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Attorneys in private practice have always been bedeviled by the onerous “up or out” system of promotion practiced by law firms. Even though firms have been responding to a strong market for legal services by making more partners, many attorneys will find themselves facing a career transition at some stage in their career. For some attorneys, it is a personal choice to move on to a new challenge. For others, it is a decision prompted by a partnership vote, a poor fit between lawyer and law firm, or the ebb and flow of demand for particular specialties. That is where outplacement counseling comes in. Outplacement is one-on-one career transition support provided to individuals at the expense of their current employer. First widely accepted by corporate culture during the massive white collar layoffs of the mid-1970s, outplacement was not broadly used by the legal world until the downturn in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That period found many firms agonizing over having to lay off legal personnel, often for the first time in the firm’s history. Today, more than half of the largest firms in Washington offer some form of outplacement or career counseling to their associates and partners in transition. The following are answers to the most common questions about outplacement. WHAT IS OUTPLACEMENT? The word outplacement actually perpetuates several misunderstandings about what these services are. First, the attorney in outplacement counseling is rarely out of the firm — most remain practicing in their firms until they find a new position. Second, it is not placement in the sense that the provider does not earn a fee to place the attorney in a new job, as a search professional would. Outplacement — or more aptly, career transition counseling — is an individualized program of support, provided by the employer, for attorneys making decisions about their career. Comprehensive career transition support includes helping to assess personal interests and strengths, identifying a full range of employment options, developing a job search strategy, preparing r�sum�s and cover letters, practicing for interviews, writing a business or practice development plan, and negotiating for salary and benefits. Sometimes it means exploring careers outside the practice of the law or finding a new environment in which to practice. Often it provides the first opportunity these attorneys have had to really consider the type of work they enjoy and the type of environment that they need to be productive. Outplacement counselors are not headhunters, they are career counselors who help attorneys make vocational decisions. WHY WOULD I NEED HELP IN A GREAT MARKET? Navigating today’s job market successfully requires both knowledge and experience. One reason attorneys in transition benefit from having this support is because it shortens the learning curve. Most have not looked for a job since law school, and the last time they wrote a r�sum� they had no work experience to relate. Many do not know how to clearly describe what they do or identify their valuable skills. A great number are not really sure what they want to do next and are concerned about making the right choice. Some are feeling angry and need time to refocus. The majority can benefit from having a professional to talk to and bounce ideas off of before putting a plan into action. Often the worst mistakes made by job seekers are the steps taken early in the process, before the candidate has had time to learn or relearn critical job hunting and networking skills. Taking the first job offered is usually the fastest way to ensure that the same mismatch will occur once again. In addition, that “great market” is very deceptive. Attorneys today are struggling with a constantly changing employment market. On the surface, it appears robust, but in reality the bulk of the jobs available are in narrow areas of specialization or are only for very junior attorneys. In fact, lateral hiring among firms in Washington decreased by 14.4 percent from 1998 to 1999; nationally, there was only a 2.6 percent increase, according to the National Association for Law Placement. After five years of record rates of increase in lateral hiring, many firms took a hard look at the success of their lateral hiring efforts and did not like what they saw. Experience and expectation mismatches, high rates of attrition, and a wildly fluctuating market demand all contributed to concerns about hiring laterals. Midlevel and senior attorneys are finding that job searches take longer and are far more rigorous than they anticipated. The recent salary wars have had an effect, as well. Many firms have been forced to make tough hiring and staffing decisions as a result of the economic realities of paying first-year salaries of $125,000 and up. Only firms with the highest per-partner profits will be able to absorb these increases without making strategic personnel adjustments. Firm mergers, practice group or partner defections, and shifting client demand are creating a challenging marketplace for attorneys in transition. Competent outplacement counseling can give individuals a competitive edge in this market, allowing them to anticipate where and by whom their talents will be most in demand. OK, LOOKING FOR A JOB IS HARD, BUT WHY WOULD MY FIRM PAY FOR THIS? Law firms provide this support to their employees for a number of reasons. First and foremost, because they want to acknowledge the contribution of the attorney and provide support during the transition. Second, firms that regularly offer outplacement know from experience that attorneys who are receiving professional support in the job search find good positions more quickly and are more satisfied with their career choices than those who elect not to use the service. Forward-looking firms also recognize that the legal world is a small one and that any attorney who has worked for their firm in the past may one day be a client. Maintaining positive relations with all firm alumni is always good business. And, recognizing that leaving the firm will be stressful, firms want to offset the attorney’s anxiety of changing jobs by providing one-on-one career transition counseling until he or she finds a job — no matter how long it may take. Most firms value the attorneys they have hired and trained and are disappointed if the match is not a good one. Providing assistance to those facing the challenge of a job search is ultimately a way to communicate to all attorneys the firm’s commitment to their support and development. WHAT IF I DON’T WANT TO BE A LAWYER ANYMORE? Many attorneys in transition are interested in learning more about themselves and exploring a variety of career options. Professional career counselors encourage attorneys to think broadly about the work they find challenging, the environment in which they thrive, and the long-term goals they have for themselves. Examining the work-life balance and setting priorities for future workplace experience are all part of making an informed career decision. There are great jobs available to lawyers in most sectors of the workplace. Legal education and on-the-job training have prepared lawyers well for many different careers, and their credentials are sought after by employers in business, education, public service, and the media, to name a few areas. Sometimes lawyers start their job search by thinking they want to leave the law, but instead come to believe that what they need is a new environment to practice their skills. Many choose to explore a different type of law firm, the government, corporate legal departments, or law schools. Whatever the final choice, exploring all available avenues is the best way to feel certain that one is well-prepared to make a good decision about the future. Career transition counseling is support that each attorney can use in the way that best meets his or her own unique needs. There is no boilerplate menu of services that will be appropriate for each individual. Just as every lawyer presents a unique array of experiences, talents, and goals, every job search presents different challenges. What has worked for your best friend, colleague, or spouse may not work for you. Making a successful career transition requires both art and science. In the end, what will be successful is a thoughtful but strategic approach that includes looking inward as well as outward. Susan G. Manch is a principal in the legal management consulting firm of Shannon & Manch in Washington, D.C. Her firm has provided comprehensive outplacement counseling to hundreds of attorneys since 1984, through more than 40 law firms.

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