Career Planning and Counseling: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
Jill M. Kastner is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and in private practice in Glendale, Wisconsin.
Ten years ago, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I answered that I wanted to be a lawyer. Now, even with a law degree, I find myself asking that very same question: What do I want to be? What else is out there? Evidently, I’m not alone.
To help young lawyers struggling with these issues, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) held a session on career planning and counseling during its Fall Conference in San Diego. Former ABA YLD leaders Ken Young and Barbara Mendel Mayden of Young Mayden Connect—Legal Search and Consulting in Nashville, Tennessee, spent the better part of a day giving one-on-one career counseling to conference attendees. Their seminar, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Things to Consider When Contemplating a Move,” was standing room only.
The Affiliate sat down with Young and Mayden to ask about their program and what advice they give to young lawyers considering whether to make a move or a career change. As with most things in life, they emphasized that lawyers need to do the research, make a plan, and use their networks.
“The grass isn’t always greener,” Young warned. “If you don’t do your homework . . . you may find yourself worse off at the new [job].” Mayden emphasized the need for young lawyers to use their networks—such as through the ABA YLD and their local bar groups—so that they have the connections to learn about different employers and career paths and might even have a “warm body” to submit a resume to down the road.
Questions to Ask:
Should You Stay, or Should You Go?
- What does the market look like? —Today, not so good.
- Where are you in your life situation? —If you’ve purchased a new home or had a baby, perhaps it’s not a good time to make a move.
- Have you already made a move and is another move justified in your first few years of practice?
- How much money do you need to make?
- How many hours do you want to work? —Get the real numbers; some firms say 2,000 hours but really expect 2,400 hours or more.
- What kind of environment do you want to work in? —Big-, mid-size-, small-firm? Family friendly? Prestigious? Government, in-house, or nonprofit?
- Does the employer have the type, quantity, and quality of work you are looking for?
- Do you understand exactly what your new employer expects of you? —Use your network to talk to others who do that type of work; understand the good and the bad so you can make an informed choice.
- Are you qualified for this type of work (for example, young lawyers who do criminal law or general litigation may not be ideal candidates for most in-house jobs)? —If not qualified, do you need additional training or experience? Do you need to get an inter-mediate job to gain the skills/qualifications necessary?
Start the process by creating a list of pros and cons about your current job. Ask yourself some questions: Do you like the type, quality, and quantity of the work you do? Do you like the people/culture—your boss, co-workers, support staff, and so on? This analysis helps you determine not only whether you want to leave, it will also help you discover what you want to look for in a new position.
I f you’re unhappy in your current position, ask yourself why—is it something that you can change internally by working for a different partner or by cutting your hours? Is it something that will be better at another other place? If it’s too little money or too many hours, the analysis is pretty straightforward. But if the problem is less tangible, such as feeling that you are not appreciated or don’t like your boss or co-workers, think hard about whether a new place will be any better. Another firm may offer you more money, but for all you know the work environment may be worse. Similarly, if the problem at your current job is that you don’t like dealing with clients, doing research, or having to sit at a computer all day, the problem probably won’t be fixed by moving from one job to another. You may need to look at changing your area of practice or even consider whether the practice of law is for you.
Another important question to consider, especially now, is whether it is a good time to make a move. Firms are laying off, and corporations and even government agencies are tightening their budgets. If you have a good, stable job now may not be the best time to make a change.
Second, if you decide you want to make a move, do your homework about what it is you want to do. If the job change you contemplate is from one firm to another in the same area of practice, do your homework about the new firm. If you want to change your type of practice, say, from government to firm or from firm to in-house, do your homework on that new type of practice as well as on where you would like to work. If you want to leave the practice of law, to teach, to recruit for firms or law schools, or to own your own business, do your homework about this new career, what is required, and on potential new employers or opportunities.
This is where your networking and contacts come in. It’s one thing to read what’s available online, but it’s even better to learn from a live person who does this type of work or who works at the new firm. The ABA YLD and your local bar association are good places to look for other young lawyers who can provide invaluable information and advice.
A good career counselor (or headhunter) can be of tremendous value to a young lawyer looking to make a move. “But a bad headhunter can be worse . . . ,” Young warned, “[and] cause real damage to your career.” When looking at career counselors, ensure that he or she doesn’t simply want the commission from placing a lawyer at a big firm. That is why good career counselors, like Young and Mayden, emphasize that the first consideration is whether a young lawyer should stay where she or he is.
“Do the research . . . to pick the right [headhunter],” Young advises. Make certain the two of you are on the same page and have the same goal. Young and Mayden recommend that young lawyers use only one career counselor/headhunter at a time. Employing more than one at a time can create confusion and lead to problems. But if the headhunter isn’t getting a good result, terminate the relationship and use another headhunter.