Attorneys reach out to legal recruiters for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common are: they don’t like the people they work with, they want more money, a better quality of life or to work for only one client.
While all of these are valid reasons for seeking a change in the short term, the career planning advice that we most often give to young attorneys is straightforward: Set a career goal that fits your personality, needs and desires, and base your career choices on how much each one helps you to get closer to the goal. Or, put more simply, keep your eyes on the prize.
Think it through … very carefully.
Being unhappy today should not be the only catalyst that moves you to your next job. I encourage every attorney to take the time to step back and think long-term about their careers. Setting a goal now can help you better evaluate every move you make, ensuring that each step along the journey is aligned with a few key indicators that have been defined before embarking on the path to future success.
I always start by asking my candidates two questions: who they are and what they want to be when they grow up. These questions are genuine and aimed at getting to the heart of a candidate’s goals. The answer to these basic questions will help shape your career path and determine the choices you need to make along the way.
Of course, as you will see below, it isn’t just about these two questions. The process I am recommending will help you determine, at the ultra-micro level, the type of job that will make you the happiest, and what you need to do to get there.
WHO ARE YOU?
As we often hear, each one of us is a “work in progress.” Every person can benefit from regular self-assessment and self-evaluation, as well as constructive feedback from those we know and trust. While this helps us to always have an eye on personal and professional growth, it also reminds us that we are each wired a certain way that affects how we respond to different situations and circumstances. This “wiring” is important for us to understand so we know ourselves better, and thus can take a more deliberate approach to choosing the career that will be the best fit. There are various tools that can facilitate a journey of self-discovery, including books, personality tests, psychological profiles, work evaluations and other resources.
Knowing yourself better can even help you choose a practice area. For example, if you know that you don’t mind dealing with moral conundrums, you might want to consider environmental, white-collar crime, products liability or insurance coverage, as opposed to real estate, IP or tax. If you prefer to analyze gray areas in the law, you may lean toward family law, litigation or trusts and estates, as opposed to those practice areas that analyze more concrete issues, such as regulatory and corporate securities.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE?
Do you want to be a general counsel? If yes, do you want to head up the legal department in a big, medium or small company? Public or private? Domestic or international? Or do you want to be a partner in an international law firm? Do you not care what you are doing as long as you make enough money to provide for your family? Do you want to be obscenely rich? Do you want work/life balance? Do you want to live in a big city or by the beach? Knowing what you want will help you craft a way to get there. The questions and comparisons are endless, and this is where a recruiter can help. Finding a recruiter that has the knowledge and experience to match your personality type with the right career goals is essential to making sure you don’t end up making regular detours on the path to your ultimate career goal. A good legal recruiter will also ask the right questions that can help you narrow down your choices and determine what the best path is for you.
For example, if you aim to be the general counsel of a public company, you need to start working on matters and/or accept positions that set you up for that — do you have public company clients; are you getting SEC experience; are these skills staying fresh or getting stale? Have you considered that, for this job, you will most likely have to relocate? If you want to work in the legal department of an international company, are you currently in the type of firm that in-house counsel will recognize and respect, or are you in a small firm that no one will know outside your local area?
SHOW THAT YOU ARE GOAL-ORIENTED
Think about how your resume is going to look in 10 years. Will it show logical progression? Or will it cause people to doubt your intentions?
In this day and age, there are usually hundreds of great applicants for almost every position. The people reviewing your resume will make speculative assessments and judgment calls, and if your resume causes them any concerns or doubts, they will likely put it aside and move to one that makes more sense. Impulsive moves will be revealed to be just that. Your resume should take the reader on a nice, neat road, indicating that you had a plan and stuck to it, noting accomplishments and successes along the way, and revealing a definite upward arc, with more demanding and prestigious jobs at each turn. It should tell the story of someone who had the foresight and self-awareness to choose the right positions for his or her personality type and skill set, as well as his or her desires and needs.
WE KNOW THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS
Many of you might be thinking, “That’s great for someone who is just starting out, but what about those of us who are already past this stage in our careers, or maybe we were forced to make a move because of unforeseen circumstances?” We all know there are certain times that a move to a new job cannot wait. For example, your spouse has been relocated, you must take care of your aging parents, or you are not making enough money to survive. These situations require immediate action. Most employers will understand a move because of an unforeseen or imminent circumstance (or even a mistake). The important thing is to always keep your recruiter updated on the details of any change in your career path. Even in these situations, a good legal recruiter can help you stay on a track that gets you closer to your ultimate professional goals.
Keep in mind that evaluation of yourself and your goals is an ongoing process. It is never too late to step back, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Who am I and what do I want to be when I grow up?”
Deborah Ben-Canaan is a partner at global legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. In her 12 years with MLA, her main focus has been to serve her clients by recruiting GCs and other in-house counsel. She can be reached at email@example.com or 202-628-0665.