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What do you think of when you hear the word “work”? Is it just a way to make a living? Is it an extended family, or a daily community of peers? Perhaps for you it’s a place of intellectual challenge and stimulation, a chance for camaraderie or a method of earning the means you need for what is really important. It can be a place where you unleash your imagination, laugh, make friends with colleagues, and earn excellent references that last a lifetime. In this tight job market the best thing that could happen to you is to get an offer from your summer employer so that the much-feared job search can be avoided. But no matter what happens at the summer’s end, most of the important lessons to be learned right now are not just about the practice’s substantive law. They are insights about yourself, and the type of law you would like to practice and the kind of lawyer you would like to become. Most of us get caught up in the details and tasks of the job at hand and lose sight of these larger issues. It’s critical that you begin to understand just what you expect from work. An exercise to help you discover some of these answers is to force-rank your 10 top work-related values. When done thoughtfully, this can be extremely difficult and enormously revealing. Don’t give in to the temptation to create ties by ranking more than one value as your most important, but challenge yourself to think about what you would give away — and what you never would. WHAT MAKES A ‘GOOD FIT?’ We all recognize bad fits. They are not only uncomfortable and stressful, they are impossible to ignore or deny. In contrast, a good fit seems so natural that it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. How do you recognize a good fit when you see one? By recognizing four key elements: the practice’s personal factors, its environmental factors, the substance of the work itself, and the career path ahead. As you’re thinking this through, no idea should be hastily discarded. Assume there will be only positive outcomes and that whatever you wish for might be possible — even if it seems unlikely today. This summer position, no matter who you work with or what the situation is, provides a unique and valuable opportunity. This is your chance to figure out what variables, when combined, create the kind of work and career path that best fit your skills, interests, talents and passions. PERSONAL FACTORS Close your eyes, take a deep breath and envision yourself five years from now. What type of law are you practicing, or are you? What kind of work are you doing? How large is your organization and how do you spend your day? Are you in private practice or the public domain? Have you relocated to another city, or perhaps another jurisdiction entirely? Once you have envisioned yourself being successful at whatever it is that will uplift your spirit and satisfy your needs, begin to walk backwards. List what needs to be done to get there, breaking it down into smaller steps and accomplishments so that you can begin the journey toward your goal. Be methodical and overly detailed so that you can examine some of the options and choices that may need to be made. Remember that it’s a plan to set you on your way and like the best plans, it is only a map, not a contract. This is a process, so don’t try to rush it or be impatient, just confident and committed to the moment. Take your time, think it through and examine your assumptions. Pay attention to your feelings, your intuition, and your intellect as you figure out what types of work, organization, and level of ambition suits you. WORKING ENVIRONMENT The environmental aspects of work may determine whether a particular work situation suits you or not. Basically, these include everything other than the substantive law itself: the firm’s location; your office’s location; your officemate and other colleagues; the facilities and resources; your specific department’s culture; the formal and informal support systems — even the firm’s artwork. These all contribute toward our comfort level and help determine whether this firm is a good fit. Too often, we accept a work situation that is not ideal by saying: “I can handle this, it’s not so bad!” But these are tangible things that can sour a work situation regardless of how well everything else is going. If you are an optimistic, happy individual who thrives in a buoyant, friendly atmosphere, working in a firm whose culture requires silence in the hallways may feel stifling to you. If you need, or prefer, to be home by 7 p.m. each evening, an organization that frowns on leaving before 8 p.m. may create frustration and tension on both ends. If you learn best and are more productive in a collegial, supportive environment, one that requires independent work with little feedback may feel uncomfortable and isolating. Learn to be an observer from the moment you enter the work place. Are the work spaces well-appointed and large enough, with adequate privacy? Do you prefer an office or are you more at home in a cubicle? What are the organization’s standards in terms of cleanliness, space allocation, equipment, and resources? What is your own tolerance for shared space, noise levels, and outdated technology? Whatever your preference, it is important to understand what feels natural, seamless and therefore most effective for you. Too often, we fit ourselves into the situation rather than defining how we might succeed with ease. Once you determine the essential variables, put them at or near the top of your force-ranked value list as you select future work situations. Periodically re-examine your work-related values, because as we change, so do they. THE SUBSTANTIVE WORK What do you think about? What types of articles do you read in the newspaper? What comes easily to you? What do you enjoy talking about? What areas of practice seem so logical and simple to you that you think everyone should be able to get it? Whatever it is, go with it. Read about it, talk about it, find a mentor who specializes in it, and enjoy being a beginner in your new field of practice! If nothing at this current workplace intrigues you, don’t despair. Try other practice areas; speak to other people, test market your ideas until you find one that makes you want to know more. If you enjoy fact-intensive issues about people and their relationships, there are several practice areas that may satisfy you more than others, e.g., labor and employment law, matrimonial, or family law. If you prefer issues with less fluidity and more definition, you may thrive in a statutory, regulatory practice, such as tax, insurance, corporate, or criminal. If you’re drawn to science, patent law may capture your imagination. If you discover a strong interest in real estate issues, and your current firm doesn’t cover that practice area, then concentrate on things that impact real estate. This will be of enormous value to you later, and might include areas such as tax, valuation, and business deals that involve real estate assets or environmental issues. It is wise to sample as many areas of practice as it takes to determine whether one speaks to you. After all the years of education, and probably much debt, you owe it to yourself to exhaust the possibilities. If nothing really grabs you, then be grateful you have figured it out early on in your professional life. Begin investigating other career paths inside and outside of the law that will be more joyful for you. Take into account your considerable transferable skills as you determine what might be a good fit for you going forward. One caveat: Do not choose a practice area simply because you like the individuals currently practicing in that group. In these transient times, people come and go and you may find yourself alone in a practice area that doesn’t really interest you. THE CAREER PATH TO WALK In selecting your career path, it is imperative that you keep your options open, even within a practice area. If you select a niche within the practice, make sure it is unique enough so that you can become an expert. That will enable you to earn sufficient compensation to meet your own expectations and be sought after by others who recognize your expertise. If the niche is too narrow, though, you may have intellectual interest, but appeal to a very limited market, finding yourself struggling to make the living you want. In other words, choose something that has longevity and potential beyond your own personal interest. If you wish to eventually move in-house, some practice areas lend themselves more easily to this transition than others, such as corporate, regulatory, or labor and employment law. Litigators often have a more difficult, though not impossible, time going in-house to companies without full-blown legal departments. Of course, they are much in need in companies that litigate their own matters and may oversee litigation conducted by outside counsel. Please note: Resist selecting litigation merely because it is not corporate governance, securities or tax. Too often, law students select litigation because it seems like the best fit for someone with a liberal arts background. However, being an advocate and an adversary requires not only the right skills but also the right temperament. The key is to ask yourself questions — some easy, some far more difficult. The answers to them will help you not just this summer, but in the years ahead. Remember that it takes just as much time and effort to establish a poor career as it does a great one! Your best professional option is one that supports your personal values, interests and talents — your joy, the meaning, and the purpose of your life! How will you know? Keep asking, and when it’s comfortable and easy, you know you’ve found your fit. Alexandra Duran, a former general counsel of Fashion Institute of Technology who first began practicing law with a large New York law firm as a summer associate, is founder and principal of Career Transitioning and coaches attorneys in advancing their careers.

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