For example, conventional wisdom dictates that years with a prestigious firm and a breadth of experience are necessary before even thinking about making an in-house move. However, I recently spoke with a 2011 grad who graduated with an in-house offer from a real estate subsidiary of a very large private equity company. “I knew I wanted to practice real estate law going into law school. All of my summer positions and clerkships were real estate related. I even took lower paying jobs just to get that experience,” he explained. “But, it paid off, and I convinced the company to take a chance on me. It was about showing commitment and gaining the right skills.”
In stark contrast, I’ve spoken with a number of new attorneys desperate to make vertical moves, and indicative of their desperation, when asked what they’d like to do, an all too common response is, “I practice [________], but it’s not really what I want—I’d rather do x, y, or z—really anything else.” Your job search shouldn’t be a random walk. Traditional pathways to legal careers have changed. Legal employers and their clients increasingly value specific experience. But, that’s the good news—legal employers are looking more to the lateral market as a resource for specific talent.
Build Your Strengths, Describe Your Niche, and Sell Them to Others
Determine your strengths and assets. Be honest with yourself, and really think about your aspirations. Think big—whatever that is to you personally. Once you’ve decided on your niche, it’s important to develop a personal brand and deliver your message in an interview.
Get Smarter. Learn as much as you can. Be inquisitive and curious, which should come naturally if you’ve chosen to pursue a passion. Read about new laws relevant to the area you want to pursue, listen to podcasts, attend CLEs, speak with people in the industry, and understand the business needs of employers and their clients.
Get Involved. Get involved in the community in which you want to practice. Write an article, speak at a bar association event, or guest lecture a course. Do practice-specific pro bono work to improve your legal skills in a meaningful way. Attend networking events and form relationships with those in leadership positions. Be a leader—if there isn’t a position, create one. The more flexible and creative you are, the more likely you’ll be able to create valuable opportunities for yourself. You should be networking as a matter of course. People control resources, opportunities, and information. The more people you know, the more doors you’ll open.
Build Business Competencies. As important as it is to become practice ready, it’s just as important to become “business ready.” Studies have shown that legal employers desire business skills, such as managing others, building relationships, strategic planning, creativity/innovation, and engagement, many of which are not taught in law school. Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can to build these skills, in your current practice and volunteer positions. Smart legal employers look at candidates as long-term human capital. Be able to show that you have upward potential.
Leave a Good First Impression. Part of your personal brand is the impression with which you leave people. Be memorable in a good way. When networking, pay attention to your nonverbal communication. Express interest in the other person and their practice. The goal is two-fold—learning from someone who’s doing what you want to do and forming a connection. If someone likes you, that person will convince herself that you can do the job and will be comfortable introducing you to contacts. So, resist the urge to try to impress and bring the conversation back to you. If you’ve continued to learn and are involved in practice-specific organizations, you’ll have the chops you need to speak intelligently and leave a lasting, positive impression.
Create a Better Resume. Another integral component of your brand is your resume. Its function is to show employers what you can do for them based on your past experiences. You’re selling a product; therefore, wording and descriptions count. Your resume shouldn’t be a compilation of everything you’ve done; it should highlight information relevant to the reader. Even if you’re currently practicing in an unrelated area, you can craft your resume to emphasize pertinent experiences and frame your current job in a way that bolsters your candidacy.
For example, say you’re a corporate lawyer wishing to transition to trust and estates (T&E). Think about your resume from an employer’s perspective. You may have worked on mergers and acquisitions or securities matters, but that means little to an employer seeking a T&E attorney. Though possibly a smaller part of your practice, focus your resume on any work you’ve done for closely held businesses, private trust companies, and family offices. Rather than generally including due diligence work, write about performing due diligence on specific documents such as financial statements and trust agreements. If you’ve ever dealt with tax issues, expand on those experiences because much of T&E work is governed by the tax code. And because T&E work usually involves working with individuals and families, emphasize your client counseling experience.
While professional experiences are traditionally the focus of any resume, just as important are your experiences outside of work. If you’re involved in practice-specific organizations or volunteer work, make that evident. For example, organizations such as Wills for Heroes and elder law programs provide opportunities for volunteers to work on probate issues and draft wills, power of attorney and other estate planning documents. If you’re a member of a relevant bar association or have given topical presentations, note it. Even certain CLE courses you attend should be included.
Your resume, however, will never capture everything great about you. It’s a mechanism to get you in the door, and if you’ve positioned yourself correctly, opportunities will present themselves. Don’t squander your hard work by being unprepared.
Nail the Interview. Once you get an interview, your message should focus on the potential employer’s specific needs (stated and unstated), and how you can leverage your skills and experiences to fulfill those needs.
If you’ve prepared and know your best selling points, a common interview request such as “tell me about yourself” will be an invitation for you to high-step into the end zone. In fact, most questions can be used as a platform to deliver targeted responses. For example, you may be asked “What are you looking for in a firm?” This question doesn’t allow you to articulate your skills or interest in the particular firm (two important topics for which you should always have a prepared response).
Instead of answering the question asked, consider giving an answer to the question “Why are you interested in our firm?” This question has more relevance to the interviewer, and you can give a targeted response, “Well, I’m particularly interested in your firm for a number of reasons . . . , and I believe that my particular experiences would allow me to contribute in the following ways. . . .”
Similarly, try to frame your questions so that you are giving an interviewer pertinent information about you. You might want to ask “When do associates begin to get client contact?” Consider rephrasing the question like this: “As you can see from my resume, I was lucky to work directly with clients early on. I was wondering when your associates begin to get client contact.” In the second example, you’re asking a thoughtful question and selling your experience.
Finally, determining the area of law in which you really want to practice is important because it means you’ll be driven by intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic ones, such as just making ends meet. It’s tough to make transitions within the law, and for many of you, branding yourself and marketing your skills may not come naturally. But, you’re playing the long game, and success comes with time and practice. As a new lawyer, you may not yet have your dream job, and you may not yet know what that dream job is. This is a challenging profession, and there will always be uncertainty. But like all things worthwhile, you pays your money and takes your chances.