When Is the Right Time to Lateral? Calculating Your Learning Per Hour

by Albert Tawil

Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub

There are many factors that determine if it is the right time to lateral.  In previous newsletter issues, we’ve covered finding the work that excites you (with Valery Federici) and assessing your personal well-being (with Jessie Spressart).  
In this article, we are covering the factor of learning — are you learning enough at your current job?
When I speak with law students and junior associates about career goals and law firm life, I often emphasize learning as one of the most important factors early on.  I call it “learning per hour” or “LPH” for short.
To use law school jargon, working many hours is an assumption for the sake of the hypothetical (except in this case, it’s not hypothetical).  This assumes that you are working a lot, consistent with the typical experience of an associate at a top-tier law firm.  
So, assuming you are working many hours, a key question is then: what are you doing with those hours?  When you are working all that time (sometimes during nights and weekends), is that time working for you?  Here’s how to get started thinking about your LPH:

Learning is Key as a Junior Attorney
As a junior associate at a BigLaw firm, you are at the early stages of what will be hopefully be a long and fruitful career.  You do not know at that point where your career will take you… even if you think you know!  At this point in your career, one of the most important things that you can do is learn a lot.  (The other most important thing you can do is network… but that is a topic that we will cover in other articles!)
By learning a lot early on, you are setting yourself up for success no matter which direction you choose.  If you choose to try and stay at the firm long-term, you will advance more quickly and impress your colleagues by learning quickly.  If you choose to lateral, you can show your prospective employer how much you’ve learned and have an easier time advancing at your new firm if you choose to join them.  If you choose to go in-house, this is especially valuable as in-house legal jobs often require the attorney to be well-versed in multiple areas and change hats quickly.
(It is worth noting that learning should not be limited to your immediate practice area.  Whenever you have the opportunity, try to learn about the important considerations that are adjacent to what you are working on.  For example, if you are a corporate associate, take a few minutes to ask the associate in the specialist group why they did something the way they did, and learn the basics.  Same goes for vice versa.  One of my biggest regrets as an IP/Tech Transactions associate was not learning more about the key corporate considerations in deals where our work overlapped.)

Calculating Your LPH
Now is performance review season, and a great time to calculate your LPH.  So, how can you do that?
— Go back over the matters you’ve worked on over the last few months and take 2-3 minutes for each to think: what are the key items you’ve learned from that matter?
— For each of those matters, write down how many hours you’ve spent on that matter and the main tasks you performed: for example, due diligence, definitive agreement markup, and/or drafting diligence memo. (Often times, performance reviews come with a breakdown of hours per matter.  You can also probably run this in your timekeeping system.)
— Look at both of these items and assess where there is a significant discrepancy between the hours spent and what you learned.
— Bonus: Look at the main tasks you performed and think to yourself for each one: did this task require an attorney to complete it?  This is an easy way to identify low-hanging fruit for low LPH.  Some examples: downloading and organizing data room files, going through troves of doc review for very basic identification, printing and compiling documents, and sending calendar invites and booking conference rooms.  If you are spending considerable time on these tasks as a junior associate, it is likely that your LPH is low.  Your legal career will not advance much from learning how to extract zip files or chart in a spreadsheet whether a contract follows or doesn’t follow the target company’s template customer agreement.  In fact, some (but not all) BigLaw firms have processes in place to reduce the time associates spend on mundane tasks.  This includes professionals who organize and compile data rooms instead of attorneys, paralegals tasked with basic document identification, staff attorneys who focus solely on due diligence and doc review, and software tools to streamline the process.  There are two primary benefits to this: 1) savvy clients do not want to pay associate rates to do work that is not inherently legal work and 2) associates stuck doing work with low LPH will lose motivation quickly and are more likely to leave the firm… requiring the firm to re-hire associates, train them… only to lose them again and start over.
(Caveat: Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve learned.  To overcome this, you can take an extra couple of minutes to work backwards: think about items on which you are improving, and trace back to where you learned them.)

What to Do With This Calculation
If you look over this list and determine that your LPH is low (spending a lot of time on matters without learning very much), the next question is how to address it.  
— If you are otherwise happy at your current firm, your primary goal should be to increase our LPH while staying at the firm.  One way to do this is by exploring how to get more substantive work.  Consider asking the mid-level associate or partner you work with for more substantive work, maybe to take a first crack at a markup or drafting an agreement.  If you are given a small discrete task on a larger deal or case, always ask for the larger picture – this won’t only help you do a better job, but it will also let you learn something new.
— If increasing your LPH at your current firm is not possible or other factors point to making a lateral move, then your primary goal is to find a new firm where you will have a higher LPH.  The key here is to spend considerable time during the process asking the associates in the group you’d be joining about their day-to-day in detail.  What do they spend their time on?  Do they feel that they are learning a lot?  It is very difficult to get this information through the firm’s website or through a third-party such as a recruiter – you should focus on hearing firsthand from those experiencing it.
Take caution.  The size or prestige of a firm does not always correlate to high LPH.  Some firms can have established processes in place and their groups may be hyper-specialized to the large clients they serve.  For example, as a real estate associate you may find that you’ve only been exposed to a very specific type of loan agreement.  This is counterintuitive if you focus on “rankings” for law firms.  Sometimes, top-tier midsize firms or smaller groups within larger firms offer work with higher LPH, since they rely on their associates on leanly staffed teams to handle a wider range of tasks and build expertise in various areas.  For example, the real estate group at a top-tier midsize firm may have clients that approach the firm with all of their real estate matters, including loans, acquisitions, and leases.
In both of these exercises, take into account how much of your work can be performed by someone who is not an attorney.  This will help identify if there are structural issues in your firm’s practice group that would make it impossible for you to increase your LPH while staying at the firm (i.e., you are just performing the work that all juniors at the firm do, for better or for worse).

What If You Don’t Have Enough Work?
It is worth addressing a scenario where you may not have enough work to be learning as much as possible, especially as corporate work has slowed in 2022.  The best thing to do is to continue asking for work.  However, there may not always be work available – in this case, there a couple of easy ways to learn as much as possible as a junior associate.
— Do pro bono.  Almost all firms offer pro bono as creditable billable hours and it is an easy way to try something new and learn.  This includes basic corporate and litigation work.  Organizations like Volunteers Lawyers for the Arts and Smart Small Think Big partner with BigLaw firms to offer their members basic corporate, IP, and other work pro bono.  You can also take on interesting litigation matters in areas like  immigration or criminal law; you may get substantive experience litigating that you’d never get from a billable matter as a junior.  One of my favorite pro bono assignments was helping a client appeal her FEMA award for damage to her home caused by Hurricane Harvey.
— Utilize the learning tools your firm offers.  If your firm subscribes to HotShot Legal, you have access to easy and practical training videos for BigLaw associates on various key practice areas, including corporate and litigation.  Use resources like PracticalLaw to learn basic elements of the type of agreements you work in your area.  Your firm may also have a bank of training videos from the past.  

Hopefully this article can help you assess whether you are learning enough as a junior associate and if a lateral move would be the best thing for you as a result.  Learning as much as possible early in your career will set you up to succeed over the long term, no matter which career path you choose.

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