Spartan Lawyer Winter 2019
TAKING THE LEAP:
JOB-SEEKING FOR EXPERIENCED LAWYERS
Most career resources for lawyers focus on landing that all-important first law job. But what about when you stick that landing, only to start feeling stuck ten or so years down the road? When is it time to make a change? Moreover, how can you successfully transition into a more rewarding job?
We reached out to a few experts to learn how mid-career professionals can find their next opportunities:
- Wendy Werner, of Werner Associates, LLC, is a legal career coach with over 30 years of experience in getting lawyers hired.
- Maria Stein, MSU Law’s assistant dean for career development, has spent decades honing a creative and outcome-focused approach to career design.
- Kristen Hintz works at MSU’s Broad College of Business, where she has worked extensively with Executive MBA students looking to advance into the C-suite.
Read on for tips from the pros on how to make your next move.
CHANGE IS SCARY. GET BRAVE.
“The first thing that you need to know about lawyers,” says career coach Wendy Werner, “is that they’re risk-averse.”
Werner traces this aversion to the nature of legal training itself: you spend three years on case analysis, on the lookout for everything that can possibly go wrong. Maybe you’ve seen (or been) an idealistic 1L who walked into law school filled with dreams, only to feel steered toward a traditional legal path. Job-seeking grads often choose secure financial futures over values-driven careers. Somewhere between the first class and the first job, bold aspirations can get sacrificed for pragmatism.
Working in conventional practice settings alongside colleagues in similar roles serves to reinforce lawyers’ instinctive risk aversion. According to MSU Law’s Maria Stein, if you’re working in a traditional setting, you might have limited exposure to lawyers who pursue a significant change. Without mentoring from colleagues who make different career choices, it’s easy to miss other opportunities.
“I think that there’s a tremendous amount of peer – and institutional – influence over what people end up doing,” says Werner. The emphasis that many lawyers in stable work environments place on lifelong employment can keep practitioners frozen in place for years, even if the work doesn’t feel like a good fit anymore. If you’ve considered a career change lately, you’ve probably felt some fear: fear of changing your income, your status – even your professional identity. The stakes are real, and they’re high.
“Leaving can take a great deal of courage,” Werner comments.
SUCCESS STARTS FROM WITHIN.
Job searching begins with a self-inventory; without a strong internal analysis, you risk swapping one unsatisfying situation for another. So pause before you jump online and start looking for job openings. Instead, take some time to think about what kind of work connects with your skills, interests, and values.
Stein recommends analyzing your current passions, not the ones you had when you started practicing. “Think about what you’re passionate about right now – the kind of work that energizes you today,” Stein advises. “Start thinking about how to define success for yourself. If you don’t do that now, you’ll end up being unsatisfied again in a few years.”
You can learn from other lawyers in the online archive of the ABA’s Career Development Series with videos, AMAs, and webinars. It also might be time to finally read (or re-read) Richard Nelson Bolles’ job-search classic What Color Is Your Parachute? Data-analysis industry leader Gallup offers Clifton Strengths 2.0, a $50 talent-assessment instrument based on an hourlong internal inventory. While these resources aren’t law-specific, Werner encourages lawyers to expand their awareness of expertise outside of the legal field.
“Maybe you haven’t looked for a job in ten years, or even longer,” Werner says. “These resources can give you the language to identify and talk about your strengths.”
Career advisor Kristen Hintz concurs. “After you’ve spent years in a job, you’re hindered by a lack of exposure to job searching,” she says. “You’ve become a subject-matter expert in a really particular niche, so to change jobs, you’ll need to speak a different language.” Mid-career professionals often struggle to re-brand themselves, since it means learning to interact differently, whether you’re networking, chatting informally, or interviewing. She recommends learning how to talk the talk from professionals in the roles that you’d like to occupy.
“Too many job seekers don’t take the time to meet one-on-one with the kind of people they aspire to be,” Hintz adds. “They don’t do the extras – the additional work of talking to people, learning the language, gathering information about new environments. To move up, you’ll need the extras.”
Don’t know very many job-changing lawyers? Meet Anthony Becknek, ’11.
Becknek isn’t afraid to change it up; in the eight years that he’s been in practice, he’s both defended police officers’ actions and worked to hold them accountable for dishonorable activity. No matter what side he’s on, he sees his role as working to rebuild trust between Chicago’s people and their first responders. He recently left the City of Chicago to take a role as a litigation attorney at Klein Thorpe & Jenkins, Ltd. In July, he and his wife Sarah began another new role: parents to their son, Beau.
I like to look for new challenges. Most lawyers, even 5 or 10 years older than me, would say: ‘You really have to stay in one place. It does x, y, and z for you.’ Well, that’s great, but I like to solve new problems and take on new challenges. I look for opportunities in places that allow me to do multiple things.
If you don’t feel like the first firm or the first job is right for you, then keep moving, keep moving up, and keep taking on new challenges. You have to be willing to take chances to find your ‘perfect.’ Keep moving, exploring, and finding new reasons to come to work every day.
Throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow.
THE BEST JOBS DON’T GET POSTED.
Once you’ve defined the kind of work you’d like to do, it’s time to start looking for opportunities. Your first impulse? Probably to start scrolling through all the local JD postings on CareerBuilder or Indeed. Instead, you should scroll through your contacts.
Your former colleagues, LinkedIn connections, and law school classmates can provide insider knowledge about who’s currently hiring or is likely to hire soon. According to Hintz, employers often know exactly who they plan to hire before they post a job, particularly for jobs requiring experience. Talking with your contacts can keep you from wasting time (and emotional energy) on a job that will certainly go to a hand-selected insider.
Posted positions, after all, are the ones that everyone knows about: competition can be fierce and such postings are often better suited for entry-level legal work. When firms and companies seek more qualified hires (like senior associates or junior partners), they often undertake a less public – and more selective – process. Employers see hiring as time-consuming and expensive, and it carries high stakes. If they can jumpstart the process with a pre-vetted and motivated candidate, they will, and you want to be top-of-mind in the selection process. It’s key to start positioning yourself for opportunities within that organization before they resort to posting your dream job on Indeed. As Werner advises her clients, “dig that well before you’re thirsty.”
Your friendly insiders can also tell you what kind of people enjoy working in that setting. And if it’s not people like you, move on to another prospective employer. You don’t want to indiscriminately apply for every JD-preferred job within a hundred-mile radius, whether or not you’d fit in there. A broad approach telegraphs desperation to future (and current) employers. Thoughtful, targeted searches succeed.
“Can I do this on my own?” If you’ve been considering a move for a while, and you haven’t been able to make it happen, maybe it’s time to bring in a professional to polish your materials and build your confidence. Your loved ones can supply emotional support, but spousal or parental career coaching strains relationships and seldom leads to the desired outcome. A career professional with experience in legal employment (like Werner Associates, LLC or Maria Stein at MSU Law) can direct your efforts in productive avenues and offer necessary critical feedback.
ABOUT THAT RESUME . . .
When it comes to resumes, Werner is blunt: “Most lawyers’ resumes are terrible.”
Ouch. But take heart – and take action. There are a few straightforward steps you can take to polish up an outdated resume.
1) Do your homework. Lawyers are researchers, so turn those research skills on your desired employer. The time investment will pay off when your application materials seamlessly connect with the institutional culture and priorities.
2) Make the case – for yourself. Look critically at your own background and ask yourself, “how can I add value to this organization?” All of your materials should demonstrate how hiring you would benefit the employer. Focus on outcomes, not tasks: winning a settlement, saving money, mitigating risk.
3) Look to the past. Want to change practice areas or even exit active legal work? Mine your pre-law school experiences to communicate your values and breadth of skills. Many lawyers leave nonlegal work experience off their resumes altogether – and that’s a mistake.
4) Make strategic cuts. Your resume should reflect the kind of work you want to do, not every project that’s ever crossed your desk. Do you hate document review, even though your current job requires it? Leave it off your resume. In fact, leave off all the tasks that you’d prefer never to do again.
5) Think digital first. Most recruiters will see your resume online or even on their phones, so you want something that’s universally legible. That means retiring Times New Roman, long the classic resume font choice, for a web-friendly sans serif option like Calibri or Tahoma.
“Remember: your resume is a marketing piece,” says Hintz. She recommends that mid-career professionals limit themselves to one or two pages, making sure that everything you include directly demonstrates value. If you feel constrained by the length, she recommends including supplemental content on your LinkedIn profile, where interested employers can seek out a comprehensive inventory of your career.
ARE YOU EXPERIENCING . . .
- Disconnect between your values and workplace values?
- Stress from living in six-minute increments?
- Jealousy of friends’ and colleagues’ careers?
- Burnout from conflict-based work?
IF THESE LOOK FAMILIAR, CONSIDER STARTING YOUR SEARCH.
TIMING, TIMING, TIMING.
This might seem counterintuitive, but once you’re interviewing, you should withhold some information until the appropriate moment in the hiring process.
According to Werner, lawyers are very likely to provide their salary requirements when asked – before a job offer is on the table. Instead of answering (and possibly jeopardizing the offer) she encourages her clients to recite the following statement verbatim: “I’m happy to talk about salary at the time of an offer.”
Given that fringe benefits can comprise up to 20% of total compensation, it’s crucial to fully understand those benefits before you discuss dollar amounts. Failure to do so could cause you to overshoot or undershoot your pay by a considerable margin. From vision insurance to your bar dues to conference registrations, get a full benefits inventory (and an offer!) before you sit down at the bargaining table.
TELL YOURSELF THAT IT’S POSSIBLE.
“Lawyers don’t realize that their skills are valuable in all kinds of environments,” says Stein. “They’re communicators, they’re business managers, they’re risk analysts. They can take those skills and succeed anywhere.”
Here’s your takeaway: you are not doomed to a miserable career. Lawyers can survey an environment, overcome their ingrained risk aversion, and take a leap into a more rewarding position or field. The tools that have brought you success in your current position can find your next role. Use your research skills, persistence, meticulous attention to detail, and persuasive powers, but cultivate a new quality: optimism.
While most people don’t immediately associate lawyers with optimism, it’s an essential element of a job search. Finding your next job will take time and emotional energy, but you might find that the thrill of the hunt awakens you to a renewed sense of purpose.
“I tell clients that they need to suspend their disbelief,” says Werner. “Other lawyers have done this. Give yourself time – and keep moving.”
Contact experienced legal career coach Wendy Werner: email@example.com
Work one-on-one with career design specialist Maria Stein: firstname.lastname@example.org