From Burnout to Balance: 4 Key Considerations for a Lateral Move

Hipster attorney riding a skateboard in office.

Career is a vital part of our lives, and our day-to-day actions at work have resounding consequences on our personal and professional relationships, as well as on our mental and physical health. The prospect of shifting to a new path, even if it’s a lateral shift, can be both overwhelming and, at times, discouraging to navigate the complex decision-making process. 

What I mean by “lateral shift” is a job transition involving a change in responsibilities or position, but maintaining a relatively similar level of seniority, compensation, or status. Typically, lateral moves do not entail a significant promotion or increase in pay. Contrary to a vertical move, which involves upward career progression, a lateral move focuses on acquiring new skills, broadening one’s experience, or seeking a better fit for one’s interests and strengths without necessarily climbing the corporate ladder. 

My career in law has spanned four decades and is sprinkled with efforts to retire. Today I’m with the law firm Smith + Malek, largely because of a unique opportunity they provided me to mentor young attorneys. Work is deeply personal, of course, but I find it invigorating to share my knowledge and expertise within the firm’s distinctive team-based work environment. 

With a history spanning various firms, roles, and governmental agencies across Washington and Idaho, I recommend focusing on four key considerations before embarking on a lateral move: 

1. What is the Why? 

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to identify why you want to move. Are you unhappy with the type of work you’re doing, the environment you work in, or do you lack opportunity? If you don’t want to practice law anymore, changing firms isn’t going to change that fact, but if you are stuck in a toxic work environment, no longer want to compete against your colleagues, or need more flexibility in your schedule, there may be a firm out there with a better fit. 

2. Do Your Research 

Reflecting on my family’s relocation from Boise to Seattle, I chose to work at a firm where I held connections. Regrettably, shortly after I was hired, a significant restructure occurred that I wasn’t privy to. Delving into a firm’s culture, history, reputation, and case portfolio could have led me to a different decision. It’s vital to learn if the new firm aligns with your motives and enthusiasm for practicing law, considering the enduring impact of a firm’s reputation. 

3. Assess the Potential for Work-Life Balance 

Law firms have different cultures and expectations concerning work-life balance. Traditional firms often consider vacation hours to be after-hours work. In contrast, I’ve come to cherish the team-based strategy at Smith + Malek, which enables mutual support during leaves and personal commitments. Evaluating whether a prospective firm aligns with your lifestyle preferences is crucial before pursuing a lateral shift. 

4. Evaluate Your Personal and Professional Growth Opportunities 

For the first time in my career, I don’t work for a senior partner with a my-way-or-the-highway approach. Instead, I mentor young lawyers and strategize with professional staff at all levels. This collaborative culture fosters trust, encourages innovation, and creates the best product for the client. Now that I’ve worked with a synergistic team, I wouldn’t settle for anything less.  

Summing Up 

Your legal career doesn’t have to be an experiment; you can find fulfillment, balance, and purpose at a firm that values its people, fosters a collaborative atmosphere, and seeks to make a meaningful impact. If you are thinking about changing employers, or quitting the legal profession entirely, identify what it is exactly that you want to change. That understanding will help guide your next move. 

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