Being in a job for “a long time” is kind of like sitting in your favorite easy chair. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It’s … easy. But there are downsides of sitting in it too long. Professional downsides as well. Unless you are learning new things and growing as a professional it is almost certain that you are on career autopilot. Punching in … and punching out. That’s not a career … That’s a J.O.B. And most professionals cannot stay truly happy in a J.O.B. for very long. So the desire to seek something more meaningful becomes a driving career … and happiness force.
But being out of the job market for many years comes with its own set of challenges. To start, the job search protocols in today’s legal market are vastly different than the profession of old. Everything’s changed: interview attire, resume “rules,” job applications, interview questions, employer expectations, corporate/workplace vernacular, the nature of legal roles and work cultures to name a few. And if you’ve been in cruise control for many years, you probably haven’t given much, if any thought as to what truly interests and inspires you professionally. Leaving you in a mental no-man’s-land regarding your next career chapter.
So where to start? What to do? How to do it?
First, take a deep breath … and don’t panic. You will find your path. I promise. But it’s critical to understand that in order to break your fear and paralysis—and get out of your rut, the first major step will require a plan to gain self awareness of the professional You: your good and bad, likes and dislikes, wants and needs, musts and must nots. So set aside some quality time and sharpen your pencil. On a piece of paper, write down and answer the following questions … in detail. If you’re not sure how much is enough, a good guide is to provide at least 10 granular examples for each question and sub-question.
- What are your skill strengths—In what way do you excel? Substantively, socially, managerially, professionally.
- What are your skill weaknesses—What skills are lacking or just so-so?
- What do you enjoy doing most—Helping people? Doing deals? Managing? Writing? Meeting with clients? Being creative? Crunching numbers? Working alone? Working as a team? Being the boss? Taking risks? Building things?
- What do you not enjoy doing?
- What kind of culture appeals best to you … and why?
- What are the key qualities in a job you need to be happy?
- What are the qualities that would make you miserable?
- Describe the perfect job: The role, the employer, the colleagues, the money, the title, the hours, the location. All of it.
- Are there any roles or other professions that intrigue you? If so, what is it about these things that appeal to you?
- Would you be willing or able to go back to school or take a big pay cut to pursue a totally different career direction?
- How much money do you need to be happy? Are you willing to trade off money for other job qualities? If so, what are they?
- Do you have short, medium and long-term career goals? If so, are they still applicable or do they need a refresh? If not, you’ll need to set them as soon as possible.
Embarking on this personal and professional exploration is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard work—no question about it. But if you want to move the needle closer to a meaningful career, it’s imperative that you invest the time and effort to know thyself. Without this awareness, you’ll remain stuck in neutral indefinitely and your career and happiness will suffer. So take as much time as you need to work through this step until a clear understanding emerges. Once it does, you’ll be ready to move to the next step of your plan … and closer to second gear.
Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.