Summary: Learning how to effectively plan and manage your career as an attorney will help you find your dream career.
In planning this article I thought about some of the career issues which currently seem of most significance to lawyers. These include job satisfaction, stress, lifestyle, balance, mobility, job security, glass ceilings, work relationships, personal achievement and so forth. As I thought about these issues, it seems clear that now, more than ever, lawyers need to actively "manage" their professional careers if they hope to really deal with these issues.
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Unfortunately, many of us (myself included) either got into law by default (seemed the best option at the time) or viewed the primary post law school objective simply as "getting a job in a law firm". It didn't matter that most of us really had no idea of what it would be like to work in a law firm, what the pressures and demands would be or whether it would suit our particular personality and career interests. After all, we had student loans to pay and there didn't seem to be a lot of other options. Besides, we had just spent three years in law school and that seemed like a pretty good time. How different could practice be?
Most of us have learned or are still learning the answer to that question the hard way. In my own situation it took me over three years to define and then act upon what I knew intuitively right from the start - that practicing law was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And as legal careers go, I had it pretty good.
However, I couldn't rid myself of that tiny but persistent feeling that I wasn't in full control of my career. Having experienced the legal training process and gone through the physical, economic and psychological investment to become a lawyer, it was difficult to acknowledge, much less accept, that practicing law in some capacity was not what I wanted to do.
It wasn't until I became actively involved in legal recruiting, which I truly enjoy and which seems to fit with my personality and interests, that I was able to view myself doing something other than practicing law. This was a significant threshold to cross. Since then I have focused on career goals of my own choosing and I have not struggled with career decisions the way I did when I practiced law. I know where I want to go. I now manage my career instead of my career managing me.
While I was pretty typical in the career confusion I faced, I was atypical in how quickly I was able to resolve these issues. As a legal headhunter, I have interviewed literally thousands of lawyer candidates over the years. I have met with lawyers at all levels, with all types of practice experience (private in-house and government) and with all types of personal backgrounds. While I have certainly seen a great many lawyers who love what they do and are well-suited to their current position or practice, I have seen an equal or greater number who are struggling with the same types of concerns and issues I struggled with.
However, while I was fortunate and managed to find something I enjoyed, most lawyers in this situation seem to have no idea of what they would like to do or what the next step should be. In short, they feel frustrated, often burned out and generally know what they don't like, but they haven't figured out the most important part, which is where to go from here.
The simple and sole purpose of effective Career Management is to address the question "where do I go from here?" Career Management is a proactive, planned process for managing your career on a continuing basis. If you picture your career as a business, which it is, (the product is you!) then Career Management involves both the design and implementation of the "business plan". If done properly, this process will provide you with an ongoing personal road map to guide you throughout your professional career.
So what is the magic formula? As you may have expected, there isn't any! But following the basic career management principles set out below will help put any rudderless career back on course.
Every Career Needs Management
Career Management is not just for lawyers who are dissatisfied or feel they do not have control of their career. It is equally important to actively manage your career when you are happy with your position and things are apparently going well. There is too much uncertainty and instability in the profession to take anything for granted. If you have not been managing your career when the axe suddenly falls or when you decide you can't stand the person you now have to work with, you will have few alternatives. More importantly, career management keeps you focused on your goals and how to achieve them. This is just as critical to success in your current situation as it is when you are looking to move.
Career Management Takes Time
Like anything else, career management involves thoughtful and deliberate effort. This requires time! Even if you are reasonably content, at least once a month but preferably once a week you must set aside some personal time, ideally one to three hours, to think about your career plan, review your short- and medium-term goals, revise your action plan if necessary, consider how to deal with any new obstacles that may have arisen and so on.
Of course, if you are actively seeking another opportunity you should allocate time for career management and your job search every day. You can't start looking for a new job too soon! I am constantly amazed by the number of lawyers who show up at my door saying they have a month to find a new position, when they have known for three or four months that they will be leaving.
Conduct a Personal Audit
As in a business, you need to have a good sense of both what you are selling and what you would like to buy. As one of the first steps in this process, critically assess your skills, interests, likes, dislikes, attitudes and so on. You should have a good sense of the type of position and environment that you thrive in and the type that you don't. As a quick point of reference, one of the first questions I ask a candidate who is unhappy with his or her current situation is: "Disregarding financial or other issues, what are the top five things you would like to do and why?". Few have ever done this. In creating this list, a definite pattern emerges regarding the types of career opportunities and environments that seem to suit that person. More importantly, articulating why these five are top priority generally leads to the first real understanding of what is the best fit!
Feedback is Critical
Your friends may offer a sympathetic ear, but not much else. It pays to get some professional assistance from people who are knowledgeable about legal career matters and the issues you are facing.
Generally, there are two places to start: legal headhunters and career counselors. Headhunters do not charge fees to candidates, but unless your qualifications are just right, it might be hard to get in the door. Even then, headhunters will be looking to screen you out quickly if you don't fit what they are looking for in other areas. Still, if you get an interview you will almost always get some feedback about your career plans and marketability.
Career counselors charge fees, but they focus on you and your plans and can be a great resource for sorting out difficult career and personal questions. For individual counseling and specific advice and feedback, fees will generally range from $50-200 per hour; however, for a flat fee in the range of $1500 to $4000, many career consultants will offer a package of services which might typically include:
- Personal Counseling and Reevaluation-One on one counseling and preliminary career planning.
- Self-assessment - Analyzing personal and professional strengths, exploring interests and weaknesses. Standardized testing may be included. See The BCG Attorney Search Job Analysis Tool for more information.
- Career and Opportunity Profile - Creating a customized career and personal profile based on the individual's abilities and interests. Matching this profile to potential opportunities.
- Job Search Assistance - Providing resume preparation and self-marketing assistance, interview practice, role playing and skills development. See AttorneyResume.com for more information.
- Follow Up and Support - Ongoing Career Management. Being available for continuing career support and guidance for a specified time frame.
As with any adviser, choose yours with care and know what your costs will be up front. If possible, use a legal career counselor or one who has experience with lawyers. Finally, in many cities there are often free seminars on career issues for lawyers and there are networks and support groups you can join. Check these out too.
Select the Right Tools
There are some excellent tools available to assist you with all aspects of the process. A number of legal career guides have been published, there are some effective, easy to use career management and career search software programs on the market and there is a wide variety of legal career and job search information available on the Internet. Generally inexpensive or free, these are great resources to both get you started and keep you on track. Examples of available material include:
Budget, Budget, Budget!
Managing your career is like selling your own home - you think that by doing it yourself it doesn't cost anything. In fact, it can get quite expensive. Lunches, networking, seminars, books, software, postage, travel, long distance and so forth can add up quickly. Allocate a specific sum to your career management and job search activities. That way you won't get caught short or cut corners when you need to take action. And track where you spend the money. Like a business, you should know where the money is being spent and whether you are getting a reasonable bang for your buck!
The Personal Career Plan
Remember, if you fail to plan you plan to fail! The personal career plan is the most important part of the process. Once you have sorted out what your interests are and where you would like your career to go, create a formal written career plan. While there is no set format, at a minimum your plan should include:
- Overall vision and long term objectives
- A summary of your interests, skills, strengths and weaknesses
- Your personal career goals
- Detailed strategies and actions to achieve those goals (action plan)
- A one year budget
The key to this plan are the goals together with the strategies and actions you select to achieve the goals. To be meaningful, your career goals must be:
- Highly specific
You should review your goals and actions frequently to ensure you stay on track. It is an evolving process, so be prepared to make adjustments along the way. Essentially, you will find the process works like a funnel. At the start you will have very broad goals which fit a common pattern and are guided by a general objective. The further along you go, the more focused you will become, leading to the point where all goals and activities are concentrated on achieving one primary objective.
Your career is like a business. Unless you proactively manage your "business" on a regular and continuing basis it will struggle and fall short of your potential. With a little care and feeding, managing your legal career will produce tremendous results.
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