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Career Planning – An Overview

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A story about the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes may have some relevance for law students embarking on the job search. One day during his 88th year, Holmes was traveling by train. When the conductor asked for his ticket, the embarrassed justice could not find it. As Holmes was checking the contents of his pockets, the conductor, who recognized him, assured him there was no problem. "The railroad will trust you to mail your ticket back when you find it," he said. With great irritation, Holmes replied, "My dear man that is not the problem at all! The problem is not where my ticket is. The problem is where am I going?"

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Law students, too, are traveling. Many of them do not know where they are going, and will take whatever the world gives them. Others will take matters into their own hands, and take steps to order the choices they make about their future. This process is called career planning.

The term should not suggest that you can look into a crystal ball and somehow divine where your career is going and how to get there. On the contrary, career planning is hard work, and the answers are seldom clear. It is also a never ending process, something you do throughout your adult life.

There are two distinct parts to any job search: The career choice process and the job search process. A fundamental rule is that the first must precede the second.

In other words, you have to know what you are looking for if you expect to find it. This sequence may seem obvious, but many people skip the first step, fail to find a satisfying job, and then do not understand why.

Very often, you will come across terms like career planning and career choice process, placement and job search process. The career choice process is the means by which career planning is undertaken, and the job search process leads to placement.

From the time you first decide to attend law school until you finally choose a job, you are evaluating, either consciously or unconsciously, the opportunities.

That there are so many opportunities is fortunate; yet it is unfortunate that many people either do not investigate or are not aware of the full range of possibilities. The following overview of the career choice and job search process briefly describes each step. The steps are covered in greater detail in the chapters indicated. You should focus your efforts on the particular steps that apply to you.

The Career Choice Process

Let us talk about career planning in terms of a specific model, the career choice process; because the term planning may infer that there is some magic formula that will allow a person to map out his or her future with a degree of certainty. For most of us, this is simply not possible. Our fate lies beyond our control. Our goals are affected by economic conditions, luck and personal handicaps.

Career choice, on the other hand, is a process based on effective decision-making. It attempts to allow the individual to make the best possible choices when the decision is made, and to increase the alternatives available in making the decision.

If you are not sure about which direction your professional life should take, you should take time to organize your thoughts. It is undoubtedly better to go through the trauma of uncertainty while you are in law school than to go to work in a position you later discover you do not like, where you have not foreseen what was foreseeable.

The career choice process begins with analyzing your skills, which you should think of as interesting and challenging rather than painful. Only by beginning with a perfectly honest appraisal of yourself can you make this a valid evaluation.

You need not look up a psychiatrist— this is a subjective analysis. What are your likes and dislikes? What are your skills, abilities, interests, needs, values, goals? Anyone who says, "I don't have any," is giving up too soon.

This might well be the most difficult step in the career choice process, as well as one of the most intrinsic to success. Seeing yourself as you really are, not as you were, or could be, or should be, or will be, is not easy.

If you do not like the image you see, by all means take steps to remedy the situation. Do not rest your later decisions, however, on projected self-images which are not accurate. There are methods in your self-analysis which can help you to focus your skills and other factors. Many law students never will have done this kind of thing before, but an honest self-appraisal is the essential first step.

After you have undertaken self-analysis, which is essentially subjective, you should begin evaluating the market, which is more objective. This step, no less than self-evaluation, requires scrupulous honesty. Here, however, you are required to look outward, to view your environment, to see things the way they are. You must be able to confront the facts honestly and determine the relative importance of them.

Once again, for this analysis to be most effective and helpful, you must consider the positive as well as negative balance the weaknesses against the strong points for an entirely accurate picture. You may find yourself both expanding and narrowing alternatives by obtaining more options while limiting the areas from which you will eventually make your choice.

Obviously, your market analysis is going to involve not only research on the facts, but the interpretation of those facts, which is the next step: ranking priorities. Your goal here is to develop a list of options, ranging from the most desirable situation you could imagine to the bottom line; i.e., what you would find acceptable if worse came to worst. Never expend all your options; there should always be an alternative. At this point, we are talking about broad categories as opposed to specific positions.

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By synthesizing the self-analysis and the market analysis you should be able to generate some options. If this does not work, you have either not done your research homework or you are not being realistic.

If you have a hard time making up your mind about the appropriate direction for your career, you might need to work on developing decision-making skills. Uncertainty is the element of any decision that makes it so difficult. Even though you can control the decision, you are probably aware that the element of chance influencing the outcome of your decision makes it impossible for you to have ultimate control. There will always be a certain amount of risk or chance, but you should try to minimize the degree to which chance affects the outcome.

You should chart a middle course between leaving everything to chance, which could be disastrous, and expecting to eliminate it, which is impossible. In other words, you should know what you want, be well informed of the facts, and be alert for opportunities.

The Job Search Process

After the career choice process has given you some direction, the job search begins. There are five steps to the job search: packaging yourself, researching potential employers, building a network, selling yourself, and making a decision.

Job hunting requires a set of skills which can be learned and which will always stay with you. Job hunting skills are covered in greater detail later in this book.

Packaging yourself includes preparing a resume, developing good interviewing techniques, and securing other support for your search such as references and writing samples. How many students would take a final exam cold, with no preparation? Very few. But many students fail to give adequate attention to details prior to beginning the job search, and this is often costly in the long am.

Researching employers is hard work for which there is no shortcut. To make a decision you must take affirmative steps to gather relevant information about employers. When your inaction or indecision results in the closing of an alternative, for example, by letting an application deadline pass, you have forfeited to some extent your control of your destiny. Research should be easy for law students, but many forget that the same skills they have developed to research a legal problem can be used to research legal employers.

The process of networking is aimed at expanding your opportunities by increasing your contacts with individuals who may know about career opportunities that would interest you, help you to open doors, and provide support for you. These contacts are your eyes and ears in the world of work. They are your allies in the war against unemployment.

Many students aver that they do not have "contacts" in the legal profession. Networking involves developing new contacts, as well as tapping old ones. It requires work to build a network and effort to maintain it. Yet, informal channels of information represent a major source of legal jobs that you should not ignore.

Using your plan to seek specific positions in the priorities you have established, you can begin selling yourself. As you start to apply for specific jobs, begin with priority #1. The possibilities are that you get a job or you do not. If not, you turn to the next possibility and so forth throughout the list. When you exhaust the employers in your highest priority group, you go to the second, and so on.

The final step in the process is making a decision. If you have only one choice the decision is yes or no. If you have several choices, then you must sort out the factors in order to reach a final decision that is best for you. This is easily said, but not so easily accomplished.


Bear in mind that even the best plans may not yield the results you expected. You might discover in mid-stream that new skills are required for the position you want. Can you realistically obtain them, or would it be wiser to consider another field? Do the latest statistics show that competition in your chosen area is so fierce as to render it an unrealistic choice for you? What happens when the student (or graduate) goes through the whole job search with no results?

Careful analysis and thorough preparation at lower levels of the process should help you avoid this situation. However, if it does happen, it is probably best to go back to the beginning and start anew. At this point, you will probably need the help available through the law school placement office. It can be very helpful to talk about your situation with someone who has a broader view of law careers and the current job market.

This career planning model may help you to visualize the processes we have discussed. The entire model is basically a continued narrowing of alternatives until a final decision is reached, from a starting point where the individual has no idea of what the final decision will be.

The time frame is flexible. One person may have reached the third level by the beginning of the second year in law school. Another may not begin the first until after graduation. You should allow whatever time is necessary to work through the possibilities, although ideally the career choice process should begin during the first year of law school and the job search process no later than the beginning of your senior year.

In the end, you can look forward to a job that is personally and professionally rewarding. But that is seldom the end of the story. Your career is a process, rather than a product, and is likely to grow and change with time. The average lawyer will make at least three (and many lawyers more) job changes in a legal career.

If you understand this model, the skills and self-awareness you have developed for the job search will help you to make career decisions throughout life, to provide for continued professional development, and to be prepared for those unpredictable turns of fate that the future may hold for you.

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