I’ve invited two of my Lateral Link Colleagues, Kristina Marlow and Stephanie Ruiter, to share with you why your 5th year is so important.

Kristina Marlow is a senior director in Washington, DC. She is one of the few recruiters to have both practiced law and later recruited for Big Law.

Stephanie Ruiter is a director in the New York City office. Stephanie practiced law with two small DC law firms before becoming a recruiter.

They both are tops when it comes to helping young lawyers find the firm that will be best for their careers.

You’ve done it. You’ve made it to your 5th year at a law firm.  You should be proud of how far you’ve come.  Chances are you got where you are by keeping your head down and working hard.  You got into the right schools, which led to the right law firm.

You’re done, right? Unfortunately, wrong.  What firms don’t tell you is that you’re on a ticking clock in terms of marketability and ability to lateral to another firm.  It’s never too early to decide you’d like to move to another firm, but it can be too late.  By the time you reach your 6th year, firms no longer have interest in bringing you on as a lateral, no matter your reputation or your pedigree.

You may wonder why a firm would be reluctant to bring you on as a senior associate, counsel position, or “service partner,” or even at a more junior level.  This comes as a shock to many experienced attorneys, who assume that their years of work have made them more desirable, not less.  But the reality is a firm will rarely hire a senior attorney who does not have portable business.

The main reason is the pyramid shaped Biglaw business mode, which depends on the attorneys at the top to bring in business.  The firm needs you to bring enough business to keep yourself busy. Do a quick perusal of open listings and you’ll see that the majority, if not all, associate openings are for 5th year associates and below.

This makes your 5th year the most pivotal of your career.  At this point, chances are you’ve evaluated your career and your future.  Maybe you’ll realize you do want to work at a law firm, but that the one you’re at isn’t “right” for you in the long term.  Or maybe the firm will let you know that you are not “right” for partnership.


  • If you’re a junior associate, conduct regular evaluations of your career and goals to determine whether you should make a change. If lateraling to an equivalent firm is not an option, you can consider moving to a smaller firm or relocating to a market where your expertise will be more valued.
  • Work to learn new skills and stay current on legal market developments;
  • Keep your resume up to date. It’s always a worth it to have a conversation with a firm that is looking for someone with your background.  Even if you’re not sure you’re ready to move, the conversation will build your network as well as provide you with a clearer view of the opportunities available in your practice area.
  • Find an established partner to serve as your mentor/sponsor through the partnership process. If your firm has an established mentor/mentee program and your mentor is not providing guidance, speak up!  The squeaky wheel gets the grease and your request will be viewed favorably as coming from someone who cares about their future at the firm.
  • Think strategically about your career development. Consider hiring a coach to help with business development or career development

Thanks to Kristina and Stephanie for their insights. If you are a law firm associate, I hope you will find their thoughts valuable. You can learn more about them and contact them using the links in the first paragraph.