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How to develop your bankruptcy law career

published January 01, 2013

By Harrison Barnes, CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 76 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
So you've spent a few years at your firm and you're trying to figure out what's next. Most attorneys, after two or three years of practice, enter a restless period. Unhappy attorneys stay this way, drifting from job to job, without any pattern or actual career path. Not a happy way to live your professional life.
 
How to develop your bankruptcy law career

How do you avoid this? For starters, pay a visit back to your "platform," which will likely be different, informed by a few years of being out in the real world. What are your goals, both short-term and long-term? To have a balanced quality of life? To work on complex, cutting-edge cases? To get rich as quickly as possible? To work in a more intimate atmosphere? Go take a vacation, drive along the coast, hire a therapist; whatever works for you, as long as you have a clear idea of your goals when you're done.

Once you've determined your platform, you'll have sufficient foundation to take the next steps. Maybe you'll make a lateral shift to another firm or a position in the U.S. Trustee's office. Perhaps you'll try to rise through the ranks at your present firm. Or maybe you'll leave bankruptcy law altogether for an in-house position at a corporation. It might not be the perfect choice, but if you've taken the time to assess your goals, your next move should be in the right direction.

Staying At Your Firm

Going for partner

If you've decided you want to stay at your firm, the advice is simple. Do your work well. Get to know the members of your firm in all departments. Attend firm events and cocktail parties. Get involved in committees and panels. Make a name - a good name - for yourself. Try to develop relationships with existing clients and develop your own book of clients. And develop strong enough relationships with the partners in your group that they will advocate for your selection as a partner down the road.

Alternative arrangements

What if you want to stay at the firm but don't want to make partner? Maybe the administrative responsibilities don't appeal to you, or a full-time schedule doesn't gel with the rest of your life. Can you have it both ways?

At an increasing number or firms, you can. More and more firms are adopting flex-time or part-time arrangements or non-partnership tracks, where you get some snazzy title like "counsel" or "senior attorney," job security, and appropriate responsibility according to the contours of your arrangement. Perhaps you only work four days a week, or nine months a year.

For parents, these alternative arrangements can be crucial to remaining in practice while balancing parenthood responsibilities. Technology allowing practitioners to work from home has created greater opportunities for part-time arrangements, says Bryan Cave LLP 's Gregory Willard, who notes that these opportunities are "mutually beneficial" to both lawyers and employers, and "absolutely critical" to the profession in keeping good attorneys in practice.

These alternative arrangements are creative ways of adapting the firm to your needs. Many attorneys take an all or nothing approach - either you devote your life to the firm or you leave. For some attorneys, this simply doesn't work; they like their firm, but still want less of it in their life. Flexible arrangements allow for this and might be a better way to achieve your goals than simply jumping ship.

Lateral Job Searches

You've practiced for a few years and are ready for a change of pace, a different law firm. How do you lateral? Hopefully you're in a better position than you were right out of law school - you have experience, you have enhanced value, you have connections. So use them.

But be careful - presume that it's not a good idea for your firm to know you're out hunting for a job. Carefully judge who you can trust to keep your job queries confidential. And don't foolishly sabotage yourself by making the following blunders:
 
  • Using your firm e-mail or otherwise conducting your job hunt from work.
  • Listing your work information as your contact information.
  • Working on your resume in the office - countless attorneys have experienced the joy of having the boss enter their office as they work on their resumes.
  • Mailing resumes to "blind classifieds" which don't identify the firm searching for an associate - you might accidentally send your resume to your own firm.

Other than using recruiters, discussed below, the best approach to job hunting is to use the connections you've developed through your years of practice. Make a list of everyone in the bankruptcy community you know. Use those contacts, although, again, be very careful with whom you choose to speak -you don't want word to get back to your current firm about your "outside interests."

Headhunters

Legal recruiters can be a great resource. Good recruiters have excellent connections to law firms and know where the jobs are. They're like the personification of OCR, doing much of the work for you and helping you get your foot in the door. In addition, it's always nice to have a partner in your job search, someone who you can critique your resume and with whom you can discuss your job hunting strategy. The key is finding a good recruiter willing to invest his or her time and energy on you who has some credibility in the legal community. Hooking yourself up with a headhunter regarded as sleazy can hurt you - his reputation rubs off on yours. So ask your friends, do your homework and find a respected recruiter with whom you are comfortable.

Recruiters are not necessarily for everyone. Roger Friedman finds that headhunters are most effective for attorneys with more prestigious pedigrees - Ivy League law schools, clerkships and so on. His reasoning is economic. Law firms pay headhunters substantial fees if they hire someone, as much as one-quarter to one-third of the associate's annual salary. Friedman believes that given this substantial cost, law firms will decline to use a headhunter to hire a more "risky" candidate - i.e. one with a less prestigious pedigree. Therefore, Friedman believes headhunters and their law firm clients focus more on candidates with "golden resumes," given that they are perceived as more of a sure thing. So if you have less than stellar credentials, Friedman believes it is better to devote your energies elsewhere, using your own network and other methods.

Your bosses, your friends?

Which actually raises an interesting point - what about speaking with your current firm about your career search? Sometimes you want to leave your firm for reasons having nothing to do with the firm itself; perhaps you want to practice at a smaller firm, or are interested in shifting to the U.S. Trustee's office, or feel that your partnership options are limited. What about speaking with your partners, your bosses, about your job search? This is obviously sensitive territory; at some firms, word that you are looking for a job is enough to get you fired.

At other firms, though, especially if you are a respected member of the department, partners will understand your concerns. After trying to talk you out of leaving, many partners are happy to help you land on your feet at another place. Plus, they've been in your shoes already - they too were once associates trying to figure out their futures. They have a wealth of experience with which to provide valuable advice. Obviously, know your audience and use your judgment in deciding whether to let your bosses in on your search. But in the right situations and if you're on the right terms with them, your partners can prove valuable resources.
 
Interested in these kinds of jobs? Click here to find Bankruptcy jobs.

Venturing Outside the Bankruptcy World

You might not want to be a bankruptcy attorney forever. Maybe you want to venture in-house, opting for a (theoretically) more balanced lifestyle and greater exposure to business. The good news is that your work as a bankruptcy attorney has provided you with a fantastic foundation for the diverse demands of working in-house - you know litigation, you know contracts, you know a little bit of everything and a lot of quite a bit. The bad news is that no one seems to know this. So how can you get that in-house position of your dreams?

Keep in touch

Bankruptcy lawyers joke that the problem with the bankruptcy practice is that your clients disappear at the end of a bankruptcy - literally. As opposed to securities practitioners who represent companies and often end up working at those companies, the bankruptcy attorney often represents companies liquidating their assets and going out of business. Fortunately, more often than not you're representing either a thriving creditor, including a variety of financial institutions, or a debtor going through a bona fide reorganization who will eventually be a thriving - and hiring - corporation once more.

More importantly, however, you are exposed to hundreds of professionals through your practice - other attorneys, businesspeople and financial advisors, each with their own set of business contacts and their own career paths. If you make a good impression, you will be remembered. The associate general counsel at a liquidating debtor might go on to be general counsel at a different corporation, responsible for hiring the rest of the staff. If you provided diligent, respectful counsel he'll remember you positively, and before you know it, you might be his assistant general counsel. Bankruptcy introduces you to a wide variety of people outside of the bankruptcy world; keep in touch with them, keep tabs on their professional whereabouts, and when you're looking for an in-house position, don't be scared to give them a call.

Educate the clueless

The burden is on you to avoid being pigeonholed and get the word out that your bankruptcy experience makes you not just a solid candidate for any given in-house position, but the best candidate. For the bankruptcy lawyer looking to make the transition, ignorance is your greatest enemy. Human resources managers and recruiters often view bankruptcy attorneys as specialists, expert in a narrow area of law which most corporations have no use for (or, so they hope). Your initial contact with a recruiter might go something like this:

Headhunter: I have a great in-house position with excellent compensation and at a company with a good reputation with quality-of-life issues. It will involve overseeing both active litigation and relationships with trade vendors, including contracts. Before we go on, what is your primary area of practice?

You: Uh, I'm a bankruptcy lawyer.

Headhunter: Oh. I don't think that's what they're looking for. Sorry.

And you hear a click as the headhunter goes to call the next candidate on her list of hundreds of your peers.

Your job is to make sure the phone line doesn't go dead by educating the headhunter about how you are indeed a generalist, experienced in all of the areas of law to which in-house counsel might be exposed. Make sure she knows she won't find another practitioner better prepared to oversee active litigation and trade vendor relationships. Let's try again:

Headhunter: I have a great in-house position, excellent quality-of-life and compensation. It will involve overseeing both active litigation and relationships with trade vendors, including contracts. Before we go on, what is your primary area of practice?

You: Sounds like a perfect match. Most of my practice actually involves both litigation and working with trade creditors. As a bankruptcy attorney, two of my primary responsibilities are resolving disputes over old contracts and negotiating new contracts during and after bankruptcy.

Headhunter: Really? But I don't think the corporation is looking for a bankruptcy attorney...

You: But they're looking for someone with both litigation and transactional experience, which is what I have.

Headhunter: Hmm. Can you send me your resume?

Much better. You jumped in to market yourself and your diverse experience before the headhunter had a chance to put the receiver down. You made it over the first hurdle and now have an ally in getting that perfect position.

Tailoring your resume

When you send a recruiter your resume, make sure it stresses your diverse experience. Your resume does not have to scream out "BANKRUPTCY." Instead, it can scream out "LITIGATOR" and "TRANSACTIONAL," highlighting all the contracts you have drafted and negotiated or your weekly court appearance. Focus on your skills, not on the word "bankruptcy."

Similarly, focus on any particular experience you have within the industry of your prospective employer. For example, if the employer is in the entertainment industry, stress your experience in any entertainment industry bankruptcies and the entertainment-specific experience you have, such as reviewing, analyzing and negotiating licenses or litigating licensing disputes. Your bankruptcy practice has given you plenty of material with which to mold your resume; determine what your prospective employer is looking for and draft your resume to show that you have it. Remember to focus your credentials, so you can prove you are indeed the perfect candidate for the position.

Don't Burn Bridges

So you've decided to leave your firm and you've gotten the job of your dreams. Now is not the time to start burning bridges and badmouthing your old firm. When you leave your firm, try to be as truthful as possible. Give the partners with whom you are close as much advance notice as possible, candidly explaining your reasons for leaving. Don't use your final days as an opportunity to wreak havoc and get revenge for perceived slights; instead, wrap up your cases and aim to make a graceful departure. You might be bitter about your firm right now, but you will still be seeing these attorneys in court, in negotiations and at bar events. Remember, bankruptcy is a small world; you can't hide from your peers. Do your best to exit your firm in a wave of goodwill, leaving behind friends, or at least not enemies.
 
Interested in these kinds of jobs? Click here to find Bankruptcy jobs.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

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