The advantages of moving as an associate from a large city firm to a smaller platform

By RedLaw | 29 Sep, 2015

Do you ever feel like you are living somebody else’s life?  Trapped somewhere you do not really feel valued?  Escaping to an American firm might be one answer, but not everyone wants to join a US practice, often with a very strong hour’s culture.

How about switching from a large City firm to a mid-tier or smaller firm?  How would that sort of career move impact your day-to-day job satisfaction and future prospects?  Hopefully this insight will help.  Many of the legal associates with whom we have met in recent years, from Magic Circle and large international firms, have been more interested in this direction of travel.  The following are amongst the factors they have weighed up:

Clients: will you effectively be waving goodbye to that prestigious client base? In some cases, yes.  That might actually be music to your ears if you are sick of toiling late into the night (and being on call over the weekend) for demanding institutional clients that must be kept happy at all costs.  Besides, some associates really prefer interacting with smaller businesses where they have the chance to really get to know their clients and the world in which they operate, and feel positive about the valuable contribution they make to those enterprises.  There is also a middle ground, if you prefer, where you can continue to spend a proportion of your time acting for international corporate and finance powerhouses, but the matters you handle for them may be a shade smaller.

Professional development: what dedicated training will I receive to stand my long term career in good stead?  Your new partners will be equally aware of the benefit of ongoing training, and with a smaller business there is sometimes less red tape to contend with when you want the green light to attend the courses that you feel you need.  There is no substitute for learning on the job, and as part of a smaller team you can often have more direct exposure to the partner whom you are learning from.  Moreover, you will often assume a greater level of responsibility on the files, as well as starting to run your own matters earlier on in your career.

Prestige: will you miss the kudos associated with a large City firm?  That depends entirely on you and how you assess your practice’s standing in the market.  If you are in a line of work that is generally considered secondary to the firm’s core finance or corporate business, for example, you may actually find you feel better placed if you move to a specialist boutique firm.  Your practice’s reputation in that particular area of expertise may actually be comparable or better, and consequently you will still act for some well-regarded clients.  What is more, it is highly motivational to be in a department that essentially holds the client relationships, rather than being a corporate support function.

Firm strategy and investment: global powerhouses need to look at the bigger picture and must think very carefully about their direction and growth.  This may lead to management prioritising the firm’s inroads in certain overseas office locations, for example, ahead of investment into your own team.   Working with a smaller practice, particularly one where your team carries weight within the firm, there is a greater likelihood that the partners’ priorities are aligned with your own, and decisions taken are more likely to directly benefit your own department.

Office culture: it is easy to see why some people feel like they are just a number at a larger firm.  It is satisfying to work in an environment where you feel you make a difference, and your contribution is noted.  Moreover, at a smaller or mid-tier firm there is rarely the same level of hours expectations as you find at a large finance or corporate driven practice.  The hours will often be 30-40% lower, and those are the extra hours that make the world of difference to your work-life balance and well-being.

Your partners and colleagues: how will your new team measure up to the calibre of individual you have worked alongside to date?  Well, the partners and associates you will join have gone through a similar thought process, and many stem from a similar background.  Therefore you can expect to work with similarly well-educated and well-trained individuals, who have decided this environment is more fulfilling for them.

Future prospects: it is soul destroying if you devote every waking moment to a seemingly impossible goal.  You will have seen some extremely talented senior associates overlooked for partnership, and you may prefer to avoid a similar fate and invest these important years at a new firm where you can make partner.  At a mid-tier or smaller firm, you will be encouraged and supported on the client development side from an early stage, with the result that you have a favourable chance of building your reputation and practice and making a successful bid for partnership.

There are two sides to every story, and there are just as many reasons why many associates prefer to work at a larger firm.  We all have good days and bad days.  Our advice is this: you spend an awful lot of your time at work, so you owe it to yourself to take a step back and make an objective assessment from time to time.  Are you sure you are in the right place to suit your own preferences and aspirations?  We speak to a lot of unhappy lawyers, but also speak to many people who really love their job.  It is just a case of being at the right home.

If you would like a confidential discussion about your own circumstances and opportunities, please do get in touch.


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