies feel that the ramp-up time is much less with someone who knows the jargon, common practices and unwritten rules of a certain industry.  If you are an in-house attorney seeking to switch industries, it is difficult to make that switch while securing a step ‘up’.  The reality is you may need to come to peace with making a lateral, if not lesser, move to achieve that value-add of making the industry transition that you are seeking.  As stated above, the title and compensation may be equal or a step back from where you currently are, but if it gives you the opportunity to join the industry you want to be in, then lateral is the right move.  This market is tight and companies are not rushing to promote you in an industry in which you have not previously worked.

On balance, do not assume that a seemingly lateral move is ineffective for your career.  If you feel that it is time to leave and you are seeking something specific, put yourself out there and pressure-test the market.  You may find that a move to the purported side is actually the smartest step in your career progression.

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