Biglaw, Gender, Headhunters / Recruiters, In-House Counsel, Women's Issues

Inside Straight: Moving Laterally

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

I spoke on a panel with two other in-house lawyers at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law a little while ago, and I learned two interesting things about lateral mobility. I’m not one to keep secrets (other than client confidences, of course), so I figure I’ll share.

The first item came from a question a law student asked of Steve Beard, who’s the general counsel of Heidrick & Struggles, a recruiting firm. The student asked when the best times are during your legal career to make a lateral move. I didn’t have a clue, and Beard works for a headhunter, so I figured it was time to listen.

Beard said that headhunters will call you most aggressively at three times in your life. First, you’ll get calls when you’re roughly a third-year associate. At that point, the market perceives that you’ve been trained in the fundamentals of being a lawyer. If someone is looking for a competent person still early in a legal career, that’s more or less the time.

You’ll then apparently have to endure a few years of relative silence. The phone won’t start to ring regularly again until you’re six or seven years out of law school. The market will then perceive you as having become a fully formed lawyer, capable of performing most of the tasks in your niche. Corporations figure that they can hire a sixth-year associate, train the candidate about a particular business, and fit the person easily into a corporate structure….

If you don’t move then, however, it’s another couple of years of telephone silence. You’re not likely to be recruited aggressively again until after you’re a partner. At that point, you’ve distinguished yourself (by having successfully run the odd gauntlet that you chose), and you have a higher profile in your practice area. Potential employers assume that you have technical mastery of a field and possess useful specialized knowledge, so you become a hot item.

Beyond that, according to the pro (and the third panelist, who nodded in agreement, while I sat there mutely), things become more sporadic. You’ll occasionally receive calls from headhunters looking for a particular person who possesses a particular attribute, but you’ll no longer routinely receive generic cold calls. And, say my sources, jobs changes later in your career are more likely to be prompted by personal recommendations, where someone who knows you suggests to a colleague that you’d be good for a particular job.

The second interesting thing mentioned at the panel was that women tend to move laterally more successfully than men do. This apparently isn’t just flagrant stereotyping, but flagrant stereotyping back up by empirics. (At that point, do we call it “knowledge,” rather than “prejudice”?) Some studies supposedly show that women generally perform more effectively than men do after they change jobs. And the studies suggest a reason for this: The data show that men invest more heavily than women in “internal capital” — men tend to build relationships and develop friendships with their co-workers. Women, in contrast, supposedly invest more heavily in “external capital” — women disproportionately form networks with people outside of their own organizations, staying in touch with people they meet through trade or bar associations, on non-profit boards, and the like. The theorists suggest that women thus move laterally more effectively than men do because men abandon their networks more completely when they move from one job to another, while women have a broader network that continues to support them in the new work environment.

I have no clue whether any of this is true. I haven’t seen the data, and it’s largely irrelevant whether it matches up to my own personal experience. But I hadn’t heard this stuff before, and it may be relevant to a career move or a hiring decision, so I figured I’d share. Enjoy!


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.

You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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