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The Rise in Interest in Lateral Moves in the Legal Industry

The pandemic has affected every facet of life, from employment to working styles, and the legal industry is no exception. Experts will agree that they have seen a rise in lateral moves from legal associates and partners between 2017–2019. So far in 2020, there has also been a notable rise in attorneys who will consider a transition and are open to considering positions not previously explored, including nontraditional roles.

Elyse “Ellie” Kelly

Prior to the pandemic, associates typically made lateral moves for a variety of reasons, usually, within two to five years from the start of their career. For some, a change in environment was crucial. Whether it was a change in firm size or a need for more structure, some lawyers sought out a different firm dynamic that best fit their experience and work style. Others wanted to shift practice areas, either to become more generalized or more specialized. Additionally, some made a move to further their career path to be better positioned for partnership or in-house opportunities.

Financial circumstances also played a large role in sparking interest in candidates to make a change. The two biggest reasons for a lateral change were related to monetary compensation and billable hour requirements. Prepandemic, many lawyers looked for opportunities with higher salaries and quicker growth, with lateral moves being the fastest way to take advantage of that.

Finally, some associates aimed to make lateral movements to achieve a better sense of work-life balance. The legal profession can take a toll on an associate’s personal life and family time, where they could feel they are often left sacrificing one for the other. Because of this, some lawyers and partners chose to make career shifts that supported a better sense of balance and mental health — something that still rings true today.


Like countless other industries, the legal industry has witnessed its own changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many lawyers at the associate level, when the pandemic first began, it created uncertainty but also a renewed sense of motivation and focus on individual career journeys and the potential for seizing new opportunities.

Some law firms and search firms saw associates leave big cities to move back to their hometown and be closer to friends and family. With the pandemic necessitating a remote working environment, attorneys now had the flexibility to make this change — a concept not previously embraced by many employers. With firms needing to quickly react to current circumstances, they have truly been thrust into the tech/digital age and are now catching up with other industries that have previously offered the same level of flexibility (without sacrificing growth opportunities or compensation). Law firms have found that, contrary to previous concerns, work quality and productivity have remained at prepandemic levels, despite attorneys moving out of the office.

Law firm partners have also made career adjustments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most notably, partners have begun leaving law firms and moving to roles in-house much sooner in their career journeys compared to previous years. Search firms have also found that many partners are even retiring earlier than anticipated, resulting in profound succession planning opportunities. Those who have retired appear to have new outlooks on life, focusing on mental health and quality time with family.

Law firms have found that, contrary to previous concerns, work quality and productivity have remained at prepandemic levels, despite attorneys moving out of the office.  

For associates looking to make a lateral move in this current environment, there are a variety of approaches to take. Candidates should focus on being open-minded, being active in local bar associations, connecting with law school alumni, as well as keeping platforms like LinkedIn up to date. Even if passively keeping an eye out, it is also worth beginning a dialogue with a professional legal recruiter.

Putting in the time and research to find the perfect career fit is invaluable, but experienced legal recruiters are also a resource to further assist in providing firsthand knowledge and to learn about unlisted positions.

Additionally, for candidates who are already in transition but not currently employed may want to consider contract/interim work to keep their skills sharp and to continue to stay engaged with their legal community.

The previous year-over-year rise in lateral moves by associates has looked differently amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has also created the opportunity for job seekers and employers alike to place an emphasis on family time and mental health. As the legal industry looks to adapt to the “new normal,” these trends will ultimately continue and play an even larger role in decision-making well into the future.