Q: I have been a member of the bar for 15 years and with my firm, a litigation boutique started by a group of former BigLaw partners, for the last 10 years. It is now clear to me that I need to move on although I have not been told as much and believe I have time on my side to find whatever it is I am looking for. My problem is deciding what to do next. Do I go in-house or move to another firm? What size firm or company do I want to work for? The single most important criterion for my next position is that I have the opportunity to participate in the growth of a business -- law firm or corporate.
My problem is that my main practice area is in a very discrete area of litigation. Everyone knows everyone so I am very concerned about networking with the people who are most able to help me find opportunities at another law firm. On the other hand, I know almost no one in-house from whom I could seek advice, information, and referrals. Any advice on getting started on figuring out what my next step should be?
-- Nowhere to Network
A: Dear Nowhere to Network,
You identify two problems. First, you are unsure about your next move. So far, you know only that a new position must offer you the prospect of playing a role in the growth of the organization. You ask whether you should pursue opportunities with law firms or corporate legal departments and wonder about the size of the organization. Those questions just scratch the surface of what to seek in an employer, and only you can answer.
To address those issues, and others, you must understand your personality, as well as assess your work values and goals. Based on your 15 years of experience, what has been satisfying and what would you like to avoid? You may wish to consider the following questions and others that may spring from them. With whom do you want to work – attorneys, business people, others? What personality traits would you like colleagues to possess? What industries appeal to you? What is the mission of the organization? What is the organization’s culture? What qualities does the organization value? What role would you like to play, aside from participating in the organization’s growth? How transferable are your skills and how can you demonstrate their transferability?
Your second problem is identifying individuals with whom you can network. The way that you approach networking may partly depend on the basis for your understanding that you must make a transition, "have not been told as much," and have time to do so. Sometimes attorneys know that a move is necessary based on behavior or oblique statements by individuals in the organization. They have not yet received direct confirmation, but see the signs. At other times, attorneys are motivated by the realization that their current position is no longer satisfying; nothing else is pushing them to change.
Individuals are likely to be more skittish about networking when they are concerned about jeopardizing a secure job than when they believe their position is tenuous. Still, fear of discovery can be powerful in both situations. Yet, giving in to that fear can keep you frozen, which can result in either remaining tethered to a secure and unsatisfying position for many years, or scrambling to network to find a new position when asked to leave your current employment.
So, another question is how much time you can afford before you begin to network. Even though the attorneys in your practice area are a close-knit group, evaluate the nature of your relationship with them. Determine whether you can count on them to keep your conversations confidential. If there are only a limited number of practitioners in your practice area and you wish to remain in it, you may have no other way to let key players know of your interest in making a change. Consider, too, whether attorneys in your current firm may be willing to help with your transition.
You need not confine networking to the attorneys in your tight group, especially if you are interested in taking your career in a different direction. Regardless of whether you continue in your current practice or move into a new area, talk to attorneys in other practices; law school alumni who work in-house and may be identified through your law school or a search in www.martindale.com; individuals who work in corporations on the business side; friends; family members; and others with whom you come in contact. Your network can include individuals who work in fields aside from law. Do not limit your efforts to people you already know. To improve your chances for successful networking, you must expand your networks as far as possible.
As you seem to recognize, networking is the most effective job search method. Once you determine the next step in your career, you must weigh the risks and rewards of networking. At the same time, consider the consequences of not networking. You have somewhere to network. The question is: do you venture there?
Linda E. Laufer
Linda E. Laufer was the author of the weekly Crossroads column at New York Lawyer, a publication of New York Law Journal. Laufer is an experienced career counselor and former practicing attorney.
This column originally appeared in New York Lawyer on July 6, 2009 and is reprinted from the New York Lawyer website.