It is not uncommon for attorneys to become unhappy in their jobs. For some it is temporary or cyclical due to heavy caseloads, intensive hours, exhaustion or not enough steady work. For others, dissatisfaction can become overwhelming for graver reasons, such as a difficult partner or not fitting in with the firm culture. It is natural for these associates to ultimately realize, “Maybe I’m in the wrong firm.”

This realization can be paralyzing because the solution calls for a job change. At the same time, it is pivotal because it opens the door to acceptance and action. By taking smart and practical steps, the act of moving on can be the most rewarding thing that can happen.

Telltale signs that change may be on the horizon. Often, what leads to this realization in the first place is the proverbial Sunday Night Blues, or a general sense of dread on the eve of a new work week. If this or another marker of discontent has become a regular occurrence for you, try to view it from a practical place, rather an emotional one. It is not an impending crisis to recognize you may need to make a change – but rather a necessary first step toward landing the right job at the right firm.

Choose mental preparation over paralysis. Mentally preparing to change firms can be uncomfortable at first. Anxiety, doubt and even depression can get in the way. Just remember, a wide variety of emotions is natural for someone with so much invested in their legal career. Going through such feelings is sometimes what it takes to achieve what you ultimately envision for yourself.
Below are three considerations that have helped other associates move past emotional barriers. Once you begin to process these thoughts and decisions, you will also find feelings quickly give way to the pragmatic steps you need to take:

  • Decide whether your current role is sustainable for you while you stake out your move. It is generally advisable to give a job about 18 months or more to keep résumés in good order. However, there are exceptions. For example, if you are switching firms prior to 18 months because the partner who feeds you work is leaving, or if your current firm is having financial issues, these reasons are easy to explain.
  • Make a target list of firms you are interested in pursuing and do your research. One reason attorneys end up leaving firms is because there wasn’t enough intelligence gathering before taking a job. To avoid problems down the road, commit to tapping available resources (a trusted friend or recruiter, etc.) to learn all you can about a firm, its groups and for whom you will work. Of course, down the line, if you are selected to interview with firms on your target list, this is another perfect opportunity to check out the environment and the people first hand.
  • Once you firmly commit to making a change, start thinking about the experience you have gained at your current firm. Make notes and keep them handy for when you begin making updates to your résumé.

Following are important steps you can initiate right now.

Update your résumé and have your law school transcript ready

Dusting off your résumé, bringing it current, adding career highlights and keeping it in easy-to-read bullet points with specific examples is the single best tool to market yourself. Be sure to add all major and minor experience you have gained. Minor experience may not seem important to you, but it is, because it can catch the eye of hiring partners and open doors for you. And since law school transcripts are part and parcel of the recruiting process, have this readily available, too. An unofficial copy is acceptable with almost all firms.

Beyond résumés, for candidates applying for corporate positions, some firms like to see deal sheets highlighting the transactions candidates have worked on during their careers. Be liberal here as well. If applying for a litigation position, start thinking about what you would submit as a writing sample. Make sure it’s your very best work.

Decide whether you will contact a recruiter

If you decide to work with a recruiter, choose a legal specialist who actually has conversations with you on the phone, not just in email. A top recruiter cannot fully vet a candidate or come up with opportunities that best match a candidate through email alone. There is a wide variety of legal recruiters out there, but the best will invest time in speaking with you on the phone, researching the best opportunities for you, and ensuring confidentiality is maintained in all circumstances.

The right recruiter will want to delve deep into what is missing for you at your current firm and what you aspire to do in your legal career. Top recruiters will also directly interface with partners at firms you are interested in to get current job information and market your skills in the best possible light. Working with an influential recruiting firm can open opportunities for you that would not otherwise be available, and they are often privy to unposted opportunities based on strong relationships with key people at law firms.

During the 16 years I practiced law, I simultaneously held firm management roles that involved recruiting and training new associates and laterals. I use those insights daily as an attorney recruiter. I’m passionate about helping talented associates best prepare for change by providing intel on the legal market, sharpening résumés for specific roles, and staying in constant contact with firms about current opportunities.

Feedback from associates also keeps my finger on the pulse of what is going on inside various law firms. This is helpful for my candidates when discussing firm culture, how associates are treated in various practice groups, and how firms encourage the rise of associates in their climb toward partnership goals.

The time for change can be important

When deciding whether to make a move, don’t wait until you are too far along in your career at a given firm to be most marketable. For most large firms, associates are most marketable between years 3 through 6. There are exceptions, but we tend to see the most opportunities in this window.

Career advancement and job satisfaction are two of the most important life goals for today’s associates. It is my job and specialty to provide real-world guidance, and help you find the best opportunities in the marketplace that will hopefully lead you to a prosperous and sustainable position at a new firm.