The "Hard" Lateral—Going From Small to BigLaw Mid-Career
A common career strategy for lawyers is to head into the trenches at BigLaw straight out of school. Clear-eyed about the fact that fewer than 5% of associates will ultimately make partner, the move is nonetheless a good one because the experience gained, the prestige on the resume, and of course, the paycheck, will all help in providing a variety of landing or exit options whether or not you actually make the partner cut. The thinking goes that you can end up just about anywhere *after* putting in your years in the BigLaw grind, and this is largely true.
But what about moving the other direction? The general belief is that it is very difficult for someone who began at a small or midsize firm (excepting highly prestigious ones) to manage the lateral move into BigLaw. I don't know if this conventional wisdom is statistically true, but I can tell you that the move is possible because I made it.
I began my legal career as the sixth attorney in a small IP boutique back in my hometown. I really wanted to come home and do IP work, and I managed to find an opportunity to do that. The opportunity was a great one, and I quickly realized that the biggest advantage of coming to a small firm was that I would do substantive work very early. I took my first deposition—a fact depo in a patent infringement lawsuit—about six months into my practice. I stood up in court at the trial for that same lawsuit before my second year was out. I wasn't doing it with an eye toward someday lateraling into BigLaw, but I was nonetheless gaining the type of experience that would make me a valuable member of a prestigious litigation team.
There was no animus involved in my ultimate decision to leave that first firm, but I was motivated by a few things that became clear near the end of that third year. After completing another enormous trial, I was frustrated by the small firm's lack of resources and resultant less professional appearance relative to opposing counsel during that proceeding. The second was a clear lack of upward mobility; the firm was still a sole partnership, and as the most junior person there, I didn't see a clear way for me to advance in that office. Finally, I felt like I had learned what I could there, and I was seeking more challenging, high-stakes work.
I was discouraged, however, in the thought that I really had no idea about how to get such a position. Obviously, the "traditional" OCI ship had long since sailed. I knew, or thought I knew, that BigLaw firms weren't keen on people who hadn't been on the prestige track the whole way through. And I didn't even really know how to find positions to try to apply for.
My saving grace was a legal recruiter. A colleague who had been successfully placed into a partner position recommended her to me, and she was able to connect me to opportunities I had absolutely no other way of finding. It's no secret that there are many teams out there that run so leanly they don't want to train new associates at all; they exclusively hire laterals with qualified experience. She was able to connect me to one such litigation team, who invited me to interview and ultimately gave me an offer. I then spent the remainder of my practice years doing high-stakes litigation for really big, important, interesting clients at a Vault 100 firm.
Obviously, there's a huge amount of luck involved in my particular story, but I think if you're interested in trying to make this move, I can offer a few pieces of advice. The first is to dig in at the firm you're currently working for and seek the most advanced substantive work you possibly can. When I was competing for that spot with other third years, the edge I had over the much greater prestige of their employers was my experience. I had conducted all sorts of depositions, been at every level of discovery, authored dispositive motions, and had standup trial experience. This is how I was able to overcome that prestige deficit, and you can too. Take advantage of the opportunity being at a smaller firm offers you to dive into advanced work as quickly as you can.
The second is to connect with a reputable recruiter (or several) as soon as you can. The sorts of positions you can likely lateral into are generally not the kind that will be publicly posted (and in that event, your resume will likely drown in an ocean of those with more prestigious firms on them). Instead, take advantage of their relationships with specific attorneys running teams looking for someone with your particular qualifications. You may not get lucky as quickly as I did, but you won't get anywhere at all if you don't find a channel to those non-public opportunities.
Finally, I suggest doing your homework on your own. Resources like Vault Law's practice area rankings can show you which firms are working in the spaces you feel qualified to work in and where your talents can make a contribution. Check out the ranked firms in the practice areas you're interested in, find out which partners are leading the teams you're interested in working on, and see if you know someone who you can ask for an introduction or even approach them directly to see if there's an opportunity for you to work together. Maintain these relationships and contacts even if the answer is no. You never know when, in the future, an opportunity may arise either with them or someone they know, and you want to be the person they think of when they see an opening.
I ultimately came away disbelieving that this lateral direction was any more difficult than another. The truth is that I got my position based on the same fundamentals anyone does. My experience and qualifications were a match; there was serendipity with my recruiter being aware of the open position; and I got along with the team when I interviewed. Making the move is about maximizing the odds on the things you do control. Get after the kind of experience that qualifies you for the work you want to do. Network and use recruiters to maximize the number of opportunities you have. Do your homework and remember that the offer will come down to the team thinking you're the best fit for their needs. If I made this move, I'm confident you can too. Good luck!