Instead of Thinking About the “Lateral Market,” Focus on What’s in Your Control

Albert Tawil Headshot


Albert Tawil, Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub

One of the most common questions I get is: “How strong is the lateral market right now?”
Many times, associates looking to lateral ask this as their first question.  My answer is (in nicer words): “Who cares?”  My real answer is: if you are looking to make a job change, focus on what is in your control, not out of your control.
If you don’t like your job, you want to find a new one, you are interested in specific opportunities on our platform, perhaps you were laid off or terminated for performance…  why does it matter how strong the market is?  It’s out of your control, and impossible to predict as it is.
Here are a few thoughts in response to this question.
Nobody Can Predict the Future
Nobody can predict the future.  Not the “experts.”  Not recruiters.  Not BigLaw partners.  Not the legal media.  Look at real estate “experts” in the beginning of 2008 touting how strong the market was.  There are too many factors at play and nobody knows how things will go.  Take a look at summaries of Nassim Taleb’s popular book, Black Swan.  Make predictions all you want, but all it takes is a black swan (an unpredictable, large event that changes assumptions), and it’s out the window. Covid is the perfect example.
So, let’s say you are looking to leave your job.  You don’t like your team, you work too much, whatever the reason.  If you are concerned the lateral market isn’t strong, what is the solution?  You can’t predict when it will become stronger.  You aren’t going to wait around for some unspecified time, when a lateral sherpa  wakes you up and says “it’s stronger now, go.”
Nobody can predict the future, so if you are looking to make a move, then look to make a move.
The “Market” is Hard to Define
The lateral market is a generic term.  Sure, there are statistics about lateral moves each year, which can help provide an overall gauge on where things are.  But once you go a layer deeper, you realize that the statistics are not that relevant to any person’s specific job situation.  The overall stats on lateral moves don’t account for practice area, seniority, location, firm size, etc – the only stat that matters is whether someone with your experience, your credentials, your practice area, in your location, has opportunities.  And there is no “market statistic” specific enough to help you with that.
Imagine you’re watching basketball with your friend, and Steph Curry pulls up to shoot a three-pointer.  Your friend pauses the TV and asks you: “What are the chances Steph Curry makes this three-pointer?”  You say (based on your knowledge of Curry’s shooting abilities), “I don’t know, maybe 40%” – and your friend responds “Well.. the NBA-wide three-point percentage is 25%, so are you sure about that?”
Imagine how ridiculous of a response that would be.  It’s Steph Curry shooting the shot, not the entire NBA.  So the only stat that matters is Steph Curry’s three-point percentage, not the entire NBA.
What matters is your situation and the opportunities available to you..  Not the entire “lateral market.”
Opportunities are Opportunities, Regardless of the Market
By nature, you can only have one law firm associate job at a time.  So, when you are looking for a job, all it takes is for you to land one good opportunity that you are excited about.
Law firm hiring is not always tied to the overall “lateral market.”  There are a lot of other reasons a law firm might be actively hiring associates.  Here are a few:
  • The firm brought on a new partner with a large book, and needs associates to staff the practice
  • The firm has a business plan to grow in a specific city and is hiring associates in that office, regardless of the overall strength of that practice area nationwide
  • The firm lost a couple of key associates during bonus season, who jumped in-house
  • The firm’s practice is based on two or three large clients, who have been active even in an uncertain economy
  • The firm landed a very large litigation matter that will last at least a couple of years and needs to staff it
If you focus too much on the elusive “lateral market,” you will miss out on the fact that these opportunities exist.  The proof is in the pudding.  During 2023 and early 2024, when some firms laid off corporate associates, other similar firms had published corporate openings, including in Emerging Companies/Venture Capital (ECVC) — not a ton, but definitely some.  How can that be?  Well, those other firms had a need – there is work in their practice that needs to get done.  It doesn’t matter that OTHER firms were overstaffed.  They are two separate things.
So, if you are looking for a job, forget about the market.  If there is an opportunity that is interesting to you, go for it.  Apply.  Put your best foot forward.  If the firm is actively hiring, they are actively hiring.
This brings me to my main point.
Focus on What is in Your Control
When candidates ask me how strong the lateral market is, I always respond that the “lateral market” (whatever that means) is out of your control.  Instead, if you are looking for a new job, you should focus on what is in your control.  Here are a few things that are in your control, and are much much much much much much more important for your application than the “strength” of the “lateral market:”
    • Use Cover Letters to Your Advantage — If you are interested in a job, that is slightly (or not so slightly) outside of your current practice area, or in a different location, or you are a little bit more junior than what they are looking for —  go for it, but include a cover letter.  If you are going to apply, why not put your best foot forward?  Explain your experience, why you can be a valuable asset to the team, and any other information that you think is helpful to preempt questions from the firm (why is this person applying?) — I’ve seen multiple second-year associates get offers for mid-level positions because they positioned themselves this way.  You can read more cover letter-related advice on our blog (When Should You Include a Cover Letter? and When Your Cover Letter Can Hurt You – TLDR, don’t have any typos and, for God’s sake, don’t include the wrong firm name.)
    • Make Your Resume Specific and Include a Deal Sheet – Don’t let the firm question your experience.  Handle what’s in your control, which includes your application materials.  Make your resume specific so it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s.  Include examples of specific matters you’ve worked on, specific agreements that you’ve drafted, responsibilities you’ve had, management of junior associates, etc (all if applicable).  For transactional attorneys, include a Deal Sheet – this is simple and easy to put together.  It shows the firm the deals you worked on so there is no question about whether you had the right experience.  It also shows that you are a candidate who cares about the details to put together a strong application with the right materials.  If you are not doing it, someone else is, and you are now fighting with them for the job.
    • Network – Networking is a long game.  Conversations you have now can turn into something a few years from now, and there a million examples of it.  But you’re also looking for a job now – so how can you network to help your immediate job search?
If you are interested in a job at a firm, go ahead and apply.  Then, after you apply, if there is an attorney in the group that you want to speak with – for example, they have a cool practice, they went to the same law school as you, you have a mutual connection, whatever it is.  Reach out to them.  Mention that you just applied for a job in X practice group and would love to meet them and learn more.  Many times, they will be happy to take the call – if they enjoyed speaking with you, they may mention it to the Recruiting team and give you a leg up.  During the call, offer to be a resource if you can ever be helpful for them.  
This overall approach avoids the awkward song-and-dance of networking for a job without mentioning that you are doing it for the job, but everybody knows it anyway.  You are up front and genuine, and it can be an important plus factor to your application.  This is much more important than the “lateral market.”
    • Don’t Make Your Application More Expensive and Less Attractive – Be intentional about your search and take control.  I write about this often – use every tool in your toolbox intentionally.  Some recruiters can be helpful, but it is not the only tool.  Entirely outsourcing your job search to a recruiter can put you in a tough position.  So, to keep an eye on things and take control, see what is out there.  Look at the Lateral Hub job board and apply yourself.  Talk to former classmates or friends at other firms that are interesting to you.  For firms not on Lateral Hub (yet), look at their website and see what is on there.
Some considerations to think about for candidates who cede control of their job search to a third-party recruiter:
      • You don’t know how your recruiter is selling you as compared to other candidates they are submitting.
      • Working with a recruiter makes your application more expensive for the firm.  You are then at a disadvantage to candidates who are applying directly or through employee referrals.  Many firms (even some of the largest firms) have told us expressly that they are looking to reduce search firm fees and looking for more direct applicants.  
      • Not all job postings are open to recruiters.  Some have told us that they are completely not using recruiters for associates searches.  I’ve spoken to multiple top firms who pretty much said they don’t open roles up to recruiters unless they have to, and end up hiring 90% of associates directly… You won’t know about these openings if you don’t take control of your search.
      • Generally, firms would much rather coordinate with the candidate directly on scheduling interviews and other details.  Sometimes recruiters add an extra layer that makes it difficult for the firm to gauge what the candidate wants.  I heard a story recently about a candidate who lost out on an opportunity because their recruiter wasn’t quick enough to respond to schedule the interview.
I’ve heard from a few associates recently how they found much more success with direct applications than with recruiters, and they were appreciative of this advice.
Lot of info here, but all under the common theme.  Stop worrying about other people or the “lateral market” and do what is in your control. Taking control of your job search and putting your best foot forward in your application are much important for your application than the “lateral market” — nobody really knows what that means, and you can’t do anything about it anyway.

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