Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times


November 2008

By Kathleen Brady, Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D., Marcia Pennington Shannon

Because of the difficult economic times we currently face, and the layoffs that have already occurred in the legal market, attorneys are understandably concerned about job security, and what to do if they are victims of downsizing.
Law Practice Today brought together three well known legal career experts from different parts of the country to talk with us about how they are advising their clients today. Shelley Canter, based in San Francisco, is the author of Make the Right Career Move: 28 Critical Insights And Strategies to Land Your Dream Job, Marcia Pennington Shannon is based in Washington, D.C., and serves as a columnist for the ABA's Law Practice Management magazine, and Kathleen Brady is based in New York City, and is the author of the book Navigating Detours on the Road to Success.
What are the career issues that your clients are bringing to you in light of the current economic crisis?
The questions I hear have to do with how to recession-proof your career and , where are their "safe" jobs , . what to do if you are ambitious in a recessionary economy and opportunities within your firm or elsewhere appear to be very limited? One of the points I make is I point out that recessions have silver linings, in that there are fewer people to do the work. If an individual knows where he or she needs and wants to build experience and skills, it is possible to build them in the worst of economies. An excellent way is to volunteer to take on a n important project or assignment that helps the firm and also to do so fills in your experience and skill gaps. This likely means extra work but it also means building your skills, marketability, visibility and perhaps even your indispensability.
Individuals who come for career counseling fear that they may lose their jobs. They want to know if there is anything they can do now that will help them in the future should that happen. Individuals who come to us for our outplacement services have already lost their positions, and fear they may not find new positions before their deadlines. Firms are asking advice on laying off individuals as well as job market information.
My Firm clients feel terrible when they have to do layoffs and seek advice about how to do it properly to ensure reasonably smooth transitions for the attorneys involved and to minimize the negative impact layoffs will have on recruitment and retention.
The unique issue individuals have been expressing during this economic crisis is the belief that "there are no jobs." There ARE jobs...but they may be different from what job seekers are used to or expect and they are certainly more competitive. But they are there.
What recommendations do you have for people who are afraid they may lose their jobs because of the downturn?
Be prepared was a good motto for the Scouts and it's a good motto today.
Be prepared for any contingency, which means have preparing a strong and an updated, accomplishments-oriented resume, updated resume prepared, using quantified contributions and results to differentiate yourself from the competition. Without an accomplishment-based resume it, there is little way to stand apart, and all a prospective employer has to separate candidates is responsibilities, not results. Your strongest position is based on results. A second thing is to make sure your network is up to date. One simple way is to use a social networking site, like LinkedIn. There ARE jobs, but being competitive for them requires a strong resume and a strong network.
  1. Continue to be a good team player at work -- ask for work if it is available.
  2. Consider ways in which you can help your firm in addition to your legal work. For example, can you help with business development planning and execution? Professional development? Speaking or writing to promote the firm?
  3. Become aware of the marketplace for your practice. Is there a market for your practice in your location? Will you have to consider moving? Are your skills transferable to another, more active practice area? Now is the time to do the research.
  4. Update your resume.
  5. Make contacts and/or renew old ones.
Pay attention. If work in your practice group is slow but you see another practice group is busy, volunteer for projects with them even if the tasks seem below your skill level. Be prepared to learn new skills or subject matters. You must constantly showcase the value you bring to the employer--either by virtue of your skills, your knowledge or simply your attitude of willingness to do what ever needs to be done.
If someone has been laid off, what do you recommend they do to position themselves positively to prospective employers?
The good news in a bad economy is that many good people lose their jobs so you are not alone and therefore the stigma of job loss is greatly reduced. To position yourself positively, point to things like the changing nature of the firm's practice, the departure of partners who worked in this area, etc. Keep it factual, neutral, short, and above all, unemotional.
This depends upon the lawyer's practice area. He or she will want to understand the market for their specialty. If the marketplace in their current location is not good for their specialty, they will want to consider 1) relocating or 2) using their skills and experience to transition to another area. This is important to think about before approaching employers. In addition, networking is, of course, the best way to find a position in any market, but particularly in a challenging one. The individual will also want to make sure they have good references from previous employers. As hard as it may be, a positive attitude goes a long way in the interview process. If the individual is asked to interview, they should be well-prepared.
There is no shame in being laid off, especially in today's market. With that said however, there is no need to volunteer the information either. If a prospective employer asks directly you should be honest and straightforward. Also, be sure you have lined up references from your current firm who can address any concerns a future employer may have about your skills, attitudes and work product.
What thoughts do you have about how people might want to position themselves for future employment if their current area of practice is in serious trouble ?
If your area is practice is in trouble, look for where you can leverage your existing experience into a new area and volunteer to help our out in a busy area. Use your network within the firm to help you -- a partner in your troubled area who loves your work can probably be persuaded to talk to a partner or two in a booming practice area on your behalf.
Define your competitive advantages -- factual themes about your experience and skills that demonstrate value in the new area -- perhaps prior work with companies of a comparable size (despite a different area of practice) or regulatory experience that may be relevant. The stronger your case (meaning, more than just good skills) and your network, the easier it will be to get your feet wet in another area.
Consider the legal market in your location. What are active practice areas? You may want to meet on an informational basis with people practicing in the active areas. You can get excellent information about what skills, substantive knowledge and experience will be useful. If your current practice has allowed you to develop transferable skills and knowledge for a different practice area, think about how you will "sell" this to prospective employers. Use your resume as a marketing piece, making the transferable skills and knowledge readily identifiable. It's up to you to make the connection between your current practice and the new one.
In addition, don't just sit in your office waiting for the news that your job has been eliminated. Involve family, friends, alumni from your law school, and others in your search. If the handwriting is on the wall, begin the process now.
Think about your broad based skills. Focus on the process of the work you've done rather than the content and draw the parallels for the employer. Acknowledge there may be a subject matter learning curve, and talk about what steps you would take to get up to speed quickly. Also, think about other venues. Private practice and in-house counsel positions are not the only options. The good news is you can do anything with a law degree. The bad new is you can do anything with a law degree so it can be a challenge defining a clear career path. Seek the assistance of a career counselor who can guide you through the self-assessment process as well as brainstorm and explore alternative possibilities.
How do you recommend that your clients divide their time in the job search between job boards, networking activities, meetings, computer applications, etc.
Over the past 20 years, studies have consistently shown that at least 70-80% of jobs come through one's network. My experience is that in bad economies, this statistic is even higher. Even in the worst of economies, companies and firms are still hiring, but at a much reduced rate. Your network is absolutely critical in ensuring that you are one of the new hires. Everyone I have worked with in the past year, across the country, has relied on professional or personal contacts as an important (or the exclusive ) source of their new jobs.
One of the black holes of job search is ads and with the advent of the Internet, the hole has grown deeper. People over-depend on searching the job websites and end up losing a lot of time replying to jobs for which they have little competitive hope. The same thing is true for recruiters. People mistakenly assume that recruiters work for them (instead of the companies that hire them) and that all they have to do is contact a few recruiters and their search will be over quickly. The truth is that working your network is the most important strategy for finding a new job. Use search firms, online ads, and your own research and targeting as well, but make sure you emphasize your network even though it is the hardest part of your search.
Networking is always first. I recommend that the majority of their time is spent in considering networking sources and actually networking. Especially in this market, it can be the most fruitful strategy. (Experts tell us that 70% + of all positions come through a contact.) Meetings can be helpful, but be selective. It is tempting for many people to spend the majority of their time on the job boards. This is a passive job search strategy and may only represent a strategy that leads to 10 - 15% of positions.
The internet is a great way to learn about where the opportunities are but simply submitting resumes on line yields a pretty low rate of return. Job seeks should definitely use the internet but they should not hide behind their computer screens. Use the internet to learn about other careers and compile lists of target companies. Visit web pages, read press releases; know what career opportunities exist (even if they are not at your level.) At the same time, begin to compile lists of people who might be able to help you. Consider family members, former classmates and colleagues as well as people "on the other side" of deals or projects you have met throughout your career. Strategize how they might be helpful. Can they provide information about a job posting you found? Can they introduce you to someone on your target list or help you expand your target list? Perhaps they can offer feedback on your resume or approach tactics. Be prepared to ask people for something specific they can do to be helpful. You have to do your homework first, but the bulk of your time should be spent talking to people.
It is one thing to understand the concept of networking. It is quite another to know HOW to do it. Start with the easy ones, those friends and colleagues you feel comfortable calling. Invite them to lunch and say, "I'm thinking about making a job chance and wanted to bounce some ideas off you." During these initial meetings you will begin to become more comfortable talking about yourself, and, because these are your friends, they will be more forgiving if you stumble slightly as you craft your message.
The ability to communicate your qualifications to potential employers entails more than just informing them of your technical competence. You must be able to illustrate that you have the requisite personal attributes--things like problem solving abilities, analytical skills, assessment and planning capabilities--to perform the job. The examples you use to talk about your accomplishments should elucidate your thinking and problem solving style. The more concrete and specific you are, the better able your contact will be to think of possibilities for you and suggest additional people you should meet. That's why it is critical that job seekers engage in the self-assessment process before they launch into the networking process.
A common mistake people make when job prospecting is to use the meeting as a therapy session. You do not want to inspire guilt, pity or dread. Your goal should be to make your contacts feel good about their ability to help you. It is important that you present yourself as positive, confident and self-assured, not negative, needy and desperate. Never make your contacts feel sorry for you or responsible for your situation. Do not scoff at their suggestions by saying "I've tried that and it does not work," otherwise your contacts will doubt their ability to help and begin to avoid you. If you need to express anger, bitterness, anxiety, etc., talk to a career counselor or seek out a member of the clergy or a sympathetic friend before meeting with your contacts.
How do you encourage your clients to keep their spirits up, and to deal with the financial difficulties of a layoff?
I encourage clients to exercise to keep up energy and endorphins, to volunteer to those more needy to do something positive for others and to maintain needed perspective, and to spend time with positive people and avoid well-intentioned but negative friends and family who just want to talk about how bad things are. Be selfish and stick with can-do people. This economy will improve, you will get a new job, and you'll have learned some useful survival skills in the meantime.
Being in action in your job search, even without your target job in your sights, restores spirits and creates momentum. But ups and downs are part of the process, so prepare for them. Treat the search like the job it is. Create and rely on daily schedules and goals, and build in down time to do things you enjoy. A survey I once did of company clients showed that job-seekers overwhelmingly craved structure in their job searches, even if they weren 't ordinarily highly organized. Remember that research shows that the more time you spend on the job search, the faster you are likely to be reemployed. Put in the time, get out of your office and work your network , and your efforts will pay off. You can do it!
This is a very difficult time for individuals. First, they will want to have and/or create a good support system. Family and friends usually fall into this category. Be sure to limit time (or conversation!) with very negative people.
You cannot job hunt 24/7. Look for outlets -- exercise, time with friends, etc.
Try to create a structure for yourself if you are no longer at your office. If needed, find someone who is willing to have you be accountable to them for reporting about your job search. Regarding finances, if you think a lay-off is coming, cut back on expenses now. If needed, consider getting at least a part-time position during the time that you are looking for a new position. First, it will get you out into the world, and at least some income will be beneficial.
You may also want to meet with a financial counselor who can give you advice on cutting expenses.
As hard as this may be to consider, sometimes these kind of crises actually offer an opportunity to reconnect with goals and values that may have been temporarily buried. Now is the time to really consider your next steps.
Keep things in perspective and remember to count your blessings. You are smart and capable and will weather the storm. Sit down and figure out your current monthly budget and consider areas where you can cut back. Involve your family in the conversation so everyone can do their part. If necessary, call creditors to work out repayment plans. Control the things you can. Maintain a steady and consistent effort throughout your search. A "start and stop" approach almost always leads you back to square one at each juncture. Working in bursts of activity will ensure failure. Determine how much time you can realistically devote to your search. Work out a schedule and make a commitment to stick to it. During those reserved hours, your job search must be your primary focus. This is the time committed to self-assessment exercises, making job related phone calls, conducting library/internet research, etc. By adhering to a schedule, you will reduce the insecurity most job seekers feel because you will be in control and you will be able to chart your progress. Once you have completed your schedule for the day, you can then feel free to use your time to do things you enjoy that you may not get to do when you are working full time without guilt. It is important to do things that bring you joy during this transition period to help you keep things in perspective.
About the Authors
Kathleen Brady is principal of Brady & Associates Career Planners, LLC, a firm offering career development training programs and Kanarek & Brady, LLC, an outplacement consulting firm specializing in the legal community. She can be reached at 212-918-4666.
Dr. Rachelle J. Canter is President of RJC Associates, a consulting firm that provides career and leadership development services to law firms and corporations around the country. For more information , check her website at
Marcia Pennington Shannon is principal of Shannon & Manch, a consulting firm focused on professional development of and career management for lawyers, including outplacement, career counseling, and coaching services. She can be reached at