I’m a mid-level associate in a real estate team. Since I qualified I’ve mostly split my time working for two different partners – Partner X and Partner Y. Now Partner X is leaving for another firm and it looks like they’re going to take a good chunk of the team with them. They want me to go too but I’m torn. Partner X is a big rainmaker and no doubt hitching my wagon to their star is the ‘smart’ choice – but I feel a sense of loyalty to my current firm and I really like Partner Y, who is older and a bit more ‘slow and steady’ but lovely to work for. What should I do, and are there other factors I should be considering?

General counsel Europe, Moët Hennessy Europe, for follow manager new law firm article
Isabelle Meyer

Isabelle Meyer, legal director Europe, Moët Hennessey

You’ve been asked by Partner X to go with him and I understand that the firm you are working for, and Partner Y in particular, would be happy for you to stay.

Provided my assumptions are correct, you are in a pretty good place! Two partners and two law firms want you! You, however, have a choice to make and to do so, you should think about yourself first.

You can go with Partner X. Should you decide to go this route, I would recommend you to research the law firm he will be joining – indeed, you will want to make sure that you are happy with the culture of such firm. Should you expect to become a partner in a few years’ time, you should discuss this point with Partner X upfront. Let him know about your expectations and see how he reacts. As he is asking you to go with him, it only seems fair for you to have such a discussion before making any decision.

You can stay and keep working with Partner Y. Should you opt for this, I would recommend that you check a few points beforehand. Will there be enough work for you? Indeed, it seems that Partner X may take quite a lot of clients with him. What are the plans of Partner Y? Will he retire soon? What are his plans – and those of the firm – when he retires? Is there a chance that you will take over his clients? It seems that you have a good relationship with Partner Y, hence he will probably understand your concerns and happily provide you with answers. The firm may also want you to work exclusively for another existing partner or for a potential new partner that may join the firm after the departure of Partner X. This is something you should discuss with Partner Y or HR as well before making any decisions relating to your future.

Last but not least, do not feel guilty whatever decision you make. You will have to make a decision and one partner will obviously end up without you. And when it comes to the firm, please remember that nothing is ever guaranteed. Indeed, in 2009, due to the economic crisis, a few law firms (including magic circle law firms) had to let staff go. Partners, associates and administrative personnel who thought they had job security and were probably happy at work lost their job in weeks…

Kathy Atkinson, legal director, Kettle Foods

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Kathy Atkinson

I would always be cautious about being too dependent on any one individual in relation to career choices. Following someone to a new firm is a big step to take as they are just one person and it does not mean that you will like the new firm or the other people that work there.

Equally, staying put because of enjoying working with another partner is potentially flawed for the same reason. You cannot rely on either partner to be around indefinitely – either of them could choose to move on at any time and if they are the sole reason you have chosen a role you risk being left feeling betrayed and abandoned, which is not the fault of the partner in question as we all have to be responsible for our own career choices. 

It is important to consider the wider context of the teams and the firms when making your decision, so make sure you do some research and talk to other employees at the new firm or other people you know who may have had dealings with them. You need to be able to understand the ethos of the firm in question, what the culture is like, what the strategy is for both the firm and the team that you would be in and compare that to the feel of your current firm.

It is also perfectly valid for you to be asking questions of the remaining management within your current team to find out what they anticipate will happen after the departures. If, as you say, it is to be a sizeable chunk of the team that go, that will have quite an effect on those who remain. As well as changing the dynamic it may open up some different opportunities and will probably result in recruitment of new people. Working with them will equally offer new challenges and opportunities too.

Once you are in possession of more information about both possible scenarios then you can trust your instincts and not feel obliged to do what you think would be considered by others to be the smart choice – so long as you have valid reasons to justify your decision to yourself (you don’t need to justify it to anyone else) then you shouldn’t feel any regret whichever way you go.

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Ray Berg

Ray Berg, managing partner, Osborne Clarke

It’s a hard dilemma. What will remain if a ‘good chunk’ of your team leaves? Will they leave? And why? How would your firm react? Could you be in breach of any obligations owed to your firm? What would the new firm be like? How strong are they in your specialism? What are their people like? Which firm offers the greatest opportunity for you to succeed? How do you measure your success? A lot of questions and uncertainties which you’ll need to explore to make the most informed decision.

“Latching yourself to a ‘rainmaker’ or ‘star’ is certainly one traditional career solution. After all ‘success builds success’, good to learn from those you admire and it can sometimes be easier than building your own practice and style independently. But it comes with downsides too. For the business it may generate clones, favouritism and restrict the diversity of people needed to succeed and to continue to innovate. For you it may build dependency on one individual, overly dominate your experience and lead you to not stand on your own two feet. The ‘star’s’ success is because their style works for them, with their clients and in their time. The same may not be as true for you.

“On the other hand, it sounds like your current firm also has a lot going for it. I think the best companies invest in their businesses to foster happiness, which means their employees often have more energy, are more engaged and build better relationships. So don’t underestimate the value of enjoying your workplace, as it can be hard to come by. Equally, Partner Y sounds very steady and experienced so in comparison to Partner X you will still learn a lot, but you won’t have the peaks and (potentially) troughs, which in the long run might mean you are better off.

“Ultimately your career will be what you make it. So drive it yourself and don’t overly rely on any one individual. Surround yourself and learn from lots of different situations and successful people in all their different shapes and forms. As you build your career it will be the breadth and variety of your experience, your ability to build a network and how you can adapt to changing situations that will count alongside your particular technical excellence or individual rainmaking. So try to work out which organisation, partners and teams provide you with the greatest opportunity to develop yourself, your practice and the life you wish to live (and how you wish to live it).

Elaine Hutton, European general counsel, Shiseido

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Elaine Hutton

At your level you’re probably thinking of partnership, so consider which choice would offer you the greatest opportunity.  Be candid, speak to both partners – it’s likely that Partner Y will want to keep you and if rebuilding the practice you could be in a good position, plus you like working with him which is a huge factor.

Also, Partner X may have less influence to promote associates in the new firm as will have to prove him/herself for a few years and of course will have fewer top level contacts within the new firm – plus, you need to seriously consider whether you will you fit into the culture there.

Sally Davies, London senior partner, Mayer Brown

Sally Davies Mayer Brown, for follow manager new law firm article
Sally Davies

Loyalty is good and it is good that this situation is causing you to think hard about your future.

You need to do as much research as possible. Partner X will be under pressure to perform at the new firm. This will transfer pressure to you in an unknown environment. Partner X will not be able to reassure you as to the future, or potential promotion prospects, but he may offer you the earth as it is better for him to take a larger team. If you are interested in exploring the opportunity at the new firm ask to meet associates in the team – try to work out the team dynamic, how would you fit in an existing team which may be threatened by Partner X/your arrival? Find out from others what the culture is like and whether it will suit you regardless of Partner X.

On the other hand, every departure creates an opportunity. Partner Y is stable and solid and opportunities may well be created for you longer term to stick with partner Y and take advantage of the departure of Partner X. There will be more clarity on the promotion prospects in an environment you know and are familiar with. Your loyalty will be respected and may stand you in good stead going forward. Talk to both Partner X and Y, be open about your concerns (be aware that Partner X is probably restricted by a covenant not to poach associates). Talk to Partner Y and ask about your future.

If you consider staying where you are, engage and work hard but also monitor how partner X gets on at the new firm. If he wants you to join then he will wait for you so don’t make yourself a pawn in a larger game, you should control your own timetable.

June-cover-2018-miniThis article is taken from The Lawyer’s monthly magazine. The latest issue contains insights into international firms’ European strategies, in-house interviews, legal strategy case studies and key findings from the US Top 50 Firms in London report and the European 100 report. To subscribe please click here.

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