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“Go back to the rock pile,” the senior litigation partner barked at the midlevel associate, asking about his future with the firm. “We’ll let you know how things are going in a couple of years. We just don’t have a good sense of your work yet.” Unhappy in your current job? Devoting significant time to strategically planning your career? In recent times, this seems to have slipped into shorthand for career moves. In fact, staying put may be the best approach. But staying put does not mean standing still. It means analyzing your current work environment and taking affirmative steps to improve it. Don’t rule out switching firms or companies completely, but first try to assess your current situation carefully. Ask yourself: Are you getting the most out of where you are now? Are you working with the group you like the most and have the most in common with? Are you doing the type of work that you enjoy the most? Thoroughly assess your likes and dislikes. But be careful. Mindlessly angling to join the corporate department just because you’ve had a rough day in litigation may be a misguided, short-term “fix.” Do a little homework so that you don’t end up in exactly the same situation with another group or practice area. ENVIRONMENTAL LAW? As a case in point, one associate handling securities litigation recently confided: “I’m planning to transfer into the environmental law department. That area seems so interesting, so timely, so in the thick of things.” OK. But first find out what they really do over there. Find someone at your level and ask him or her. Then go read the last three cases handed down in this area of law by the U.S. Supreme Court or a couple of courts of appeal. Look up a couple of articles, borrow a hornbook. And once you’re up to speed, get hold of a more senior attorney or two in this practice area (at your firm or somewhere else), and ask them how they like it. What is appealing and unappealing (there’s always something) about their practice? Ask them to describe a typical “day in their life.” What are the short- and long-term prospects for the practice and what opportunities lie ahead? Even if this type of due diligence cannot guarantee that you will make the right decision, it can significantly reduce the odds of making an ill-conceived move. Maybe, just maybe, your investigation will confirm that the practice area or group you are in is really pretty good. But this does not mean that you should simply go back to the “rock pile” and mindlessly “pay your dues.” For example, if you’re a civil litigator at a big firm starting your third year in practice, make sure that you actively seek out work that will further your goals and round out critical skills. Sit down with a senior associate or partner with whom you have some rapport. List the essential experiences and skills for someone at your level: How many depositions, court appearances, settlement conferences, summary judgment motions, mediations, etc., should one realistically try to get under one’s belt by the end of this year? This will vary a bit, depending on the firm and practice area, but the goal is clearly the same. The analogy used by one partner goes like this: “If you show up in fifth grade and still don’t know your multiplication tables, you’re in trouble.” Get the experience you need to stay on course and get ahead. Make a written “to do” list and check things off as you accomplish them. Be persistent. It is better to be viewed as a “squeaky wheel” than as someone who hasn’t a clue about how to develop essential skills and to look out for oneself. The more fits and starts in your career, or critical gaps in experience, the worse off you are. Can people overcome bad career moves? Sure, and sometimes the hangman’s trap door malfunctions and the condemned man escapes. But counting on luck, rather than analysis and planning is clearly not the way to maximize the chances for a successful career. Try to view career goals as the result of well thought out, realistic and practical planning — a process of building the right skills and experiences, rather than running from one dislike to another, or waiting for a lucky break. Carl A. Baier is a managing director in Palo Alto, Calif., with Major, Hagen & Africa, an attorney search and recruiting firm. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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