When should you Leave your Firm?


say goodbye

Plenty of young lawyers are looking to move on.  It can be for a variety of reasons, some better than others.

What can become difficult is knowing whether or not an “issue” is worth leaving a firm over.

So let’s take a look at some of the main contenders.

It’s About the Money

As much as I hear complaints about lawyers’ salaries, we need to accept that we get paid pretty well as a rule.  I know, I know – there’s your friend over at the place with the thing who is earning 50% more than you, and place X has promised you a bump of $15k if you go to them.  Also there’s always that recruiter you spoke to told you that you’re getting paid “under market”.

I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t leave a firm for money, because sometimes it’s not an option.  Perhaps you’ve weathered a financial storm for a time and need the extra income, perhaps you’ve got triplets on the way that you weren’t expecting, or perhaps there are other reasons and the financial benefit is just an added bonus.

However you also need to think long term – if you’re talking about a minor pay increase and that’s the only reason you are considering leaving – then think again.  The chances are pretty good that over time things will re-balance themselves and you’ll be just fine.

But if it’s a significant and immediate need, rather than just a feeling of general inequity – then perhaps this is a real reason.

Your Boss is a Disaster

This one can be problematic. What if you work in a firm, and it’s become apparent that your immediate boss (the one you spend most of your time with) is totally unacceptable in some way (at least, in your opinion).  This might cover a range of options like:

  1. they just aren’t very good lawyers
  2. they have “checked out” and don’t really want to be there anymore
  3. they are total jerks and make your life a misery
  4. they offer no guidance or mentoring of any kind.

Let’s cover the obvious first – they are never, ever going to change.

Not ever.


In line with our general philosophy (hopefully) of not wasting precious time and energy on things that we cannot influence in any way,  you need to assume that your boss will be that way for the rest of your career.

There is an element of “better the devil you know” here. All bosses will have problems, flaws, and things that will drive you nuts (and don’t kid yourself – something about you will annoy everyone who is subordinate to you in the future as well).

So, within the realms of human frailty, you need to consider whether the problems with your boss are passable, mildly irritating, or utterly unacceptable.

There are some obvious ones here: outright abuse, failure to pay your wages, or consciously unethical legal practice – in my book these are out, no questions.

But it’s normally not that obvious – so over to you on this one.

No Career Prospects

Most lawyers want to advance in their careers, that’s no surprise.

And some lawyers hit the point where they are somewhat senior, wondering what happens next, only to find that there is no plan, no clarity, and no real intention of living up to the promises that have been made regarding “you’ll be partner soon”.

The current generation of senior partners are, by and large, tightly holding on to their equity.  That means that becoming a partner now takes far longer, is far harder, and takes place in a more competitive environment than ever.

So is this an issue that’s worth leaving an otherwise good firm for?

Depends on you, I guess. Is the title and the potential salary bump that important to you? What are you prepared to risk for that? Who would you be going in to partnership with, exactly, and how well do you know them? After all, going into business with someone isn’t to be taken lightly and you need to seriously consider the character of the other person, not just their success, before you jump ship.

For my part I’d caution strongly against this kind of lateral move unless it ticked a number of other boxes too.  Perhaps it will fix a salary problem and offer a title.  Perhaps it will get you out from under the thumb of a tyrant partner.  Perhaps it will let you spread your wings and take control of your career more.

Collapsing Firm

It happens.  Sometimes, enough things go wrong that a firm simply can’t survive and the writing is on wall.

Unfortunately, sometimes the last person to see the writing is the partners.

If the firm is full of people that you like, and you generally respect and get along with the partners – then you’re going to feel a bit guilty here.  The phrase “rat deserting a sinking ship” will spring to mind.

But it needn’t be so. Of course, there is a chance that your forecast of doom is wrong – and the firm comes out the other end.

But then, it might not.

I’m not a big fan of the “looking out for number 1” approach to life – I think we’re far better served by looking out for everyone else.

However, good decision making also says that if you staying or you leaving will make no difference to the inevitable demise of the firm, then perhaps going will be the better option for all.

If in doubt, and if it’s possible, talk to the most senior person you can find about what’s going on.  What are the plans, what are others doing, what’s the strategy?  If their answers satisfy you perhaps you hold on for a bit longer.  But if the answers sound like fluff, are vague, or you get the impression you’re being placated – then I’d be out of there.

You’re the Problem

It’s always possible that the firm has no problem, and in fact YOU are the problem.  Maybe it’s your attitude, your demands, your expectations, or your perceptions that are totally unreasonable.

Bear that in mind before you write any employer off.

Of course – if you do choose to leave, you’ll need a job.  The job hunting series might help you out there.

Happy Lawyering!

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