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    Career: Navigating a Job Search in Challenging Times

    One former BigLaw-lawyer turned professional coach offers her perspective on recognizing your options and securing satisfying work in challenging times while taking care of yourself and working at a sane pace.

    Naomi Beard

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 82, No. 11, November 2009

    It’s no secret that the current economic conditions haven’t spared law firms or their attorneys. For law firms, profits are down, client demand for reasonable billing rates is high, workflow has diminished markedly in some practice areas, and forecasts for the remainder of 2009 and even 2010 are, at best, cautiously optimistic. For many attorneys, this has meant reduced hours, reduced pay, and reduced bonuses; for thousands, reductions-in-force have left them unemployed.

    Unemployed attorneys are understandably anxious about their futures, and their concerns are real and valid. However, attorneys preoccupied with worry may lose sight of the fact that, even in this market, options do exist. Although for some lawyers first-choice options may be scarce, opportunities for satisfying work do exist. The key to finding them is to treat your job search as the central focus of each day’s work, all the while taking care of yourself and working at a sustainable, sane pace.

    Reasons Job Transitions Are So Difficult

    Challenges to Professional Identity. Most lawyers have well-defined professional identities. Whether they love what they do, they are, ultimately, members of a select, rigorous, demanding, prestigious, and often highly lucrative profession. For most lawyers, “[w]ho we are and what we do are so tightly connected.”1 It’s no wonder that lawyers who have been laid off sometimes find themselves flailing and feeling desperate.

    The Discomfort Caused by Transitions. Making a change, even a voluntary one, can be stressful. People prefer a predictable, if less-than-ideal, situation to an ambiguous and uncertain future. Even if you’ve been dissatisfied with your legal job, a certain power of inertia may have led you to stay put.

    Author William Bridges refers to “[t]hat difficult process of letting go of an old situation, suffering the confusing no-where of in-betweenness, and launching forth again in a new situation...”2 as “the neutral zone.” Many unemployed attorneys find themselves in that undefined, disorienting, and uncomfortable neutral zone.

    However, this discomfort is itself a necessary part of the process of change. Expect to feel a certain level of anxiety and know that you can and will move through it. Don’t punish yourself for feeling uncomfortable. If you are a lawyer in transition, with intelligent, strategic use of widely available resources and your own personal network of contacts, you can start to chart the path ahead.

    Your Goals and the Availability of Legal Jobs. Begin the process of moving forward by asking yourself what you really want to do. Do you love legal practice and want to remain in law? Would you prefer to use this transition as an opportunity to try something outside of law? Clarifying your goals will help you draft the overarching roadmap for your search.

    The most important thing to assess is your desire to remain in legal practice. If you want to continue practicing law, move forward based on the assumption that you can look forward to a career in your chosen profession. You may need to be creative for a while; you may need to be more flexible and open-minded than a strong economy would have required of you; you may even have to lower your expectations in the short term; but you don’t have to leave law.

    Naomi Beard

    Naomi Beard, J.D., CMC, is an attorney-coach with LawyersLifeCoach LLC, providing personal and career coaching for lawyers. This article is excerpted from Beyond the Billable Hour, newsletter Issue #58, located at http://LawyersLifeCoach.com/Newsletter/Issue58.html. Contact the author at com Naomi lawyerslifecoach lawyerslifecoach Naomi com.  

    In our transition counseling work, we are finding that many lawyers are using layoffs as an opportunity to leave practice and pursue other dreams. In fact, we have heard some lawyers refer to what happened to them as a blessing. Even though they had found legal practice unfulfilling, they’d stayed because the pay was good or they liked the sense of security they had or they weren’t honest with themselves about what they really wanted to do with their professional lives. Now, some of these lawyers are taking sabbaticals of indefinite length from legal practice to pursue other postgraduate degrees, try something entrepreneurial, travel abroad and learn languages in immersion programs, become members of the clergy, enter law enforcement, stay home with their families, attend to important health issues, or enter academia.

    With a sizable number of lawyers self-selecting out of legal practice, those who wish to remain can find good, solid opportunities, but only with considerable, concerted, methodical, and strategically minded effort. What follows is one suggested roadmap to follow when pursuing a legal position. For individuals interested in exploring alternative career paths, many of the six steps below still apply and need simply be modified to target a different audience or industry.

    The Nuts and Bolts of a Search

    Anyone reading current legal industry periodicals has seen the advice provided by recruiters, consultants, coaches, and even law firms themselves. The secrets to a successful job search really aren’t secrets at all. Rather, the outcome of your search will depend on the amount of energy, determination, and intelligent decision-making you’re prepared to contribute.

    This doesn’t mean that you can or should go it alone. Having support through a search is critical. Find someone – a spouse, partner, close friend, mentor, or coach (or better yet, a combination of several of these) – who will partner with you through this process. You’ll be amazed at the ideas that you will be able to collectively generate.

    Prepare Your Marketing Materials. Whether you are ready to apply for a job or networking with your various contacts, you’ll want to have a powerful resumé ready for circulation. The resumé should be short – ideally no more than one page. It should be concise, clear, and clean – and yet provide a compelling snapshot of you, the lawyer. Later you may opt to create supporting documents, depending on your level of seniority, including a list of your representative matters or deals, or a business plan forecasting the growth of your practice. Any career-transition professional with whom you work should be able to provide you with examples of such documents and suggestions to make yours as strong as possible.

    Take Advantage of Resources. Internet. The Internet is an excellent resource for legal and nonlegal job postings. Navigate some of the many Web sites posting legal jobs and select several that you will commit to reviewing daily.3 While some of these Web sites impose a subscription fee, springing for a paid subscription to a handful of these sites may be useful, and you typically can limit your subscription length to a few months at relatively reasonable rates.4 These sites often are updated late at night or first thing in the morning, so time your reviews of them accordingly.

    The sites are helpful barometers of the particular market or geographic area on which your search is focused. Make note of what the Web sites convey about who is hiring, in what practice areas, and at which kinds of firms and companies.

    When you apply for a job online, follow the requested protocol and, if possible, submit a cover letter to accompany your resumé. The letter itself should be short (one page only) and should emphasize those experiences and skills that are the most relevant to the position description.

    Getting someone inside the employer to vouch for you is always preferable to simply submitting a blind application and awaiting a response; that personal touch immediately distinguishes you from the pack – an absolute must in this competitive market.

    Recruiters. An experienced, knowledgeable, ethical, creative recruiter has a role to play in a search for a legal job, even in this market. With many large law firms slowing down or, in some cases, freezing their hiring, the recruiter’s role has changed. However, many small- and mid-sized firms and other employers that continue to hire in this down economy are willing to do so with the participation of a recruiter.

    Even if you’re not a recruiter’s ideal candidate, a great recruiter can be a valuable resource about the market in which you’re searching. Some are willing to take the time to speak with you at length, share their knowledge, discuss trends, and even brainstorm ideas and possible targets for your search.

    It is important to note that a good recruiter will never simply blanket the market with your resumé. Make sure that the recruiter is pursuing leads that, on a case-by-case basis, make sense for you and your skill set. You are responsible for managing this process and making the terms of your relationship with the recruiter abundantly clear.

    Books. There is a multitude of books available on the subjects of career change, career self-definition, and career exploration. Whatever the question with which you are wrestling – whether to remain in law, which avenues to pursue, how best to network for job-searching or business-development purposes, how to most effectively prepare for an interview – a book has been written on the topic.

    For an extensive list of recommended books, consider visiting www.lawyerslifecoach.com. Click on “Resource Center,” choose “Recommended Readings,” and scroll down to the “Career Guidance” and “Success Strategies” offerings.


    Networking is a central component of any successful job search, and in a challenging economic climate, it’s even more important.

    Networking relationships are mutually beneficial, so you can’t just start asking strangers for help. Begin by considering people with whom you have established relationships or to whom you’ve been helpful in the past.

    Commit to the minimum number of people you will contact each day, and stick to your promise. As you speak with people, your contact list should grow. Ask each person with whom you speak and meet who else they recommend you contact. Ask your contact to make an introduction to pave the way for your outreach. Prepare an outline of what you propose to say and a list of your must-ask questions. No contact is unimportant – some may provide job leads, but the vast majority won’t. They are just as valuable, however, for thoughts on market trends, wisdom from their own transition experiences, and ideas about others to contact.

    For some lawyers, networking does not come quite naturally. Many lawyers who find legal practice fulfilling do so in part because it enables them to exercise their preferences to think, research, analyze, and write – to be “in their heads.”

    However, even the most introverted lawyer can and must learn to network. Lawyers seeking to be successful over time need to establish a regular marketing habit. Maintaining network relationships is the key to opening doors to future opportunities. Networking also is the centerpiece of business development efforts, which all firms expect their senior lawyers to do.

    One lawyer with whom I worked recently noted, “I will never not be in job search mode again.” He didn’t mean that he intended to spend the rest of his legal career jumping from position to position. He meant that he’d never again find himself in the position of 1) being caught by surprise as the victim of a lay-off; and 2) relying solely on others to perform business development activities. In essence, he realized that networking was a key source of career power and independence.

    Most lawyers are accustomed to being the giver of advice and guidance, not the one asking for help. Let that go. Remind yourself that you’ve been happy to provide this kind of support to others in the past, and that you’ll continue to do so in the future. Give yourself permission to avail yourself of the resource pool to which you’ve been contributing. And, when the opportunity arises, continue to give information and share contacts freely. Chances are that even while you’re engaged in your own search, some of your friends and colleagues are as well. Give back. It’s the most crucial component of networking.

    Interview Preparation

    Even if your first interview is months away, no time spent preparing for an interview is wasted. Indeed, the very act of writing your resumé and accompanying marketing materials, which is typically done early in a search process, is itself a form of interview prep. To write excellent marketing materials, you need to reflect on your career, recalling in detail certain matters on which you have worked and learning to present in a powerful way what you bring to the table. These exercises will help in your interview preparation as well.

    Another important step is to identify your key strengths. Perhaps you are an excellent writer, a critical, analytical thinker, a creative mind who comes up with unique solutions, the even-tempered one to whom others naturally turn for leadership, or the one who will stick with a tough assignment until the bitter end. Make a list of your strengths. Determine how you can demonstrate them in the answers that you provide to interview questions.

    Practice your responses aloud. Ideally you’ll rehearse with a trusted companion or advisor who can critique your message, presentation, body language, and style. Don’t try to prepare rehearsed or canned answers; rather, become comfortable with your persona as an interviewee.5

    Learn all you can about the employer that’s going to be interviewing you. If you know who will interview you, read about the person on the employer’s Web site and at www.linkedin.com or other online networking resources.

    Plan for the ‘What Ifs’; Keep Developing Your Skills

    As recently as a year or two ago, someone making a job transition who had followed all the steps above likely would have landed a new job within a reasonable, even predictable time frame. The “what ifs” only arose if the job candidate was unsure of the appropriateness of his or her chosen path. Now, planning for the “what ifs” is just common-sense wisdom. For most attorneys in a transition today, a job search may take much longer.

    It is important to remember that, even with this uncertainty, you do have choices, and you can plan in a way that puts you in the driver’s seat. Once you’ve set your goals, assess your finances. Ask yourself, given the particulars of your own situation and your firm’s severance package, how long you can afford being unemployed. Then, determine how long you can continue your search before you’ll need a “Plan B”: securing contract or temp work, paralegal work, or paid nonlegal employment, while continuing to engage in your primary search. Determine what changes you can make to your monthly budget to make your resources last longer. If you are married or have a partner, determine his or her financial role in supporting you through your transition.

    This part of the process may be uncomfortable, but it’s essential. Don’t allow yourself to be surprised again. Decide that you’re going to take on even the tough issues, and know that you have the resources and resilience to navigate your way through this period.

    Finally, ask yourself what else you can do to further your professional development, even while between jobs. Read the periodicals published in your area of practice. Stay abreast of what the sections of your state and local bar associations are doing. Attend conferences and presentations that are topical, and avail yourself of career resources they may provide. Write an article on a recent development in your field and submit it to potential publishers. Consider whether you have the time and interest to do pro bono work. Do things that strengthen your skills, increase your marketability, and fulfill you. This will help you stay connected to your professional identity when you might, naturally, be feeling disconnected from it.

    Take Care of Yourself and Don’t Give Up

    There’s a point in any given day when your search efforts will reach the point of diminishing returns. Set realistic daily goals; do your best to meet them; and at the end of the day assess what you have accomplished. Develop a rhythm that works for you. If you can say you did your best today, then allow your mind to be at rest.

    Give yourself a chance to replenish a bit each day. Exercise. Enjoy your family. Hang out with friends. Read an absorbing novel. Cook a fabulous dinner.

    To increase your overall happiness, remind yourself of the things for which you are grateful, your employment status notwithstanding. Try to savor the best moments in each day, not only while experiencing them but also after they’ve ended. Don’t allow your mind to focus solely on your search.

    Trust that all of your efforts will ultimately yield a successful outcome, the only variable being precisely how long it will take. The best way to
    present yourself to the market, to network, and to communicate your message to others is to do so from a place of confidence and optimism. If you follow the approach outlined above, you will take control of the journey ahead as well as of your destination.


    1Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity 1 (Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

    2Id. at 5. “It is when the endings and the time of fallow neutrality are finished that we can launch ourselves out anew, changed and renewed by the destruction of the old life-phase and journey through the no-where.”

    3There is no “right” place to start when doing online research. One approach is to begin with a Web site that provides detailed lists of many different Web sites posting legal and nonlegal jobs (e.g., www.legalemploy.com). In addition, as a law school graduate, your law school will grant you access to your school’s database of job-related Web sites and other resources, and these databases usually are thorough. Determine how alumni get access to your school’s intranet, and use this resource.

    4In addition to the traditional law-job Web sites, other more broadly focused Web sites (e.g., LinkedIn and Craig’s List) are increasingly known among many job-seekers for posting hard-to-find law-job leads.

    5One new source of guidance with some common-sense interview advice for lawyers (and even a section on searching and interviewing in a bad economy and after a layoff) is Nail Your Law Job Interview, by Natalie Prescott & Oleg Cross.