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Changing Places: Tips for Finding a Job in a New Locale

If you are looking for a job in this economic climate, you may want to consider packing your bags. In other words, don’t be afraid to venture beyond what and where you know. Job searching across state lines may be your best option. So if jobs are vanishing where you are, look elsewhere. If you’re in Chicago but the best gig is in San Diego, take it. Better to return to your town later with a great resume than stay there without one.

Once you open yourself up to other markets, especially those where start-ups and other entrepreneurial companies are bargain hunting for legal services, numerous opportunities are likely to present themselves. In some cases, experience from another jurisdiction or culture can make a candidate even more attractive, both to firms and their clients.

As an example, one of my senior associate candidates recently accepted a position at a secondary-market firm with a strong reputation in IP. In the new market, she was able to cut her rate by about one-third (not to mention her cost of living) and thus attracted business by pitching the fact that her clients would be receiving the same services from the same brain at a greatly discounted price.

Of course, looking for work is tough, even in a city you know and in which you’re already physically located. How are you supposed to find a job in another city or state where you don’t know anyone? The following provides guidance and shares actual stories of lawyers who have gone beyond their geographic comfort zone to find a job that’s right for them.

Getting Started

One of the most frustrating aspects of the current legal market is the absence of real hiring patterns. I receive calls nearly every day asking, “What is hot in terms of practice area and geography?” You may think, based on news reports, that the answers are “nothing” and “nowhere,” but top associates and laterals are still landing new positions. So the real answer is that great people with great skills are always in demand. However, timing is everything. Strike that: Timing and relationships are everything.

These days, most young lawyers and other professionals start their job searches by looking at online job boards. This lets you know the firms or companies that are hiring in which areas, but it also indicates the firms and companies that are being slammed with resumes. On top of that, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, nearly 80 percent of job openings are never advertised. So it is unlikely you will be successful if job boards are your only tactic.

So what are you supposed to do? Let’s get back to that word relationships. In a recent survey of HR executives by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, networking was deemed the most effective job search strategy. Your main focus, therefore, should be on developing your network and identifying the “hidden” job market.

Start by locating friends (or friends of friends) who have knowledge of the legal market in which you are interested. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking sites enable you to connect with your existing network as well as your “sleeper network”—i.e., friends and contacts of your friends and contacts. I’m sure you’ve heard this before (like the warning on coffee cups telling you the beverage inside is hot), but remember to use caution in terms of what you post. For instance, unless you’ve decided to go into advocacy law, do not post content that reveals your political, religious or social leanings.

How much should you disclose about your job search? The confidentiality of your plans will determine how specific your posts should be. An associate I know recently posted the name of a city’s famous street as his “status.” Almost immediately, 15 people responded with suggestions for things to do in that city. The associate now knows who he can contact about that area without having to disclose online that he is considering a move.

If your job search is more public, you might want to post news of an upcoming interview. Some professional networking sites have subgroups and job boards that allow specific posts for job seekers. The “What are you working on?” section on some profile pages is another great place to post your relocation intentions. Also, if you pass the bar in your targeted geography (more on that later), you could post a “Congrats to me” message.

It can also be helpful to join the local bar association and subscribe to (or read online) the primary newspapers and any legal and general business publications that cover the market. This will alert you to opportunities and make you that much more informed when you do get some interviews.

Don’t forget to reach out to alumni of your previous or current firm and of the schools you have attended, too. Don’t know how to begin? Contact your law school’s career services or alumni office and ask them for information on alumni in the market you are targeting.

Another way to establish connections in another market is to find people who are already in the type of position you hope to obtain. You can do this via law firm Web sites, Martindale-Hubbell, the local bar association and the like. Ask if you can talk to them for 10 minutes about how they got where they are (known as an informational interview). If they spend time with you, on the phone or in person, send them a handwritten thank-you note with perhaps a gift certificate or something else to show your appreciation.

You might also want to contact a legal search consultant, particularly one who works for a company that has offices in multiple locations. They will be able to alert you to opportunities in the market you’re targeting and fill you in on the differences between the various firms and corporate legal departments there.

Follow Your Interests and Passions

In today’s saturated job market, it is extremely important to stand out from the crowd, so as you begin your search, try to pinpoint what makes you unique. Perhaps you have an unusual practice niche, have lived someplace a firm is interested in expanding to, speak a foreign language used by the firm’s clients, have relationships with people who could become important clients, have hobbies or professional experience in industries the firm caters to, or went to the same law school as several members of the firm. This information can be invaluable in locating firms most likely to be interested in “you.”

I once worked with a young litigation partner at a small secondary-market firm who, as a mere aside, told me he originally wanted to become an architect but that the math load was too intense. As I got to know him better, it became clear he was still drawn to the building-design industry. We decided he should look for companies and firms where he could capitalize on his interest and knowledge in that subject as well as his legal experience. As a start, he joined an ABA subcommittee that worked on construction issues. Ultimately, through networking, he landed an in-house job at a $1 billion construction company.

It is important to note that the position he ended up getting was never advertised. He analyzed himself to determine what made him unique, targeted specific positions and ended up being the “right guy at the right time.”

Convey Your Commitment

How do you show a prospective employer that you are serious about relocating? The employer will want to ensure you have thought through the decision—including that you are aware of the various work, client base and cultural differences in the new market—and that you don’t just crave change for change’s sake. A good way to deal with this is to set up a phone interview so the hiring committee can question you about the extent of your commitment. Be ready to discuss the location, your practice and fit with the firm and why you want to work with them.

Also, if you are committed to moving to a certain market, take the bar there. Res ipsa loquitor. This will show new firms that you are committed to the move. Several states provide for a simple application process once a licensed attorney has practiced for five years in a state with which it shares reciprocity, but there are also states that do not follow this practice. It is up to you to learn the requirements. You should also make sure you have satisfied all CLE requirements and are up-to-date with the recent case law and legislation relating to your practice area. Interviewers will also want to know that you are truly free to relocate. One international corporation I know lost their bull’s-eye candidate, after a long arduous process they had conducted on their own, because his spouse was not able to find a position in the new city. You need to find an appropriate way to let interested firms know that your move “has passed at the personal committee level” and that everyone concerned is on board. To prepare for this, discuss the relocation and all its implications with your spouse or domestic partner and other family members. Research the area, including specific neighborhoods, schools, commuting distances and the like, so everyone’s needs are addressed. Then, when the negotiations reach the interview stage, you will be able to say with confidence that your family is ready to make the move for the right opportunity.

Vetting Prospective Firms

How should you vet the firms you’re considering? Again, you’ll need to turn to your network and reputable industry experts. Use search engines that identify which firms do what kinds of work and for whom. Watch legal publications for movement of lawyers, firms’ acquisitions of major deals or dispute work, and bona fide associate satisfaction surveys. A caution, though—while they can be entertaining, do not give too much credence to comments posted on legal blogs. The culture and work experience at each law firm can be vastly different for each person who works there. Basing a major career decision on the subjective opinions of one or even ten individuals, with their own unique circumstances and personalities, is as advisable as relying on a coin flip. You also shouldn’t go to a firm just because one or two people you know are already working there. Lawyers change firms with astonishing frequency these days and you need to know you’ll be happy even if your connections are no longer there.

You need to be pleased with the totality of what the firm offers. You should know the type of work it specializes in, its billing rates, the requirements for partnership, the percentage of associates who make partner, its growth over the past five years (in size, revenue and profitability), major additions and defections of partners, its strength in the local, national and international markets and its overall reputation. There may be other things that interest you, too—like work-life balance, family leave, health benefits, or child- or elder-care allowances. Some of this information can be difficult to come by. Try to find someone who can help and who will keep your inquiry confidential.

Get the Essentials in Writing

Once you determine what the firm has to offer, make a list of all the related items you consider essential to the deal. Carry paper or note-recording equipment with you everywhere, wanted to move from a secondary to a primary market 400 miles away was offered an interview in her target market but told that she would have to fly “on her dime.” It was the first time I had heard that from a major firm. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when traveling on your own dime to meet with a prospective employer is a good idea, but they are likely the exception. Lately some firms have been offering to cover half of the costs, but promise to reimburse the candidate for his or her portion if the candidate is ultimately hired. Another option, to save time and money, is to set up an online chat or videoconference, at least for first interviews.

When you receive an employment offer, remember that benefit packages can vary greatly, so note how each of your concerns will be addressed as you weigh the offer. If something on your list is not mentioned, ask about it. For instance, some firms cover moving expenses; some don’t. Also, if you purchase a home in the new location, some firms will provide free legal or broker assistance. And though it is rare, some firms will even assist with the sale of your current home. When considering benefits and other “perks,” don’t rely on what others at the firm have received or what is stated on the firm’s Web site, since recent changes in policy may not be reflected.

Little Things Can Add Up

Here are a few other factors you should consider when exploring your relocation options.

• The area’s living expenses. Talk to someone who has relocated to or from the market (or the person who assisted them). If that is not possible, there are a number of Internet resources that can help. Just type “cost of living comparison” into any search engine. But be careful. You need to use a number of these sites to get an accurate estimate, since some of them seem to generate high or low numbers based on their own agendas. Check with law firms in the area, too. Many have information on how the living costs in their region compare to other markets.

• Look beneath the locale’s surface. Everyone remembers to ask about safety, taxes, schools and the presence of children (or not) when selecting a new home. However, what about the more subtle things that can contribute to one’s satisfaction? Good realtors can help, but nothing compares to talking with others who have actually lived there and have similar interests and lifestyles.

I worked with one candidate who still laments the fact that she moved from a small town in Ohio to a very popular Chicago suburb. She thought she had completed all the necessary research—the neighborhood had exemplary services, schools and amenities. However, no one told her that at certain times of the day it could take 20 minutes to pull out of her subdivision and another three light cycles to get onto the main drag. When life is billed in increments of .1 or .25, those daily 20 to 30 minutes can feel like an eternity. This ended up affecting her overall happiness and ability to settle in.

• Factor in the social scene. Another associate, who was single and moved from a large to a small market, was pleased with the job, the firm, the nature of her work and her billing rate. She enjoyed her colleagues and her trendy new condo. However, she soon found that most of those she interacted with every day were married and had children. She began to feel closed off from social opportunities and her work suffered. She left the firm nine months after starting and still suffers the stigma of being a “jumper,” but only because she lacked a full understanding of the culture of her new, smaller city.

So, whether you’re moving because there are no jobs where you are, your partner has been relocated by his or her company, you want to be closer to your aging parents, you want to live where your kids can walk to school, or you’re single and want to be part of a more vibrant urban scene, there is a lot you need to know about the cross-state job search process. Follow the steps outlined here to help ensure your search is successful and ends up putting you in a better place.

About the Author

Kirsten Keegan Vasquez is a Managing Director at Major, Lindsey & Africa, the world’s largest legal search firm. Prior to joining MLA, she was a litigator at a family law boutique. In addition to coauthoring The System Book for FamilyLaw, she frequently writes and presents on the topic of career development for attorneys.

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