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What Associates Need to Know About Changing Law Firms Checklist

June 13, 2024 (5 min read)

By: Hilary Gerzhoy, Amy Richardson, HWG LLP, and Lauren Snyder SAS

This checklist provides guidance for associates considering relocating to another firm and covers topics such as how to evaluate a potential new law firm, questions to ask at your interview, ethical responsibilities, and practical tips.

How to Evaluate a Potential New Law Firm

If you are considering making a lateral move, you should consider the following four topics:

  • The new firm’s structure
  • The new firm’s benefits and your proposed role
  • The new firm’s compensation structure
  • If applicable, the new firm’s partnership agreement and engagement agreement

You should also consider whether the founders of the firm are still present. If they are, that means:

  • The firm has yet to undergo the generational transition to new leadership.
  • If you join, you may become part of that transition, which can be difficult.
  • The new generation of leadership may:
    ✓ Have visions for the firm that do not align with your objectives
    ✓ Not prioritize your practice area
    ✓ Make policy or compensation changes that could impact your practice and your chances of elevation

There is also the question of whether the firm will be viable once the founding partners leave. If the founding partners were rainmakers, and the next generation of attorneys mainly serviced those rainmakers’ clients, clients may choose to go elsewhere once the founding partners leave.

Weighing the Factors

Like stated above, there are certain core considerations you should contemplate before making a lateral transfer, including:

  • Firm’s structure. You should start by looking at the potential firm’s website to assess the firm’s structure. Determine the ratio of partners to associates and whether there are different types of partners (i.e., equity and non-equity partners). Be aware that firms with few partners or two-tiered partnerships may offer fewer advancement opportunities. In two-tiered partnerships, getting elevated from non-equity partner to equity partner is often dependent solely on a sizable book of business or sponsorship by a particular practice group or firm leader, which might be difficult for non-equity partners to achieve. That means that most of the partnership could remain stagnant as non-equity partners.
  • Your motivation to move. It can be tempting to make a lateral transfer when you are having a difficult stretch at work.
    Be careful not to let this temptation cloud your judgment.
  • Recruiter representations. Recruiters are paid to induce lawyers to move between firms. Pressure test their promises, such as:
    ✓ Is it really a firm that cares about work/life balance?
    ✓ What is the billable hour requirement and what counts towards it?
    ✓ Are you encouraged (or required) to do business development and will you get credit for the time you spend doing it?
    ✓ How much autonomy will you have in developing your practice?
  • Practice groups. Many firms place associates and counsel into designated practice groups. Find out if your potential practice group will have enough work to ensure that you will be able to meet your billable targets. If not, ask if you will be allowed to get work from other practice groups.

Potential Interview Questions

Beyond looking at the potential new firm’s website to determine basic information about the firm’s structure, consider asking the following:

  • How much debt does the firm have?
  • How much turnover occurs at the firm (consider asking how long various attorneys have been there)?
  • How is compensation determined and who makes that determination (for the first year or two, the firm may guarantee a certain level of compensation)?
  • What are the basic benefits like health insurance and 401k matching?

You should also ask if there is a defined benefit pension plan that is unfunded. Unfunded pensions, also known as pay as you go plans, have the following features:

  • They do not have assets set aside and instead use the employer’s current income to fund payments to beneficiaries.
  • The ability to pay in the future may depend on the financial health of the firm.
  • The plan could also have requirements for entry, and you may not be eligible for the plan if the plan is closed.

If the plan is not closed, ask if you will have enough years of service to qualify at a reasonable age if you stay. You should also seek answers to the following questions:

  • What percent of associates and counsel were bonus-eligible in past years?
  • In a multi-office firm, can you work with partners in different offices?
  • What does the path to partnership look like?

It’s important to know the answers to these questions before making a move. Once you secure an offer, ask to speak to senior associates and counsel in the office to ask these questions.

Check for Conflicts of Interest

A lawyer has an ethical duty to check if conflicts exist at the new firm before making the move. To do that, you’ll need to provide the new firm with a list of:

  • All your clients
  • All clients about whom you learned information even if you did not perform work for them1

Once you’ve sent your list of clients to your new firm, you and your new firm must determine whether:

  • You will be adverse to a current client2
  • The new firm’s effectiveness on behalf of an existing client will be compromised3
  • Either you or your new firm will be adverse to a former client on a substantially related matter4

If there is a conflict, the common option is to see if you can be screened from the matter giving rise to the conflict.

Organize Your Client Files

If you decide to move, start organizing your client files. To do this:

  • Save all documents and emails in designated client folders
  • Do not download any files or email any documents to yourself

Final Steps Once You’re Settled at Your New Firm

Make sure that courts in which you have pending matters and all bars to which you belong are informed that you now have a new employer. In addition:

  • If your lateral transfer means you are changing the state in which you practice, check attorney licensure requirements.
  • Note that many states require that lawyers obtain and display a privilege license, a professional license that allows you to practice.

Hilary Gerzhoy is a partner at HWG LLP and Vice Chair of the firm’s Legal Ethics and Malpractice group. She represents lawyers and firms in disciplinary investigations, prosecutions, and malpractice matters. Hilary counsels lawyers regarding conflicts, advertising, fee disputes, the unauthorized practice of law, partner admissions, and law firm formations and dissolutions to avoid problems before they arise.

Amy Richardson, a partner at HWG LLP, is managing partner of the firm’s Raleigh office and Chair of the firm’s Legal Ethics and Malpractice group. Her practice focuses on legal ethics and professional responsibility matters, white collar defense, and complex commercial litigation. Amy counsels and advises lawyers and law firms in partner admissions and departures and law firm dissolutions.

Lauren Snyder is a former partner at HWG LLP. She now serves as legal counsel at SAS.

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1. See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT, R. 1.9(b)(2) (2018). 2. MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT, R. 1.7(a)(1) (2018). 3. MODEL R. 1.7(a)(2) (material limitation conflicts). 4. MODEL R. 1.9(a), (b). 5. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-41 (North Carolina rule requiring attorneys to pay $50 annually to obtain “a statewide license for the privilege of practicing the profession.”).