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Q: I am a litigation associate at a large New York firm. Like so many others, I went into the department without a real awareness of where I wanted to be or what I wanted to get out of it — except a general sense that I wanted to get some good training and advocacy skills. Since being here I have had a lot of exposure to interesting things, and have had some opportunities to improve my writing and research skills. But I still have a long way to go in honing these skills. The problem is that I do not know where to go from here. I know I can’t stay here. I have no future here and I don’t like it enough to put up with the hours and the enduring stress. I had thought moving to another firm, but am not certain it will be all that different. Then I thought about government or an NGO work, but that seems like a really tough market to break into and I am not even certain it’s really for me. What opportunities are there for litigators to go in-house, and am I still too junior for that (two- to three-years out of law school)? What about breaking into something related, such as policy? Do you have suggestions on how to do that without going back to the unpaid intern days? More precisely, how do you develop your skill set without going to another firm, or should I do what the recruiters suggest and seek out a smaller firm exactly for that purpose? A: Your head must have been spinning as you wrote all the options you are considering. You state that you became a litigator with a lack of “awareness of where I wanted to be.” After two or three years, you appear no closer to figuring out a direction for your career. Step back and take stock of yourself. Some people, particularly attorneys, are skeptical of self-assessment. Others make the mistake of thinking that self-assessment exercises provide an instant and definitive answer to their career dilemma. For some, it becomes an excuse to delay decisions and they get bogged down in the process. Self-assessment is intended to help you figure out who you are and from there, draw some conclusions about what career path suits you and take steps to pursue it. When you engage in self-assessment, consider your values, interests, skills and preferred work environment. Values: Each of us has values that we hold dear such as balanced lifestyle, security, recognition, control and independence. Think about what is essential to you, what fulfills you. It must be so vital that its absence makes you angry. For example, if working independently is important to you, you will not thrive in an environment where you must report to a supervising attorney just about every time you turn around. If you like being applauded for your accomplishments, you will suffer working for attorneys who criticize or nitpick and never acknowledge an overall excellent performance. Interests: You indicate you’ve “had a lot of exposure to interesting things.” When conducting your self-assessment, identify those “things” more specifically. Consider other “things.” Include work-related and outside interests. Test the importance of those interests to you by asking whether you would wake up in the morning excited at the prospect of pursuing them. Skills: Determine the skills that you possess and like to use, as well as those that you would like to develop. Your inquiry indicates that research and writing falls somewhere between these two categories. Add to the picture other preferred skills. Weed out skills that you possess but do not enjoy using and skills that you do not possess and have no interest in acquiring. Knowing your preferred skills will help determine, among other things, whether you are suited for a particular type of work. For example, if policy work requires a set of skills that you like using, then it may be a good fit for you. Conversely, if it means using too many skills that you do not prefer, then it is likely to lose its appeal. Environment: Workplace considerations include the physical surroundings and the way in which people interact. Ask yourself whether you must be in pleasant surroundings with many amenities, such as an office with a window and a view, fine furniture, and plush carpets, such as you find in many law firms. At the same time, ask whether you would be satisfied in modest, or even rundown, surroundings, such as you often find in government and NGOs. The dynamics of the workplace can vary greatly. For example, some are loud and boisterous, others quiet and reserved; some are rude, others polite; some are fast-paced, others slow. The drawbacks in your current workplace are “the hours and the enduring stress.” Evaluate whether balance is a core value. Consider whether you could tolerate the hours and stress in a different environment if other values were met and you were using your preferred skills. There is no guarantee that a smaller firm, or any of your other options, will guarantee more reasonable hours and less stress. It depends on the nature of the practice. Opportunities are likely to exist for you in each of the areas in which you have expressed an interest. Your task is to figure out which ones to pursue. Then, you can put together a strategy that can include networking, using recruiters, responding to advertisements, and sending out targeted mailings. The strategy will depend on your knowing yourself and deciding which way to turn. Linda E. Laufer, a former practicing attorney, is a career consultant.

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