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How to Survive an Unplanned Relocation to Join a Future Spouse
By A. Harrison Barnes

junior attorneys work incredibly hard for four years to get top grades
at first-tier law schools, work on law reviews, and get offers from
prestigious firms. Then, they face unplanned speed bumps in their
careers when their fiancés feel it is time to live in the same city, get
serious about their commitment, marry, and settle down. Legal
recruiters receive many questions in relation to different versions of
this scenario. The following is what I tell attorneys in this position.
(Many of these thoughts may apply to same-sex couples as well, where one
partner is relocating to meet the needs of the relationship.) You are
not alone. This scenario is one of the more common stories that cross my
desk. Fortunately, there is some empathy for this situation among
hiring partners and recruiting staff, but you should be aware of the
pitfalls so that you can handle it with delicacy and finesse.

First, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I have almost
exclusively worked with women making moves to be in the same locations
as their future husbands. Rarely have I helped an imminent husband find a
good legal position to
relocate near his soon-to-be-wife. Often there is a good reason for
choosing who is to move. His job may be in a professional field less
amenable to transition, they may both want to settle where he is, or
they may want to live in a location where their families have settled as

However, lacking an obvious reason to choose his location, many times
the women still are expected to make the job change. This works if both
individuals share that value in terms of their respective professional
priorities within a relationship. But not infrequently a woman will
throw her professional trajectory into the hopper with smoldering
resentment (of which she may or may not be consciously aware) to meet an
expectation that may not jibe with her sense of fairness and her
definition of mutual support between two committed people.

Therefore, the first step in this situation is to examine the
decision-making process. Talk out short, medium, and long-term goals for
each person’s respective career both as individuals and as a couple.
Map out the pros and cons of location and opportunity for each
individual in various locations in light of these goals.

Don’t assume that you will take turns putting individual career goals first. Don’t assume
that she is always going to accept that her career will be secondary in
light of assumptions about children and gender stereotypes. The current
generation is very savvy and evolved when it comes to gender roles and
providing mutual support regarding professional issues. But in my
experience the couples who are the most successful talk it out.

Be explicit. Make sure each person understands the other’s viewpoint,
values, and desires. Ensure that each person feels acknowledged and
heard according to the norms of his or her culture and the mode in which
he or she wants to merge into a relationship. Then, make the decision
and jointly figure out how to best unfold the plan.

We will assume that the couple now living apart in separate cities
has decided they are going to get married the summer after they both
start working as first-year associates. They also have decided that they
will settle in his city for the long run and she will change firms.

Probably the most important tool you have on your side to minimize
the negatives of moving to a new firm at this point in your career is
timing. If you can stay at a law firm
for at least a year, you will minimize the penalty of “leaving too
soon.” The prevailing wisdom is to stay at least two to three years
before any move. But in the case of leaving to marry, staying for a
year, and staying even if it means you may be somewhat inconvenienced
for a few months, is often seen as a good-faith effort on your part.

Each situation will be different. If you are a junior litigator and
are on a case that is going to be “crazy busy” and you play an important
role, try not to leave until your role has been played out. If you
think the demands of the case may go on for years, try to give three to
six months’ notice. If you are part of a practice group that is slow on
work, an early departure may not be a negative at all; it might be the
best of both worlds—for you and for the firm.

Try not to be totally self-serving. If the firm has provided
expensive continuing education programs, held a luxurious all-firm
retreat, or given you financial support above and beyond the norm,
figure out some way to show some appreciation and not give them your
“two weeks’ notice” the day you return from the retreat. Often you will
have at least one relationship with an established member of the firm
who is also a mentor and a friend. Speak to this person about your
long-range plans and seek his or her advice regarding the politics of
leaving the firm early despite having represented that you would
probably be there for a much longer period. You may gain some insight
regarding what the firm values most in this situation, whether it is
staying until a busy case or deal winds up, training someone to do what
you were doing, or simply moving on gracefully and expediently so that
the firm is no longer making an expensive investment in someone who is
not going to be there.

The goal is to not burn bridges, maintain strong collegial
relationships, appear savvy and responsible, and ensure a source of
references to assist with your search for your next position in your new
location. In top-tier practices, it is a small world. Attorneys
are moving between firms more than ever before. You may well be meeting
the colleagues you worked with in your first firm across the
negotiating table, in the courtroom, or as office mates in the future.

In the best of all worlds, a firm may have an office with your
practice group in your new location. You can explore transferring rather
than leaving the firm. This can be more complicated than it appears at
first glance. Often it is a matter of personalities and your perceived
value by the managing partner in your current office. If you are moving
from a situation where you are sought after to do work for partners to a
situation where you may be begging for work, then perhaps going to a
new firm will make more sense than a transfer.

When approaching firms in the new city, a good legal recruiter
can help you frame the transition so that it can be seen as a positive
and your departure from your first firm is reflected in the best
possible light. Try to speak to a recruiter before you give notice or,
even better, before you have a rigid time frame. The recruiter can give
you market information regarding the potential time frame in that market
to find what you want. This can vary tremendously. Optimally you will
not give notice until you have a new position lined up. In tight
markets, there may come a time when you simply have to join your
fiancé/husband and leave without having a new position. Be very sure you
understand how this will affect your search before you give notice. It
can be handled, but it can be a significant negative to many law firms
to consider hiring someone who is currently unemployed.

As you consider moving to a new firm, it is a wonderful time to
reexamine your values and what you want professionally. After working
for a year at a big firm, most associates have a much better idea of
what they want and need to develop their careers. Pause before you go
immediately for prestige and paycheck, and make sure the firm lifestyle
supports your career goals.

It may also be time to rethink your professional goals in light of
your married status. Will you have additional time responsibilities at
home related to what you and your spouse plan for the near future? Will
the choice of neighborhoods to support your goals as a couple have an
impact on what you are willing to do in terms of a commute? Will
supporting your financial goals as a couple mandate a certain level of
compensation, or will your marriage allow more freedom in that respect?

An unexpected career transition related to a committed relationship
need not be a professional negative. Communicate with your spouse-to-be
so that everyone’s values and goals are acknowledged in formulating the
plan. Approach the firm you are leaving with honesty, humility, and
flexibility. Use your legal search consultant
to help you form a search strategy in your new location that recognizes
your evolving career goals, the realities of the market you are
entering, and the need to make a graceful exit from your old firm.

Posted on: 01/27/2011 05:52 AM | Number of feedback 11


Posted by: jodi on 06/10/2011 01:15 PM

I hope that the expectation to relocate does not automatically fall on women (although most of the time it does). It is ideal to say that relocation for personal reasons may not be a career-limiting move.

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Posted by: zzy1991 on 10/14/2012 12:35 AM
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