No way out? Wrong!
You can beat the career mistakes that box you in.

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

If you are like most lawyers, you have felt dissatisfied with your career at some point.  You may have made tentative efforts to find another career or job.  Unsuccessful, you may have concluded that your skills and experience are not in demand.  Feeling trapped?  Take heart.  There is hope.  In more than a decade as a career consultant to lawyers and executives, I have identified the top mistakes job seekers make.   By learning from them, you can maximize your chances of a successful career transition.

What's Wrong with Where You Are?

If you are looking for a way out, it's safe to assume something is wrong in your current job: You are dissatisfied, your performance is unsatisfactory, your firm is not satisfied -- or some combination of the above.  It is imperative to get past your defenses and take an honest look at your situation and the factors making it problematic. Perceptions of good friends and colleagues may help.

The issues you identify and their causes become the bases for determining appropriate steps toward a successful career transition.  For example, do you lack business development skills?  Then build them. An alternative would be to take an in-house job in an industry you've served as outside counsel.

Are you weak in client service skills?  Find a firm with a strong reputation for client service so you can learn from the masters.  Do you have problems handling interpersonal conflict?  Take a course in conflict management or assertiveness training.  The point is, learn from experience.

Define a Career Objective

An honest assessment of your current situation is the first step out.  The second is developing a clear picture of your desired situation.   You need to know what you want so your job search will yield the right job -- not a change from one wrong job to another.

The job market generally assumes you are qualified only for what you have been doing.  Your chances of breaking out of your current role and into something different are limited -- unless you have a plan. You must identify a target job, build the best possible case for yourself, and develop and execute a plan to find that job.

A successful job search requires leveraging your past experiences -- but it does not mean you must pursue the same kind of job.  However, you must  make a strong factual case for the relevance of your experience and skills.   Are you looking to change practice areas?  Emphasize the work you've done in the target area, your experience with similar cases, and the breadth of your exposure to related issues and clients.

Anxious to move to a larger firm?  Stress the versatility of your experience handling all aspects of cases, the high level of responsibility you've been given (and the limited training you'll need to get up to speed), the experience and success you've had with large cases.

Don't assume your credentials will sell themselves, or your intelligence and social skill are all you need to make the change.  Define your target job and build your case.

Write the Right Kind of Resume

A resume is the single most important tool in marketing yourself.  But in most cases, job seekers Don't produce the right kind of resume. 

Perhaps you attended an Ivy League law school and were on law review 20 years ago.  These are impressive but insufficient credentials in a competitive market.  What have you accomplished since then?  In particular, what have you done that directly relates to your target job? 

Write a resume that focuses on specific accomplishments and their quantified impact.  Have you saved a client money?  Improved client service?  Developed new clients? Found more efficient ways to do things?  Negotiated a settlement when no one else could?   Won back a dissatisfied client who hadn't given the firm any business for several years?  Decreased secretarial turnover by instituting a performance feedback system?

These are specific accomplishments with measurable results. Combined with brief descriptions of your job scope (nature of your practice and clients, description of firm, your general responsibilities), a set of one-sentence, quantified accomplishments in bullet form produces a resume that will impress prospective employers.

Set yourself apart from the competition by reporting solid accomplishments.

Research Your Targets

The crucial question is: Who wants to buy what you have to sell?  Secondarily, how much are they willing to pay, and what would convince them to buy?

Even after preparing a strong, results-oriented resume, job seekers often present it with a standard cover letter: "I am responding to your advertised position for an associate attorney.  As the enclosed resume indicates, I am a Stanford Law graduate with over 10 year's experience with a large law firm's employment practice..."

This boring letter summarizes credentials in a canned format.  It typifies the generic letters most job hunters send to prospective employers.   Marketing yourself successfully means researching the employer and tying what it needs to your experience and skills in specific terms. 

Request firm or organizational marketing and other materials as a first step.  In addition, search libraries or online sources for recently published articles about the organization.  Are firm revenues down?  Emphasize your own cost-cutting record in the cover letter.  Is the firm expanding into the Austin market?  Mention your successful efforts to penetrate new markets. 

A resume is a summary document.  It notes the accomplishments that will be important to most of your prospective employers.  What a marketing-oriented cover letter does is let you customize your case to a particular employer with unique needs.  The cover letter is the place to address these.  It's perfectly acceptable, even desirable, to include information that isn't in your resume. 

By writing this kind of letter, you demonstrate interest in a job with this employer -- not just any employer -- and you demonstrate initiative by researching its needs.  Interest and initiative are important things to demonstrate.

Are You Ready for the Interview?

Interviews, like resumes, are critical to your presentation.  Don't make the common mistake of winging it.   The paradox of an effective interview is that spontaneity and conversational tone are achieved only through careful preparation and practice.

In the interview, you should capitalize on the case you began to build with your resume.   Demonstrate value to your prospective employer in terms that are meaningful to him or her.  Interview preparation should include (1) analysis of the prospective employer's needs, (2) specific examples of your accomplishments and experience that link to these needs (supporting evidence), (3) identification of your major messages, and (4) answers to commonly asked questions.  Prepare answers and practice them.  Deliver your replies in different ways rather than practice a fixed script.

Be prepared for questions about why you are leaving your current position, your greatest weakness, and your worst failure.  Remember that the questions you ask an employer tell a great deal about you, your experience, your savvy, and your insight.  Prepare thoughtful questions about the firm's challenges, competitors, and strategic objectives, as well as more specific questions about the nature of the practice group and the available position.

Devote Sufficient Time to the Search

Is there is a direct correlation between the amount of time devoted to a job search and the duration of the search? 

Yes.  According to statistics, the more time you devote, the faster you'll be reemployed. A job search is easily a full-time job, but most people already have a full-time job while they are looking. Underestimating the effort a successful search requires leads them into unwise short cuts and dead ends.

  • Treat a job search as a priority project.  Build it into you daily schedule, committing time to it during the workday, at night, and on weekends. 

  • Devise a weekly schedule with time blocked out for the search.

  • Set daily and weekly targets (the number of people to be contacted, number of networking appointments, time for library or Internet searches, number of letters to be sent, etc.).

By treating the search like a job, you view it as a nonnegotiable priority that must be tackled, not an afterthought you'll get to on the rare occasions when you have nothing else to do.

Don't Emphasize the Wrong Search Strategies

There are four job search strategies:

  1. Advertisements;
  2. Search firms;
  3. Researching and targeting employers; and
  4. Personal contacts.

These strategies are well known -- and a successful search plan should include them all.  However, since the chances are much greater that your new job will come through a personal contact, you should devote proportionally more time to that strategy.

Job seekers tend to rely on low effort/low-yield strategies like mass mailings to search firms and generic reply letters to ads.  You feel you are really accomplishing something by sending form letters to 50 search firms or standard responses to 25 ads.  But it is a false sense of accomplishment.  Those 50 letters took time you could have devoted more profitably to a higher-yield strategy.  The sense of satisfaction that comes from writing a large volume of letters quickly fades when your mass mailing yields little or no response.

Despite studies that consistently show 70-80% of all jobs come through personal contacts, job seekers resist this search strategy most of all.  It isn't hard to understand why.  It  is humbling to go to people you know and admit (1) you are looking for a job and (2)  you need assistance.  Networking is often equated to begging.

Actually, networking is asking for information or introductions.  What you seek is entree or an opportunity to sell yourself, not a free ride.  A job may come from a contact you barely know and may never even have met -- but this person may be able to provide the critical information or introduction that gives you the opportunity you need.  Your network can increase your reach dramatically.

Lose the Attitude of Entitlement

The world doesn't owe you a new job any more than it owes you a living.  If you think simply announcing your availability should suffice to bring you an exciting new job, you had better be Tom Cruise or someone like him. How many of us can guarantee millions in revenues if we're hired?

An attitude of entitlement  leads otherwise promising candidates to refrain from the hard work and self-assessment necessary for a job search.  They focus on what they want in an interview,  not on what they can do for a prospective employer.  They expect others to follow up with them, providing leads and other information, instead of doing the follow-up themselves.  They fail to appreciate those who help them in their search.

Remember, confidence is not the same thing as arrogance.  If you are looking for a way out, lose the sense of entitlement.

Rely Only on Yourself to Find the Right Job

Don't assume someone else will take responsibility for finding you any job -- much less the right job.  Even a headhunter is working for a company with a vacancy, not for you. Finding the right job for you is your top priority, no one else's.

A successful job search requires your taking active control, pursuing the four job search strategies aggressively.  Follow up on all contacts and leads.  Never ask someone to get back to you -- always get back to them.  Gather your own information, and proceed in an organized fashion.  This is your job search, your career, your responsibility.

It's Okay to Ask for Help

Lawyers are highly trained experts.  However, their expertise is specialized.  Litigators Don't handle transactional cases.  Bankruptcy lawyers Don't handle toxic tort cases.

In other words, just because you are a legal expert doesn't make you a job search expert.  If your job search efforts are not having the desired results, seek professional help from an expert. Listen to this person's advice.

A highly trained career consultant can help you avoid the common mistakes job hunters make, and help you make a successful career transition.

Suggested Reading

  • Changing Jobs:  A Handbook for Lawyers for the 1990s.  Heidi L. McNeil, editor, ABA.
  • True Professionalism, David H. Maister, The Free Press.
  • The Executive Resume Book, Loretta D. Foxman, John Wiley.
  • The Lessons of Experience.  Morgan W. McColl, Jr., Michael M. Lombardo, and Ann M. Morrison, Lexington Books.
  • You Don't Have to Go Home from Work Exhausted.  Ann McGee-Cooper, Bantam Books.

For more career advice, check the Web site

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1998 issue of Law Practice Management (Volume 24, Issue 4), a publication of the American Bar Association.  Copyright © 1998 American Bar Association.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.