Looking for a job is stressful. Most attorneys crave stability and predictability, so when we start fantasizing about greener pastures, it’s fair to say that our relationship to our current job is less than optimal. By the time we’ve reached this point, we are typically stressed, questioning our professional value, and feeling isolated from colleagues. Needless to say, these factors don’t exactly add up to a position of strength when you enter the job market.
If we wait too long, and the current situation becomes dire, our focus becomes centered on escaping from a toxic job, rather than moving toward an opportunity. We operate in a framework of scarcity, especially if we haven’t done much to create a pipeline of opportunities. We end up grabbing the first lifeboat that comes along out of fear that there will not be others behind it. And under these conditions, scrutinizing potential employers feels like a luxury we can’t afford. Not surprisingly, we may find that we’ve traded in one set of problems for another.
If the goal is to approach the job search from a position of clarity, confidence, and control, then we must start the process earlier. Indeed, some of my most successful clients have sown the seeds for their next transition long before they ever contemplated leaving their jobs.
These successful job seekers figured out what they wanted, and developed clarity about their strengths. They became effective at demonstrating their abilities, often attracting the attention of prospective employers. And when these attorneys decided to seek out a new role, they had a robust network to tap into.
With some intentional career management, you can create these same fertile conditions to generate new opportunities for yourself, either within your current organization or elsewhere. As you advance through your career, the best opportunities will be the ones that grow organically from your efforts, not ones found through a panicked search of online job boards.
When I think of the attorneys I know who have done this well, a few patterns emerge. Here are some of their best practices for you to consider:
Blossom where you are planted.
The best way to make yourself attractive to future employers is to become a valued contributor to your current organization. By providing excellent service to internal and external clients and developing mastery over your work, you will develop a reputation as an excellent lawyer while building the skills sought by future employers. Make it a priority to build strong relationships internally with peers and colleagues with more seniority who can help shape your skill development and ultimately serve as a reference down the road.
It’s also common sense: you’re not likely to produce your best work when you’ve already got one foot out the door. Instead, make yourself the kind of attorney that others will seek to add to their team.
Keep track of your accomplishments.
We work in an evidence-based profession. Future employers will want to see what results you’ve obtained, what problems you’ve solved, and what challenges you’ve undertaken. Waiting until an interview to conjure up specific examples of past behavior on the fly is not a good approach.
Develop a practice of documenting your accomplishments. Keep a journal or computer file where you can record achievements, victories, and recognition you’ve earned. Save the email messages you receive from appreciative supervisors and clients. Keep your online bio and LinkedIn profile (and your resume, for that matter) up-to-date with any articles you write, presentations you give, and leadership positions you hold.
In the short run, you can use this information in your performance evaluation process; in the long run, having a cache of anecdotes to demonstrate how you’ve mastered a variety of situations will be priceless on your next job interview.
Look toward the horizon; what will it take to get there?
Although your feet may be planted firmly in your current role, lift your eyes toward the horizon. Do you have a sense of what you’d like to be doing in the next year? Next 5 years? For inspiration, look at the attorneys you admire who are a bit farther down the path. What expertise and experience would it take to step into that work?
Next, assess if there are gaps between your current experience and what you expect future employers will seek, and start filling them now. Solicit new responsibilities at your current job to develop those skills. If your opportunities for growth are limited at work, seek out pro bono experience, read articles and attend CLE programs to continue refining your portfolio. Don’t limit yourself to being an information consumer. Publish articles, cultivate a presence on social media and speak at CLEs. Become known for your expertise and demonstrate leadership on the issues that matter most to you.
The goal of networking isn’t to build a collection of business cards or LinkedIn connections. Instead, focus on developing authentic relationships with colleagues who can share insights about their work, introduce you to people and opportunities, and serve as a sounding board. To be most effective, you want to cultivate your relationships steadily over time, not just cram them into the few weeks leading up to a job interview.
Find ways to stay connected to the folks in your network. Send holiday greetings in December. Comment on their LinkedIn updates. Offer congratulations when they’ve had an accomplishment. Share resources and opportunities when you are in a position to do so.
From time-to-time, reach out to someone new whose work interests you. Invite them to meet in person to learn more about what they do and the path they took to their work. If you are curious about pursuing something similar, ask them to assess your credentials and offer tips on how to fill any gaps in your experience. Use the same strategies described above to stay in touch with these new colleagues.
Creating a steady, credible presence with your colleagues will keep you top-of-mind for opportunities. You will also be in a much stronger position to solicit “intel” and guidance when interviewing with an organization your colleagues are connected to.
Know what you want.
By utilizing the strategies I’ve been describing, you may find that opportunities come to you before you ever embark on a formal search. While this can be exciting, it can also be destabilizing by undermining a sense of control over the search. You don’t want the excitement of being courted for a job to blind you to its red flags.
For this reason, it’s important to be clear about what you need from your next job. Have a sense of the direction you’d like your career to take and only entertain positions that will advance you toward your goals. Develop an awareness of the work setting in which you perform at your best, and make sure any new opportunity supports those conditions. Understand your financial needs and any obligations impacting your time and commute that you should take into consideration.
By being clear about what will make a job a good opportunity for you, you will have the confidence to walk away from offers that will not position you for success. And by engaging in this process long before you feel the need to leave, you do not need to desperately cling to jobs that are a bad fit.
The beauty of focusing on your professional development is that you become a better lawyer long before you ever pursue a new job. By cultivating a strong reputation and demonstrating your excellence, you are more likely to be sought out for opportunities either inside or outside of your current organization.
And if you end up applying for jobs the traditional way, you’ll find that you’ve developed the expertise, insight, and professional relationships to showcase your value to your future employer.