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The challenge of entering the full-time practice of law can be substantial for any lawyer fresh out of law school. But new lawyers who have spent substantial time in the work force or raising a family before going to law school face some unique challenges and opportunities. Here are a few of the issues that “second-career” lawyers may face — and some practical suggestions on how to respond to them. BLENDING IN, BUSTING OUT There is no bright line dividing second-career lawyers from their colleagues. Many new lawyers, for example, take time off between college and law school to work, study or gain other experiences. The length of that period can be short, or quite long. Indeed, law school tends to wash away the differences between new lawyers who have spent a great deal of time involved in activities other than law before law school, and those who have not. Most employers (especially at large firms), moreover, think of all their new lawyers as just that: new. They do not much distinguish between those who are new to law and those who are new to law with substantial non-legal experience. That fact can be played in either direction. If you wish to “blend” in with other new lawyers, and not highlight your additional experience, in many environments you can effectively do so. If you follow the ordinary path of the new lawyer (hard work, lots of learning) you will probably be dealt with in the same manner as your less-experienced compatriots. On the other hand, it is possible to give your law firm a pleasant surprise by highlighting some of your unique talents and experiences in the course of dealing with your colleagues and supervisors. Even though you may have been introduced to some of the lawyers during the recruiting process, you will likely have the opportunity to introduce yourself to many more at the firm while working. It is worthwhile thinking, in advance, of how you wish to portray yourself during introductions once at the firm. There may be aspects of your prior experience that are immediately transferable to your expected course of work. For example, some new lawyers with a science or technical background deliberately choose to pursue legal work that relates to that background (such as intellectual property law, or government regulatory work in a technical/scientific area). If that is your plan, so be it. But what if that is not your plan? What if, in fact, you have gone into law precisely because you want a change? Certainly a part of the solution will be to pick a law firm that offers work in fields outside your area of expertise. However, you will also need to think about how you wish to position yourself at the firm once you arrive and begin work. In general, your focus should be forward-looking. What aspects of law drew you to the profession as a second career? In many instances, second-career lawyers have a clearer, more realistic concept of what they want out of a legal career than do new lawyers who go straight from college to law school. Emphasizing those elements in your new encounters will generally serve you well. Thus, for example, if you have a teaching background, you might explain to someone you meet for the first time that you enjoy being on your feet speaking before an audience, that you like the challenge of taking a difficult concept and explaining it in simple terms, and that (as a result of your teaching experience) you went to law school hoping to become a successful litigator. The point is not that each past experience necessarily leads to a particular second career in law. Rather, it is possible to pick elements of your prior experience that have some relationship to what you hope to do in law. And when lawyers at your new firm ask — and sooner or later they will ask, or you will tell them — why you chose the law as a second career, you will set the tone of the discussion on terms most likely to be favorable to where you see yourself going at the firm. NEGATIVE PERCEPTIONS Despite the increasing experience of law firms with second-career lawyers, there remains a well of ignorance and misunderstanding in some areas. As a second-career lawyer, you may encounter any number of negative perceptions from attorneys who simply do not have enough experience with second-career lawyers to understand their unique capabilities and potential. These negative perceptions can take many forms, such as the view that a second-career lawyer: � “Couldn’t hack it” in a prior career; � May lack the vigor of a younger colleague; � Will not be able to take direction well from younger supervisors; � Is less qualified than an attorney who followed the ordinary path to law school. At their root, all these perceptions are prejudices based on the assumption that someone who is different from the “normal” new lawyer is somehow inadequate or difficult to work with. Confronting such prejudices can be challenging, but not impossible. In all events, focus on the positive. Yours is a path that has not been as easy, perhaps, as those of some of your colleagues. If you have maintained a career (and perhaps a family) while studying at night to obtain a law degree, you have shown dedication and a willingness to work hard. There should also be little question about your vigor; you may actually have done with less sleep during your law school career than have your fellow new lawyers. The same goes for questions about your ability to work for younger supervisors. It is quite possible that your prior experience put you into contact with a wide range of supervisors, both older and younger. Your ability to function in a diverse working environment may have been established by that prior experience. At a minimum, your maturity may make it easier for you to adopt an attitude of humility than it is for younger colleagues, who may feel they need to prove themselves as superstars immediately. You should be prepared to talk about yourself and your experiences in ways that may help to dispel negative perceptions, and focus on your potential. Indeed, you should take advantage of the fact that your unusual background may often be a subject of curiosity among the lawyers you meet when you begin work at a firm. Respond to such curiosity with your story, emphasizing what you have to offer the firm and its attorneys. TRADING ON PRIOR EXPERIENCE There are a number of additional steps you may wish to take that can expand your influence and involvement in the firm: � A prior employer or acquaintance may be a useful business contact for your new firm. Bring such potential contacts to the attention of the firm, but do not demand that you have sole, or even principal, responsibility for dealing with the prospect. As a new lawyer, you will not be qualified to perform in such a role. You can, however, be a useful source of introduction for the firm and its senior lawyers, and such an introduction will often be appreciated. Even if the firm chooses not to pursue the contact, due to conflicts or other constraints, your enterprise will most likely be acknowledged. � Your membership in a professional organization may be useful to the firm. The organization, for example, might be interesting in a seminar put together with lawyers from your firm, and you might help facilitate such a seminar. The organization’s members might also be a source of expertise for litigation and other legal matters. Again, if you let senior lawyers know that you may be able to help with an introduction to the organization, you should get some recognition for your resourcefulness. � Your professional experience may be of assistance to the firm on matters unrelated to your chosen area at the firm. For example, if you spent several years as a business executive in Spain, your foreign-language skills might be of use in explaining a corporate document to a Spanish-speaking client. Even if you are a litigator, you should not hesitate to offer assistance outside your practice area. Your willingness to “pitch in” may enhance your reputation and status within the firm. � On a longer-term basis, there may be aspects of your professional experience that will be of use in helping to manage the firm. Your technical knowledge, for example, might make you an ideal addition to the firm’s committee working on computer upgrades. Your prior human resources experience might make you a good addition to the recruiting committee. Study the firm’s structure and offer your services where appropriate. Again, the point is not that your prior experience necessarily must dictate your course at a law firm. But if you have useful skills and experience, you should consider whether offering your unique talents to the firm may enhance your reputation and status within the firm. Your ability to control your destiny depends in part on how well you can match your interests and abilities to the needs of the firm. Fortunately, as a second-career lawyer, you probably have a great deal of experience in setting goals and formulating plans to meet those goals. For you, a law firm likely represents a challenge and an opportunity much like the others you have already mastered. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue and co-director of the New Associates Group there. The views expressed are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s firm or its clients.

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