Associates: When Should You Start Looking for a New Position?


As a law firm associate who knows that you eventually want to look for a new position, it is sometimes difficult to know when to change jobs – and importantly, when to start the job seeking process. You don’t want to leave your position too soon and look like you’re a risky hire or a “hopper”, but you also don’t want to wait too long and be left with limited options. The average job search can take as long as 6-9 months, and sometimes longer for certain types of positions. You want to leave yourself plenty of time so you can take a job that you want to take, and not a job you have to take.

Between Your Second to Fifth Year

For law firm associates, the sweet spot to start looking is between your second and fifth year. You’ve gained enough experience by your second year that you have some marketable skills, and you won’t be viewed as a risky investment because you looked for a new job too soon.

Once you get beyond your fifth year, things get a little trickier. You’re closer to being considered for partnership, and starting over at a new firm might delay your partnership aspirations.

Five Years or Beyond for In-House

However, if your goal is to go in-house, fifth year and beyond is the perfect timing. The general rule for in-house jobs is at least five years of experience, but we have seen some exceptions in recent years, particularly for transactional positions.

However, don’t wait too long – as many in-house positions will require prior in-house experience, it is great to get in on the ground floor as early in your career as possible.

Your Last Review Stung

If you’re being honest with yourself, that last performance review was not ideal. The writing is on the wall. If you suspect at all that your position is vulnerable, it’s time to start looking around. Perhaps it’s a situation you can turn around, but it’s still smart to investigate your other options.

It’s important not to let the review kill your confidence, but if the assessment was fair, make a conscious effort to work on the areas of criticism as this will benefit your professional future whether it’s at this or another firm.

You’re Scrounging for Billable Hours

Is your practice area work load down at your firm? Do you constantly find yourself having to go door-to-door to find work so that your billable hours don’t suffer?

It might be time to find a new job. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. You might not be privy to the reasons why your practice group is slowing down, but if your gut is telling you things aren’t very busy, you may want to start looking around. It doesn’t mean you have to leave, but it means you’ll have options if things do indeed go south and it becomes necessary to look for another position.

An Important Partner Departed

Maybe you do know the reason your practice group is suffering: a key partner has departed the firm. Even if you didn’t work directly with this partner, he/she might have been supplying the bulk of your group’s work.

If a major partner in your group leaves and you notice that the work is starting to dry up, start looking for something new. Sometimes it becomes an every-man-for-himself type of environment, so be prepared so you are not the one left out in the cold.

It’s Just Not the Right Fit

Sometimes your current firm simply isn’t the right fit for you. Maybe the firm hasn’t developed clients in the area you were really hoping to practice, or perhaps it doesn’t encourage associates to market or bring in new clients, but you’re naturally entrepreneurial and want that type of environment.

Whatever the reason, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to move on and find a position that is right for you. If your gut is telling you this isn’t the place, then listen to it. The sooner you start looking, the sooner you can find a better professional fit and begin the next chapter of your legal career.



McCormack Schreiber Legal Search is Chicago’s premier attorney search firm. Since 1998, we have been placing experienced attorneys of all levels in a full range of exciting law firm and in-house positions. We are committed to providing the highest level of service and results, and we welcome you to contact us in confidence at