- if you hate your first job
-- how long one can expect to have to stay at a firm before moving on
I'd say after 2 years is a good time to start working with a recruiter (ask trusted friends for recommendation, preferably someone outside your firm to avoid leaks). Most firms and recruiters think that you should stay 2 years before moving; you get a fair amount of experience and you don't look like and immediate job-hopper. Years 3-4 are probably the busy times for lateral associates, more movement, better focus by the associate as to what kind of practice they want, how firm B could be better than firm A, what they are really looking for long and short term. The recruiter calls do slow down as you hit year 6 and above.
-- how long grades are going to be following you around, etc.
E.g? great grades 1L and 2L, great firm for summer, and then C in 3L: cause for worry if want to lateral after 2 years.
E.g.: grades not great, but land job @great firm; at what point grades irrelevant.
Grades do become less important. Firms you are considering lateraling to will ask for a transcript as a matter of diligence (even HP had to give one when HP moves firms as a P). As an associate, your grades may be reviewed, but if you worked at a solid place, have a good reputation/references, as long as your grades aren't totally in the toilet, you should be fine. After a couple of years, at least in most places (I'm excluding special practices like Supreme Court practices where they may be partial to Yale Law grads and brainiacs), the HP is more interested in your experience in the workplaces and whether you are qualified for the position, and less concerned about the grades. Good grades are always a plus, but I can tell you in any mid size to large firm, if you pulled out the transcripts, there are a wide range of grades and even law schools out there.
If grades not great, keep plugging along, develop expertise, get known within the local and/or speciality bar, get out to bar and other events, grow your base.
I've even seen one guy with hideous grades get an associate job at a firm because he had very particular expertise and background that a practice group leader needed. Now, he didn't work out long term (and this HP wouldn't have hired him in first place because grades were really, really bad and he wasn't that far out of school), but the point is that experience can surpass grades when it comes to hiring.
I will aim to get back posting and I have to encourage my guest posters to start posting!