Associate Advice, Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Job Searches, Lateral Moves, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Writing on the Wall

Tom Wallerstein

The attrition rate in Biglaw is legendary. Since the recession hit, associates are less likely to voluntarily abandon a six-figure job and more often believe that you don’t get up and go until they throw you out the door. On the other hand, since the recession hit, associates are less likely to have any choice in the matter should their firm feel the need to reduce headcount. But especially during the boom years when I began practicing, associates frequently left their firm gigs to do all manner of things, from going in-house, to starting a private practice, to hiking across the country, or moving to Nepal.

I worked in large and medium-sized firms for nearly a decade, and during my tenure, I saw an awful lot of associates come and go. Rarely if ever was I surprised to hear the news. In fact, I was usually surprised that others were surprised. In my experience, there are certain tell-tale signs that an associate is crafting a farewell email….

Closed doors: I’m confident that most associates who ever left a firm had a much higher-than-average number of times when their office door was closed. Of course there are good reasons for closing your door: you’re on a conference call and don’t want to disturb others, or you are really trying to concentrate on something and don’t want to be interrupted, or you’re changing your clothes, or perhaps taking a nap. But when your door is closed too frequently, we suspect it means that your days might be numbered.

Light on work: When an associate is planning to leave his firm, he is unlikely to volunteer for more work even if sent imploring emails. If everyone in the office is pulling all-nighters and billing over 200 hours per month, but one gal is only logging 140, odds are good that she already has a foot out the door. Similarly, a departing associate usually shows obvious signs of being much less responsive than usual. Given our generous compensation, I generally buy into a 24/7 email culture and believe that associates must pretty much constantly “check you emails.” But that ideal goes to the wayside once an associate knows their tenure is limited.

“OOO”: This is Quinn Emanuel speak — and now, Colt Wallerstein speak — for “out of the office.” It is the subject line of an email informing others that you won’t be in the office. Everyone will sometimes be out of the office for necessary appointments with a doctor or dentist. But when those out of office emails start to proliferate, it’s often a sign that a departure is imminent. I remember one young associate who was a bridesmaid in a wedding several weekends in a row. A lot of people were amazed that so many of her close friends were getting married all at once. Nope. She was quitting.

Dressed to kill: Another dead giveaway that someone is interviewing is when they have emergencies that require them to be out of the office, but when they get in, they’re well dressed, have their hair done, and look like, well, like they just came in from an interview. Guess what? They did. This can be pretty conspicuous, especially if the look is a significant upgrade from the norm. In a casual work environment where associates wear t-shirts and flip flops, the sudden appearance of a suit can be a pretty obvious sign.

Zen: A more subtle sign of an imminent departure is when a once-harried associate suddenly manifests a state of zen-like calm. Criticism that once would have led to tears now flows like water off a duck. The secretly soon-to-be-departing associate suddenly stops complaining about the hours, about the work, about the partners, about . . . . everything. Because none of it matters anymore. I have seen this sudden transformation from miserable to content many, many times, and it usually means that change is in the air.

The associate is still likely to be more skittish and nervous than usual, but it is different than the signs of stress shown by an associate who is committed to (trapped in?) their work environment. The associate is nervous that her secret will get out, but not stressed. The difference is palpable to anyone who has experienced it.

Face time: Once a decision to leave is made, an associate will often stop attending firm social events or otherwise trying to put in face time. When they’re gunning for partner, senior associates laugh at every inane joke a partner makes. Once the hope for partnership is gone, so, too, is the tendency to be a sycophant.

The moral of the story for associates is that, if you’re planning on leaving your firm, don’t get caught in slow motion in a dash for the door. In other words, don’t be obvious. You may think that no one notices all these signs, but many times they do. Maybe you don’t care, and that’s fine. But sometimes a more stealthy departure is important. Perhaps you are interviewing and don’t have a new gig lined up yet. Perhaps you are talking to your current clients and gauging their interest in retaining you after you have left your firm. If you really want your departure memo to come as a surprise, don’t let your colleagues read the writing on the wall.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

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