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If you have been reading the legal press these days, it is hard to miss the dire predictions and scary stories of impending large-scale downsizing and planned reductions in benefits. Those stock options are not as appealing when the stock has no value, and the bonuses paid as an incentive for increased billables are not available if the work does not exist. If you were thinking of calling your law school career services office to discuss some of your concerns, you will not be alone. The telephones have begun to ring at career services offices at law schools nationwide with associates, and sometimes these days even junior partners, questioning the security of their positions and the future of their firms. It almost feels like the early ’90s again. The “hot” economy of last year, with lateral positions for anyone who had an inclination to move to another city, switch practice areas or change the view from their office window, is over. People are beginning to appreciate what they have and to position themselves to hold on for just a little while until things “turn around again.” Firms are looking with trepidation at the large associate classes that they hired last fall. How will all of these people be kept busy over the summer and into the fall if work does not pick up? If you were to make that telephone call to the law school what advice would you receive from career services counselors? EVALUATE YOUR FIRM As a student, you spent a great deal of time and anguish evaluating offers (if you were fortunate, and received a number of choices). Use the same evaluative skills to determine whether you or your firms are at risk. Some of the first areas to look at are the diversity of the clients the firm serves, the strength of the current work flow and what is in the pipeline for the future. If the firm seems to be slow right now but is repositioning itself by moving people into different practice areas, and appears to be developing new business opportunities, the indications are good. Next, determine who your clients are and how well their business, as well as their overall industry, is doing. If your firm does one particular type of work or is dominant in one industry, do some research and then evaluate whether this is just a temporary slow down or the industry is in long-term trouble. Try to determine whether your firm is able to move quickly to generate new work and whether the climate at the firm feels positive in spite of the slow down. Finally, look at yourself. Are you willing to be flexible in taking the best possible advantage of the work that is available to you even if it is not on top of your list for the long term? If you are a relatively new graduate, you will now be competing for work that would have been used to train you. That work is now going to appear attractive to more senior people so that they can maintain their billables for the year. It is important that you not just sit in your office waiting for work to appear, either through the regular assignment process or from someone remembering that you are there. This is the time to be proactive. Seek out the busiest partner in your department, or, if your firm allows you to pick up assignments across departments, in another practice area. Take the opportunity to learn about areas of the law that you would not have thought about earlier. Tax, mergers and acquisition work with smaller undervalued companies, trusts and estates, bankruptcy and workouts, copyright infringement and litigation are all still doing well, as is European-based corporate work. JOB ASSOCIATIONS Use the time that you have. Begin to position yourself to make a move if it becomes necessary. As a panelist explained at a program we held last week, your career is made by not one job at a time but by doing consistently good quality work, and getting to know people in the profession. The best way to do that is to join a bar association (state, city or local), and then become active on a committee that is doing the kind of work that you have an interest in doing in the future. The more people who know you, your interests and the quality of your work, the easier it will be to find alternative employment — even in a tight job market. Your references will then extend beyond one firm, one department or one individual. TRAIN BROADLY Take advantage of as many of the firms training programs as you can. Now, with mandatory CLE, most firms are offering wonderful in-house programs which provide skills training along with a strong dose of ethics. The more you extend your knowledge and skills the greater the number of opportunities you will have in the future. One of the unrecognized benefits of your attendance at firm-based programs is that you hear its best lawyers make presentations about the work they have a passionate interest in. Make yourself known either through good, well thought out questions or by speaking with presenters after the program. You could be surprised when a topic that seemed not so interesting turns out to be just what you want to try next. In addition, most learning is dependent upon the quality of the teaching. Partners who still love to practice law and have a passion for their work make the best teachers, mentors and advisors. Sometimes it is easy to put less than your best effort into what appears to be “make work.” These are the projects that separate the keepers at a law firm from those who are just marking time until a) what they really want to do comes along or b) those student loans are paid off. Every work assignment that you are given should elicit your best quality work. Whether it is an assignment that is not in your strongest area of interest, or a fast-paced pro bono project, do your most polished, highest quality work. The client deserves your best effort and the firm will expect it. In the end, the firm will reward this effort either by retaining you as they let others go, or by going the extra distance with references or assistance if they cannot retain you. If the prognosis of gloom and doom turns out to be “media hype” and your firm weathers the storm, the advice you have received and acted upon should serve you well in positioning yourself for any eventuality, whether it is economically driven, practice area specific or motivated by a lifestyle change. You will have developed the skills and knowledge to make some good career decisions, whether within the law or in another field of endeavor. If the worst happens, and you are “downsized,” there are some actions you can take. These actions will be the same whether you are part of a large group of layoffs or it is just you or your department. Immediately do the following: Ask the firm for outplacement assistance (most firms offer this service as part of their severance package). These days the contracted outplacement service seems to be for only 60 days, a limited amount of time to find another position in a slow lateral market. If you can, negotiate for additional time with the outplacement firm — even a few weeks can make a difference. Find out who will act as a reference for you and what they will say. Get a written reference if possible. Begin to network immediately with colleagues and others that you have met professionally or know personally. DON’T WASTE TIME Do not wait to see how you will do on your own first. The time that you can waste is valuable to your job search. Call your career services office to determine the resources that they can offer you. Most law schools provide some counseling services, a job-openings newsletter (online and often in print), use of their career library, reciprocity with a law school in your geographic area (if you did not attend a local law school) and use of a special password for both Lexis and Westlaw’s online career directories and information. The keys to being successful in a contracting economy are to remain flexible, continue to enhance your skills, read the handwriting on the wall as the market changes, develop strong mentors inside and outside the firm, continue to do your best work and investigate resources and opportunities. This will ensure that your next move is carefully thought out, and is both positive and productive. Ellen Wayne is the dean of career services at New York’s Columbia Law School.

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