AccelPro | Employment & Labor Law
AccelPro | Employment Law
On Making a Lateral Career Move

On Making a Lateral Career Move

With Jonathan Birenbaum, Senior Director at Lateral Link | Interviewed by Celeste Headlee

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Welcome to AccelPro Employment Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. This episode is free for everyone, a sample of what paid members get when they join the community.

The interview is part of our AccelPro Career Tools series, where we explore topics including client relationship management and wellness. Our host is internationally recognized journalist, author and NPR host Celeste Headlee. Today we’re featuring a conversation with recruiter Jonathan Birenbaum, Senior Director at Lateral Link.

Birenbaum is an experienced litigator who now specializes in the recruitment of partners, counsels and associates. He says that the right time to make a lateral move is when you are no longer feeling challenged and rewarded in your current firm, and that it’s worth possibly sacrificing certain work relationships to find a place with the right people, in a location you enjoy.

“You have to really understand where you sit in your firm. You have to do an analysis for yourself and ask yourself what the cost benefits are going to be if you leave. And if the cost is going to be not maintaining the relationships you had at the firm, that can be a major cost for you, but it depends on what kind of firm you're with.”

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Celeste Headlee, Host: Let’s start off by what you do right now. And could you give us a brief outline of how you got here.

Jonathan Birenbaum: I had 12 years of practical experience as a lawyer. I then had the ‘perfect’ timing of becoming a legal recruiter in 2008 when the recession occurred. And the owner of the company, one of the oldest legal recruiting companies in New York, said to all of us, “Folks, there isn't going to be a lot of associate hiring going on in this economy. Everybody should pivot towards recruiting partners.” So I did. And I got into recruiting both associates and partners and councils. I've been doing it ever since.

CH: For those people who might be thinking to themselves, maybe it's time for me to make a move in my career, what are the signals that it might be a good time to move?

JB: Money should not be the primary factor. Because there are many factors that make one happy or content in the job you have. One of those things is understanding the people you work with quite well. Having good relationships with those that can make decisions that affect your day-to-day life, your future, is very important.

But as far as what the red flags are, the caution signs, there are economic issues for young lawyers in firms. Are you getting enough work? If your workflow has been reduced, that can be a reason to think about exploring something new and maybe trying to identify a firm that has more demand for the kind of practice that you have in your skills.

That's part of it. Obviously, if you're not feeling like you're rewarded—maybe you've been an associate at a firm for several years and think that, based on your performance, you deserve to be elevated to a council title, or you’ve been a council and you’re up for partner—if that's not happening, that can be a factor to consider as well.

Right now, as far as work location goes, I think we've gotten past the remote work versus in-office work situation, just because many of the law firms have followed the investment banks. Many of the law firms represent the banks and, especially in New York City where I'm based, a lot of these firms are expecting their lawyers to come in three to four days a week minimum.

So I don't think you can expect to have a remote opportunity right now. There are certain firms that will offer it, but the competition for those roles can be quite fierce because many people do want to avoid an hour commute, so I don't think that should be a factor when you consider switching.

And then, maybe you've been at a law firm for three years, and you feel like you're not getting new opportunities. Maybe it's the same old, same old and you want new challenges. That can be a reason to talk to someone like myself, or to talk to your own network and understand, What's going on next door? What's going on at 1 Vanderbilt versus 250 Park Avenue right now?

Yes money's important, and you can increase your base comp. You can increase your bonus potential, but always understand there are tradeoffs.

CH: Let's look at it from the other side. What are recruiters looking for? What kind of qualities let a recruiter know that this is a high potential candidate? 

JB: One of the things I think we do agree on in the recruiting industry is that you want to find somebody that really wasn't looking and you came to them “out of the blue.”

For those that are under pressure to make a move, it can oftentimes be based on economic reasons. They are not having their best season; they're not hitting 300 when they were expected to hit 330, as a baseball metaphor. They have not hit their bonus hurdles this year and their overall compensation won't be quite as high. And that can make somebody feel quite itchy about where they are and perhaps they want to take a look at other opportunities.

Whereas somebody that's very secure in their position, but is thinking about the idea of going from, say, a national firm to a global firm, somebody that's got a sophisticated view on their own practice and the business world, the economy, and the legal industry, can be an interesting candidate to work with.

You're looking for that type of person versus somebody who might come to you and say, “I just found out my review wasn't very good and it looks like they're going to put pressure on me this year, and at the same time they're not giving me the work I want.”

That person takes a little bit more of career coaching, and a little bit more emotional support. I'm fine with this because I relate to my children's generation as much as to my peers and to those that are older than me. I'm happy to have those conversations with folks and try to get them through the process and get them ready to go.

CH: Let's say that some of the issues that you just discussed have arisen for me. I've decided that this is the time to make a move. What's the difference between making a lateral move versus trying to rise up the ladder and get a promotion?

JB: Excellent question. You've invested X number of years with your current firm. If you make the lateral move, you're generally going to be credited with the same amount of experience. Many law firms you'll see have basically an eight year partnership track.

You would think that based on your investment of time, let's say you're in your third year, you're making what we call a lateral move to firm B after three years, and you get credited with the years of experience that you've accumulated so far. The question is, can you build new relationships to keep you on pace to be an eligible candidate for partnership in five years? I don't have an answer for that, but it is something to consider.

At the same time, not everybody gets voted into partnership. There are firms that have 100 percent equity partnerships and it can be more challenging to be admitted into the 100 percent equity class than it would be at a firm that has both what they call non-equity partners and equity partners, where the non-equity partners are not true shareholders in the firm.

But when you're in a firm like that, you probably have a greater chance of becoming a partner, which then will potentially catapult you into other opportunities down the line because you now have a partner title, which certainly helps you market yourself.

This has been discussed a lot, in that a lot of the young lawyers these days are not as interested in becoming partners as they used to be. They understand that they don't necessarily have to become an equity partner and therefore they may be open to making these kinds of “lateral moves.”

And you have to really understand where you sit in your firm. You have to pay attention; you have to do an analysis and ask yourself what the cost benefit is going to be if I leave. If the cost is going to be not maintaining the relationships you had, that can be a major cost for you, but it also depends on what kind of firm you're with.


CH: As people go into salary negotiations how do you know what you're worth?

JB: The top firms in the United States are posting their compensation bands every year. You see that published and you know exactly what the first year up to the eighth year associates are going to make at these firms. But other times the market is not transparent, and this is where a recruiter can come into play. If a recruiter has placed several attorneys at a firm, they are going to have a reasonable understanding of what the base compensation and what the bonus incentives look like.

Now, that being said, in New York City when a law firm posts a job opening they are mandated to include the base compensation range in that posting, as they are in other states. At the same time, the firms will say “Can you tell me your candidate’s expected base level of compensation?” And so that's where a little bit of strategizing with me comes into play.

We want to understand what you’re worth but also what’s realistic, because if you’re not going to one of the larger firms that’s automatically going to pay you the base salary that they pay every other lawyer from your class year up until the level of partner, then you need to be a little bit strategic about this and maybe go for something that's a little bit less than your dream salary. But, again, understand that over time if you become a partner at the second firm you go to, that decision was the correct decision.

CH: We were just talking about salary negotiations, but another thing that you've mentioned is environment and location. And especially if it's true that people are not accepting remote work as much, then the location, the city, is more important. You wrote a Chambers Associate article and mentioned that you think New York City is still a really great place to make lateral moves as an associate.

JB: I just think New York is still so worth it because yes, you're going to work really hard as a lawyer in New York, and you might not have as much time to enjoy other things in life, but you do enjoy time here. You walk out your door and there's always a place to go to decompress, either individually or amongst other people.

If you're talking about relocating to a city, there's so many factors involved. However, I'll give us an endorsement. Recruiters are great to contact if you want to relocate from one city to another.

We will save you so much time and effort in identifying what's possible, what's realistic, and what's not. And then we can really help you negotiate other financial incentives to get you from New York to California or vice versa.

CH: Are there maybe some unexpected places where they really are hungry for new blood? Are there places people don't always consider?

JB: Nashville's been growing by leaps and bounds. The healthcare industry is down there, the entertainment industry is growing there, as well as the real estate industry. Obviously, hospitality and tourism are amazing in Nashville. Great quality of life, too. It has a lot of AmLaw firms and it's got local firms that are fantastic.

Florida is still a very good place to practice law. You've got a large state with lots of businesses. Texas is still booming. California, where my company's based, has been very active as far as lateral hiring throughout the pandemic and continues to be.

Seattle is still interesting. You've got IP and pharma up there, as well as in the great state of New Jersey, if you don't want to be based in New York City. There's no reason why New Jersey or Connecticut can't be great places to practice, New Jersey having more of the larger firms, the pharma industry, as well as cannabis now.

The thing is, how do you identify for yourself what you want? What are the factors that are important to you? You’ve got to know thyself. We need to know what works for us, and where we're finding small rewards in our day to day. And it's the same thing for me as a recruiter.


CH: Is there a difference between the relationships that you build as a recruiter versus the way that you built relationships as a lawyer?

JB: I'd say yes, because I'm in the professional services business and at the end of the day, I may negotiate your salary, but I'm not Scott Boras. I don't sit down with a binder and say, “Alex Rodriguez hit 56 homers last year.”

CH: Scott Boras is a super famous sports agent, for those who don't recognize that name.

JB: We are agents; we do represent, but we are not exactly that. We have two clients. Some recruiters say the client is the law firm, but I don't really believe that. We are a middle person, but ultimately you need to establish some trust with your candidates, and then you also have to establish a track record with the hiring entities that you are submitting your candidates to.

The relationship is bilateral, but at the end of the day, the candidate holds the key. The candidate is going to make the ultimate decision if they're going to say yes to something, and it may take quite a while for that decision to be in the affirmative.

In the lawyer-to-lawyer relationship, if I'm an associate working with or for a partner, I have to say yes to the assignment. I have to go out, do my very best every time. Recruiters are out here doing something that a lot of other people do; I am not the only one. There is a ton of competition. Every lawyer is free to choose whoever they want to work with. Are you going to be able to make enough impact on somebody and establish enough trust that they're going to believe in you more than one time. That's the key to the relationship. The trust factor.

CH: Speaking of trust, what are the skills that make you a good recruiter?

JB: Perseverance, patience, curiosity. You should be someone who likes to read about more than just law firms. You should be understanding what's going on economically and politically. 

You really need to understand what the candidate is looking for and what the firms are looking for. Don't be afraid to ask follow up questions. And I think being honest and transparent is incredibly important.

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This AccelPro audio transcript has been edited and organized for clarity. This interview was recorded on January 8, 2024.

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AccelPro | Employment & Labor Law
AccelPro | Employment Law
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