Legal Career Development: Advice from A Professional
For attorneys, career management is a continual process that will evolve throughout their lifetime. As their legal career progresses, attorneys may find that their career goals have changed and evolved. This recognition will draw them into a new career development cycle. This period of uncertainty brings new challenges. How do I properly network for a new job? Should I take a pay cut for a new position? How do I brush up my interview skills?
To alleviate some of this anxiety, Legal Ink Magazine invited Kathy Morris, a longtime legal job search and career development advisor to answer some common questions that attorneys frequently ask her on her website – www.underadvisement.com.
Q: I am applying for an in-house position, and don’t know if my resume should be all law-related or should also include my prior business experience. That would make it two pages, and I’ve heard you should omit prior career information, and focus squarely on law. What do you suggest?
Kathy: Prior business experience is relevant to transitioning to a legal role in a company, so I say include it. Prior careers, such as corporate work, journalism, and teaching develop skills including sound judgment, respect for detail and deadlines, and effective communication. I am an advocate for keeping the foundation for your legal career on the resume, and am fine with a two-page resume. Include highlight accomplishments and outcomes, in addition to tasks, on your resume; refer in your cover letter to the traits gained from your dual careers that combine to lead you, as a natural progress, to seek an in-house role.
Don’t hide the ball. Instead, differentiate and distinguish yourself in every aspect of your job search, including on your resume.
Q: I apply to jobs online and never even hear back. What am I doing wrong?
Kathy: Very possibly, nothing. It’s an unfortunate trend that employers often don’t respond, even to good candidates. Maybe it’s the press of time, maybe it’s the volume of applicants, maybe it’s just that this has become a common practice.
I recently saw an electronic response that read: “While we regret that we cannot personally respond to each inquiry, trust that we will contact you directly if your qualifications meet our requirements.” An ironic acknowledgement, perhaps foreshadowing future silence, but at least the person knew her application had been received.
Try whenever possible to write a meaningful (though not lengthy) cover letter that will draw positive attention to your résumé when applying for jobs that do match your experience. If you know the identity of the employer, try to network (even online, as through LinkedIn) to someone who might be able to help you get noticed. Follow up only once, if you hear nothing, and then move on. And don’t act surprised when you do get a nod for a screening call or an interview. It does happen.
Q: What do you think of mailing unsolicited resumes/cover letters to law firms these days? Is this something that firms are likely to respond to, or do most create job postings for open positions?
Kathy: Many firms post job openings on their website or create an online ad. Still, there may be opportunities that never rise to the level of an open position, if the right person is on the spot at the right time.
That said, sending unsolicited resumes isn’t the most productive way to search. Instead, look at the lawyers’ bios on the firm website to find a commonality, such as a law school alumni connection, and reach out through warmth when you can. If you see no connection online, ask some of the people in your network if they know anyone at such and such a firm.
You can send cold applications to small firms and maybe luck and timing will be with you, but even for those, it’s always better to go warm.
Q: When I take someone out for coffee to network, how can I avoid that awkward moment when I finally steer the conversation to my job search?
Kathy: Although I always say you don’t need to take people out to network–that you can save both parties the time and save yourself the expense by “networking from your chair” via email and telephone calls–I do have an answer to your question. How about when you first sit down with your coffee, you say something like “I know how busy you are, so let me cut to the chase.” That way, as you launch right into the subject of your search, you avoid waiting for that awkward moment altogether.
Try that and see how it works. I think you’ll enjoy the conversation and your coffee a lot more and be motivated to continue networking–in person and by phone or computer.
Q: Interview questions like “Tell me about yourself” or “Why do you want this job?” are so broad, I just don’t know where to start or how long to talk. Can you advise me?
Kathy: I’m glad you recognize that it’s important to identify the questions you would just as soon not be asked…and then prepare to respond to them well. Let’s take your two examples together, because they may merit the same answer. For example: I want to litigate for a living, being from a large family and always having had to speak up and be as convincing as my siblings. At your firm, there would be people to guide me while I work hard to hold my own and grow, as I always did in the family and when serving clients at previous jobs.
That response is short but not clipped or curt, it humanizes and professionalizes you. You could talk a little longer, if the interviewer–as you read his or her cues and body language–seems interested for you to continue. Or, you could stop there and await the next question.
It’s not as hard as you think. An interview is a conversation about a subject you know well… yourself…with a focus on what you could do to help the employer and its clients.
Q: What if I don’t want to discuss my weaknesses at an interview. Can I just politely decline to respond if they ask me about that?
Kathy: You can, but you can also expect not to be hired. Just as in court, where you can’t politely decline to answer a judge’s question, the interview forum belongs to the questioner. It’s fair game to ask about a potential hire’s weaknesses and…although you don’t want to be unduly revealing or give a long, painful answer…you do need to respond to the question.
There is plenty of advice to read online on this topic; a particularly thought-provoking take is the Harvard Business Review blog post of 1/17/14 on The Right Way to Answer “What’s Your Greatest Weakness?” There, we learn that interviewing in a particular culture, such as in a start- up, may call into question the classic advice to try to turn a weakness into a strength as you answer.
What I ask is that you give this matter some real attention before any interview and plan to answer thoughtfully rather than in a canned manner or worse, by lodging an objection to the question. Otherwise, your greatest weakness may well be either perceived inauthenticity or actual unresponsiveness…both fatal in the quest to turn an interview into an offer.
Q: I found a job I really want, but it’s for less money than I’m making now. Should I be worried about taking a step back?
Kathy: Lots of lawyers’ careers aren’t linear. There are reasons to accept less pay, if you can afford it, such as to switch sectors, practice areas, or geographies. Another reason is if you’re unhappy and you find another job you really want. I say go for it; if you see things as a step back, you won’t move forward.
Q: What are some of the bad habits lawyers take with them when they change jobs?
Kathy: If they are procrastinators or perfectionists at one job, they tend to be so at the next. If they strive for indispensability and thus set expectations that can’t be sustained, they’ll likely do the same going forward. If they have friction with the support staff, or are mad midnight emailers to lawyers their junior, they’ll tend to recreate unpleasant working relationships elsewhere.
Lawyers need to be aware of their bad habits, understand the ramifications, and consciously choose to work to break those habits. None of that is easy and, at a new job where they are trying to acclimate and impress from the outset, it is particularly hard.
If you have bad habits, try to set new patterns in the job you have; if you find people won’t let you change your ways–for example, when it has suited them that you regularly come in so early and always stay so late–and you do decide to change jobs, you should make a concrete plan for new habits, stick to it for a month straight, no matter how hard that will be, and then evaluate whether you want to extend or revise the plan. By then, you may have broken the habits, and if the new ways are actually working better, it won’t be as hard to avoid lapsing back into old patterns.
About the Author
Kathy Morris is the founder of Under Advisement, Ltd. Kathy answers career advice questions on her website every Monday. Kathy can be reached directly at (312)-321-9448 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.