Practical lessons in how to manage your career, Part 1.

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Little did I know, as I left the Law Practice Management Section meetings in snowy Baltimore last year, that I was about to receive a fascinating lesson in career management from the best career manager I had ever met.

His name is Mike and he is Criminal Section chief for the Utah Attorney General's Office.  He spent 22 years practicing law in the United States Air Force and left the military four years ago for another job in government.  He has experience in criminal and civil law, as a criminal defense lawyer and a prosecutor, in domestic and international jobs, and in the Pentagon.  He has provided legal services to entire regions as a circuit court prosecutor and judge,  and to a single office.  He has argued hundreds of cases in court.  He is now happily employed in the civilian job of his dreams.  His story illustrates some important and practical lessons about to manage your career, which are shared here.

Lesson 1:  Develop a Long-Term Career Goal and Strategy

None of Mike's success is due to luck. From the beginning, Mike's career goal was to be a litigator serving the public good. He laid out and implemented a long-term  career strategy to attain that goal.  Although his goal evolved over time, it provided a basis for his decisions about what jobs to seek and when to move on.

Mike also had a broader objective of being known as someone who could solve any problem.  He did not expect or aim for all-around expertise, but he did want to be sufficiently conversant in areas of law outside his specialty, so he could answer questions or know a specialist who could.  This required exposure to civil assignments and functional areas as diverse as environmental, labor, and international law.  He also wanted a reputation for solving administrative as well as legal problems.

Mike's long-term strategy stands in sharp contrast to what he refers to as the prevalence of a short-term focus.  For many lawyers, a career strategy consists of "get me out of here as soon as possible."  This is really a  short-term tactic, not a strategy, and is generally not too effective (witness the pervasive dissatisfaction among lawyers).

Accumulating job experience with no larger purpose than continued employment is no guarantee of job satisfaction or marketability.  Neither is the belief that any job is a blessing and job retention is the only goal that matters.  All jobs are not equal.  Even in a tough market, a difficult or unpleasant job is more likely to be bearable if it was carefully selected to strengthen one's career record.  Miserable and more marketable is a better position than just plain miserable.

  • Defining your long-term career goals is the first step in developing a strategy.
  • What work interests you most and makes best use of your skills?
  • What kind of people do you want as colleagues and clients?
  • What is your preferred geographic location?

Use questions like these to identify your long-term career goals.  Shorter-term tactical decisions help you move from where you are now to where you want to be.

Lesson 2:  Choose Your Jobs and Assignments

How did Mike realize his goals of criminal litigator and versatile problem solver?  From the outset, he embarked on a strategy that would characterize his entire career:  He looked for assignments and jobs tat would build the qualifications for his next and ultimate career moves or improve the quality and efficiency of his legal practice.

For example, once he decided to specialize in criminal litigation, he worked as prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer.  Although a criminal litigator, he also worked as a civil litigator to expand his options for a chief circuit personnel litigator position.  He further clarified his long-term goals in the process and simultaneously made himself a stronger contender for his long-term target jobs.

Throughout his career, Mike sought jobs or job assignments that would give him more breadth or depth.  He served as defense counsel and prosecution counsel.  He served as appellate defense counsel in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Court of Military Appeals.  He trained defense counsel at over 20 locations worldwide.  He served in the Pentagon, involved in the formulation of worldwide policy.  He became active in the ABA Criminal Justice Section to have an impact on national criminal justice policy.

In his first two years of practice, Mike also began to establish a reputation for solving problems.  He initiated special projects to enable speedier prosecution of cases, enabling fewer attorneys to handle many more trials.  This is one hallmark of Mike's career:  His solutions to problems typically also repair the system that caused the problem.

There is no denying that Mike is a very smart, hardworking, ambitious guy.  Yet how much of his success is attributable to the military's active role in developing promising employees?  His formal performance record is superlative.  Nevertheless, Mike instigated all the major moves in his career.  When he felt it was time for an overseas assignment, he sought one and used his carefully obtained experience to help him make a successful case for the move.  Moral:  No one, not even a concerned employer with an active commitment to career management, has your career interests in mind to the extent you do.

Actively making choices to build a professional skills and achievements consistent with your career goals has a much higher probability of long-term career success than passively waiting for an employer, luck, serendipity, or a succession of available jobs to provide a strong career path or record.  Broadening your view of what career growth entails can help guide your career choices.

  • Where are the gaps in your current set of skills and accomplishments?
  • Do they have to do with the nature of the cases, the industries you  serve, or the kinds of contributions you make?
  • If you have excellent experience researching and drafting briefs but no courtroom experience, how can you seek assignments in your current job or find a new job to fill these gaps?
  • If you're a solo practitioner, can you broaden the range of engagements with existing clients?

A career strategy requires an active role in career management.

Lesson 3:  Have a Contingency Plan

To career success, a backup position is as important as a long-term goal.  The same farsightedness that led Mike to develop a career strategy also led him to develop a contingency plan.  His career plan was flexible enough to accommodate the unexpected changes that are commonplace in all careers these days.  He was always prepared if something should go wrong with his current or next job.   When he decided that he'd like to practice long-term in the Rockies, he took steps to be admitted to the Colorado and Utah bars.  He had a backup in case he did not get a job in one state.

While a contingency plan is important for the next step, it is especially important for your current job.  What would you do if you lost your job tomorrow?

  • Do you have an up-to-date resume or list of contacts?
  • Have you established relationships with reputable headhunters?
  • Are you aware of any current or upcoming opportunities for which you would be competitive? 
  • Have you explored opportunities for contract work?
  • Do you know your financial requirements and resources?
  • How soon would you need to be re-employed and at what level of compensation?
  • Who would serve as professional references?
  • If you're self-employed, and your primary client goes out of business or loses his or her job, and you're neither a bankruptcy nor employment lawyer, what are your options?

Be prepared for the unexpected, and not just in theory.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of Leadership & Management Directions (Volume 8, Issue 2),  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.