Advice for the Lawlorn: The Best Time to Lateral
I am an associate at a BigLaw firm considering my career. I have heard rumors that the height of an associate's marketability for in-house and other post-BigLaw positions is when he is a mid-level. By the time he is a senior associate, and especially by the time he is in the "up for partnership" years, his marketability decreases. An explanation I have heard for this is that it is assumed by prospective employers that senior associates looking for jobs are those who weren't good enough to make the cut for partnership. Is there any truth to this?
I suppose there might be some element of truth to what you have heard, especially in this tough job market. But I find it hard to believe in this day and age that prospective employers make an across-the-board assumption that just because a senior associate is on the job market it means that they weren't good enough to become a partner at their current firm.
Of course, it happens to be true that if you wait until you are a very senior associate to start looking, it probably is due to the fact that you have finally realized that you are not going to make partner at your firm or that your firm is one of the "up or out" firms where if you don't make partner you then have to move on. But I don't think that is the reason that a senior associate is not as marketable for a law firm opportunity as are more junior associates.
Before I get into what I believe are the real reasons for decreasing marketability, I want to address one part of your question. You mention that a senior associate's marketability for in-house opportunities decreases after the mid-level associate point. I completely disagree. A senior associate's value for in-house positions increases during those years. This is when the best in-house opportunities—other than General Counsel—definitely become available and with 8-10 years of experience under his or her belt, these attorneys are extremely viable in-house candidates.
They have been exposed to close to a decade of litigations and/or transactions and no longer need mentoring or supervision to figure out how to deal with these situations. They are seasoned attorneys and can also manage and supervise other attorneys because they have done it already. They are prime candidates for many of the available in-house opportunities.
A more junior attorney more than likely will still need some guidance and, as I have written before, the in-house environment simply is not set up to provide the needed supervision and direction.
Now, to address what I believe is the real reason that senior associates have difficulty being hired for associate positions in the law firms.