In a time of short days and increasing numbers of pink slips, it is easy to let our concept of what is possible for us narrow down with the early twilight.
But one of the few upsides of the recession is the opportunity to reevaluate not only what we want in a job but also who we are. Beyond the paycheck, having a job that we love and that aligns with our values allows us to use our talents and skills in ways that make us feel productive or helpful or creative.
Self-assessment, in whatever form works for you, can open up possibilities, give you direction and give you the confidence as you pursue your search.
Asking a few key questions is the first step.
Are we satisfied with our jobs? With some parts of our jobs? Do we enjoy going to work? If we have been laid off, did we enjoy what we did? What do we want to do next?
On a more practical level: What will make us attractive to our next employer? What skills do we possess beyond the list of projects on our resumes? Are we great with spreadsheets? With any or all forms of technology? Do we thrive on working with people? Do we enjoy managing? Are we more entrepreneurial?
What do we dislike? Staring at a computer screen all day? Meetings? Do we meet new people easily? Do we enjoy writing? What motivates us? Money? Prestige? Altruism? Security?
Self-assessment gets us thinking in terms of “career” rather than “job.” While Lawyers tend to prefer “doing” to “being,” time spent in “stillness” and reflection can help us to determine the right direction for our careers. Our best ideas usually come to us when we are in a reflective mode. Those of us who are laid off should resist the temptation to apply to the first job we see. Taking some time off to regroup is a necessary part of the job search.
Try a self-assessment instrument like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Strong Interest Inventory. While no one instrument tells us all we need to know to pursue that next job, such self assessments can provide useful information.
Not surprisingly, in Myers-Briggs terminology, the legal profession tends to select for those who identify as thinkers — those who favor the impersonal, logical and objective over the subjective and interpersonal — and judgers, who are organized and work-focused.
Myers-Briggs feelers have a tougher time in law, but we need more of them. Feelers bring the human dimension to legal issues and often pursue public interest jobs — and career services positions. If you are a feeler or an entrepreneurial type in a large law firm, you may have felt out of place and alone — a layoff might be a wake-up call to pursue a better fit.
Take a look at a number of good books that will help you better understand your talents and passions. The first third of Deborah Arron’s What Can You Do with a Law Degree? focuses on self-assessment, with practical exercises to explore whether you want to leave law at all and to evaluate transferable skills as well as interests and values that shape your ideal job. The final third of her book contains a list of resources for various law-related careers such as advertising and legal publishing.
The classic What Color is Your Parachute? and various books by Barbara Sher, such as Wishcraft, provide step-by-step advice on getting what you really want from work. Sher shows how so-called obstacles and limitations can be overcome by creative brainstorming, often with a supportive group of friends — or a career counselor.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron outlines a process to overcome writers’ block that is equally useful working through job search frustration or inertia. Start each day, she suggests, with a few minutes of free writing — about whatever comes to mind without any kind of critical eye. For me, that exercise is a great way to bring up what’s on my mind and free my thinking for the day.
Finally, Timothy Butler’s Getting Unstuck provides a guide to working through life’s crises or periods of “impasse.” One of the developers of a widely used CareerLeader assessment tool for MBA students, Butler advocates experiencing the negative feelings of impasse before creating a map that will lead to a more fulfilling and exciting career. He provides helpful exercises to get beyond the negative feelings inherent in the loss of a job.
Once you have a better idea of what you want to do with the rest of your working life, get moving. Don’t overlook informational interviewing, an underutilized method for discovering a new path. Think about people you know or have read about whose jobs you would like to have (okay, Oscar-nominee is a long shot). What is it about these jobs that attract you? Don’t limit yourself with “Oh, I could never do that!” Ask for half an hour of time from an informational contact. Or ask your law school or undergraduate career office to steer you toward helpful alumni.
Before you meet with your informational interviewee, develop a list of questions from your research on the web or in print. Check out Lisa Abrams’ Official Guide to Legal Specialties or read up about other fields.
Get as much information as possible about the person you are interviewing and his or her job — both the good and the bad. If you can find out the salary range, all the better. Ask what a typical day is like. What does the interviewee read online or in print to stay current? How did she or he get into the field? What additional education or training would be helpful or essential? Don’t ask for a job! The interviewee surely will mention an opening if he or she thinks you’re the right fit. Do ask for suggestions of others to talk with, and, of course, follow-up with a thank-you note. Keep your new contacts apprised of developments in your search — they are now a part of your professional network.
My first question for students who have no idea about what they want to do: What do you do for fun? I don’t ask them to begin with a book or the MBTI . Rather, I inquire about what they enjoy most about law school and about previous jobs or internships. What were their dream careers when they were contemplating law school?
The job search comes down to what will make us happy going forward. Especially in the darkest economic times, we need to begin a job search not from a place of anger, frustration or fear. Self-assessment can help you avoid taking another job where you are not happy — you will not last long there in any case. On a practical level, if you take the time to explore your likes, dislikes, skills, interests, and values you will have answers to the two basic interview questions: “Why are you here?” and “Why should we hire you?”
William A. Chamberlain is assistant dean, Law Career Strategy and Advancement, Northwestern University School of Law.