When is the best time to switch firms if you are a practicing attorney considering a move? Although there is no hard and fast rule, the window of opportunity for associates to move typically falls in the range of 3-6 years of practice. The window for partners is usually need-driven for those without business, but virtually limitless for those who have their own business.
Most employers would like someone to have a few years of experience under their belt before considering a lateral move. When an associate gets past six years of experience they are often being considered for partnership and, assuming they are on track, will wait to see what happens with their current firm. Of course, this expectation goes both ways because other firms might question why someone with more than six years of experience would leave their firm so close to partnership. Although it may have nothing to do with the associate (especially over the difficult financial times we faced the past few years), a prospective firm might think the associate did not satisfy the partnership objectives and were deliberately passed over. The key for associates is to take a realistic assessment by years 4-5 of whether they want to be a partner at their current firm and, even if they do, whether they think partnership will be offered to them.
Of course partnership is not always the answer. We hear from partners all of the time who are unsatisfied in their current firm for one reason or another. At this level for those without business, the opportunities to lateral tend to be limited to need-based positions at another firm. An example is a firm that just lost a senior securities attorney and the work stayed with the firm. The firm might find the only way their clients will stay is if someone equally skilled fills the void. The situation can also apply to experienced litigators with trial experience, etc. Those that have managed to build a client base obviously have many more options. Sure the amount of business will dictate the possibilities to some extent, as will the work, bill rate, etc., but the bottom line is these people will have options.
Times have definitely changed from the days when an attorney could comfortably work at one firm their entire career. Changes in the economy, local legal landscape, and the practice of law in general have or should force attorneys to regularly contemplate the long-term viability of their current job and consider what other opportunities exist.