Job-hunting during a recession can be a discouraging and miserable experience, but every economic downturn has the potential to create career opportunities for those with the right skill sets and a little bit of luck. In-house counsel are no exception.
GC Mid-Atlantic recently talked with some corporate counsel who found their current jobs during (and despite) the recent recession, along with other counsel in the know. We’ve pinpointed seven factors that may just help you land your next in-house job — along with the lessons you can learn from them and implement in your own job search.
1. GETTING IN BY HAVING AN ‘IN’
For Nancy Smith, having an “in” meant serving her current employer as a consultant before she was hired full time. Now senior counsel at Lincoln Financial Group, Smith began consulting for the company on a temporary basis after her last employer was sold and consolidated its workforce, leaving Smith without a job. Smith worked with a recruiter to help her find the consulting position, and then stayed on full time.
“Coming in as a consultant gives you an opportunity to get a feel for the company,” Smith explained, along with a chance to get your foot in the door and impress, which may ultimately lead to a full-time position.
For recent New York Law School graduate Allyson Cannistra, having an “in” materialized through an ongoing internship with her current employer. Cannistra had interned in the law department at T-Systems North America Inc.’s New York office during her summer and winter breaks as an upper-level law student. Now serving as counsel, Cannistra credits her internship with ultimately leading to her job.
The Lesson: Try to get your foot in the door at a company, whether it’s through temp work, an internship or working closely with corporate counsel on outsourced projects.
Many companies are looking to bring in contract attorneys to fill the gaps rather than hire full-time corporate counsel, explained Roy Hibberd, corporate secretary and general counsel at Dollar Financial Group Inc. in Berwyn, Pa., and co-chair of the Career Management and In-Transition Committee at the Delaware Valley chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (DELVACCA).
Some of those opportunities are clearly going to remain contract-based, but some may potentially turn into full-time jobs for the right person, Hibberd noted.
“The opportunity to demonstrate not only your competencies, but also how you fit into a team can be a tremendous opportunity on both sides,” he said.
2. HAVING THE RIGHT TYPE OF EXPERIENCE
Cannistra also credits a former internship at the Federal Communications Commission — and more importantly, having worked specifically in the FCC’s telecommunications and wireless division — with giving her the specific experience that caught the company’s eye and ultimately led to her offer.
“I don’t think there were a lot of people who had that background [or] demonstrated the same interests,” she said.
Smith said she believes her experience of having worked for a public company was one of the things that ultimately landed her the job at Lincoln. The company “had some specific needs it was looking to fill,” said Smith. “It helped [the company] realize that they needed more than just a temp attorney.”
The Lesson: Develop a skill, niche or specific experience that will transfer well into a new position, and make use of it during your job search.
One caveat: “Specialties are great, but don’t ignore flexibility,” said Hibberd. “In-house, you’re generally much more of a generalist,” so knowing one or two sub-specialties well enough but also knowing how to jump in when the GC needs litigation or contract help is best.
For example, Hibberd said his company is looking to hire a securities expert — but the successful candidate will have to be someone who can assist on other matters when the work goes through its peaks and valleys.
3. TAKING INITIATIVE
Once you’re in the door, try to find ways to set yourself apart by volunteering to work on additional matters.
“I was more than willing to take new projects on,” said Smith about her experience as a temporary attorney.
While she was originally brought in to work on the company’s proxy tables, she came on when the company was delving into capital raising, Smith explained. By offering to work on related and new projects, Smith showed a strong work ethic and understanding of where she could best serve the company in additional ways.
Taking on extra responsibilities can also help you showcase your range and demonstrate additional value you could bring to the company in keeping or hiring you.
The Lesson: Show initiative and take on additional projects. Research the company — and talk to those in the know — to find out what the company’s needs are and what projects it may need assistance with.
Once you begin working for the company, offer to assist on pertinent projects and show your range and diligence.
4. WAITING IT OUT
Smith said she was surprised to see how long it took her to find a full-time position, and added that she would have begun to look for a new job earlier, had she realized how long the process would take. Before getting her temporary position through a recruiter, the job search “took a lot longer because people simply were not hiring,” Smith said.
For Tom Wilcox, the job search has gone on for 16 months, though he’s had some great interviews and even turned down some opportunities that were not right for him.
“There is a good fit for everybody,” said Wilcox, who has experience in legal, human resources and operations, and serves as co-chair, with Hibberd, of DELVACCA’s Career Management and In-Transition Committee. Wilcox added that one of the most difficult — but necessary — parts of the job search is keeping a positive attitude and not falling into a state of hopelessness.
“You must get a good circle of people that can support you and you can meet with,” Wilcox advised. “There is a lot of competition for very few positions and openings. There is a large flood of good talent out there.”
And don’t discount the value of pure luck: Cannistra, for example, acknowledged that she was lucky to find her position during these tough times.
The Lesson: Don’t think that finding a job in a down market will happen overnight. Invest time and effort in your job search, and treat job hunting as you would treat a full-time job.
5. TURNING TO THEIR NETWORKS
Yes, it’s quickly becoming a cliché: if we’ve read about the benefits of networking to finding a legal job once, we’ve read about it a thousand times. But there is a reason why networking gets touted as a beneficial tool: it works!
For new graduate Cannistra, that translated into reaching out to a law department whose attorneys graduated from New York Law School, as Cannistra did. She knew the company also often reached out to the school’s graduates.
Building and maintaining professional relationships can be an invaluable part of the job search in a down market.
However, networking should never be about asking for a job.
“I’ve found that the most productive [networking] meetings happen when I don’t even tell them what I want,” said Wilcox. “Ultimately, people like to help people. At the same time, we don’t want to impose on people or appear needy. It’s a dynamic tension that you have to deal with.”
The Lesson: Tap your network for connections, career advice and valuable insights. And this goes without saying, but cultivate your professional relationships — remember, that is the true meaning of networking.
Hibberd also pointed out that attorneys should strive to network not only in the legal field, but also with nonlawyers in relevant fields, such as senior professionals who fill other positions at companies that hire in-house counsel.
6. EXPANDING THEIR REACH AND THEIR THINKING
As Smith put it, “Try different alternatives.” For example, she said, “you don’t have to look for a full-time job only.”
In addition, it may also help to keep an open mind about the type of work environment or company you are looking for, and even the type of positions that you apply to.
The Lesson: Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into one particular work environment, type of company, position or employer. Keep an open mind and consider various sources of employment.
“One of the things that’s really critical is that you get your name out there,” Wilcox noted. “Many times, you could look at a company and say you’re overqualified or underqualified, but [applying] could get you in front of a recruiter.”
7. UNDERSTANDING IT’S AN EMPLOYER’S MARKET
According to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 10th annual Chief Legal Officers Survey, still only 29 percent of CLOs are planning to add to their departments. While this is an increase from last year’s 23 percent reported, it still means that jobs may be scarce and competition for positions strong.
In Smith’s experience, “employers’ expectations were different than I’ve seen them in the past,” she said. Most of the employers who were advertising for positions, for example, were looking for three to five years of experience, Smith detailed, and seemingly wanting to pay less and get more from potential candidates.
Cannistra said the type of law department she applied to made a big difference in the department’s ability to make new hires.
“The fact that my department is smaller may have helped, because there is a little bit more room for flexibility,” said Cannistra, such as in hiring her with less experience and being willing to train her on the job.
The Lesson: Expect that employers may be more selective, simply because they can afford to be. Think hard about what your marketable skills are, and present those skills to potential employers. Also, do your research — some employers may have more leeway with new hires than others.
Ursula Furi-Perry is a lawyer, author of seven books and director of academic support and adjunct professor at the Massachusetts School of Law.