When the Great Recession struck in 2008, deal flow ground to a halt. Corporate accounts shrank as companies cut costs by opting for in-house counsel or contract talent. Law firms found themselves with far more lawyers than they needed, laying off associates and freezing associate hiring. A decade later, the effects of the Great Recession are still being felt as firms continue with conservative hiring policies. Today, a typical summer class might have 15 lawyers instead of 50. Now, with rumors of another recession on the horizon, hiring may contract even further.

What does this mean for current law firm associates? Fewer lateral hires at big firms mean that associates need to plot out their careers earlier on and consider a wider range of professional paths. And with firm closings and mergers once again outpacing openings, associates need to think carefully about their next steps, especially if their firm finds itself on shaking financial footing.

If you’re looking to make a lateral move, do so early.

Most of our clients are looking to hire junior or early mid-level associates. They’re hiring more conservatively and really thinking about return on investment. They are hesitant to consider new hires more senior than sixth year associates unless they come with a book of business or a specialized skill set that the firm seeks to develop.

For candidates, this means if you’re thinking about making a move it’s better to do so early on rather than waiting. Use your annual reviews to get a real sense of whether you’re on track to make partner. If you’re getting daily client interaction and building your own book of business, then you’re in a good position. But if you’re not getting client exposure, your practice is restrictive, or your firm’s solvency is in doubt, consider your options sooner rather than later. Don’t wait around in a position where you aren’t advancing.

Consider your options outside of big law firms.

If you’re mulling a lateral move, make sure you’ve considered your options outside of big law firms. Mid-size and boutique firms can be a great fit for some candidates. They offer a smaller, more intimate work environment and give associates the opportunity to develop a more in-depth expertise in a specific practice area. You also might want to go in-house, which usually entails significant lifestyle benefits. You could also consider working in government practice, which although it’s a significant change of environment, can be incredibly rewarding.

With lateral hires at big firms flat in 2017, it pays to start mapping out your options sooner rather than later. If you’re at a career crossroads and not sure when to take the next step – or what that step should be – please feel free to reach out and we will put you in touch with a recruiter.