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October 05, 2023 Career

Feeding from the Bottom Line: How to Build a Winning Business Case around Career Transitions

Graziella Reis-Trani and Sharon Light

Gone are the days of joining a law firm fresh out of law school and retiring from that firm 40 years later. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, people will change their jobs every 4.1 years, and those with legal occupations will change jobs every 5.8 years.

As a result, it is not surprising that more law firms are looking at creating or formalizing programs to support career transitions. If you have been tasked with this job at your firm, here are a few objectives that can help you build your winning business case.

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Objective 1:

Figuring Out What Is Your ‘Why’?

When creating a career transitions program, it is important to understand the driving force behind your program, or your “why.” Firms have different reasons for establishing career transitions programs. The top three we have found are building good will, helping to drive recruiting, and impacting business development.

Some firms feel like it is the “right thing to do” to help their lawyers and business services professionals to transition from the firm. This helps build good will. In the long term, it also helps to build up or strengthen your firm’s brand.

We have heard from recruiting teams over the past several years how law students have been asking not only about whether firms have alumni programs (and what role they play in the firm), but also what role the firm has played in helping their alumni transition from the firm. With the labor statistics shared above, it is not surprising that many are already thinking about what next steps they would like to take in their careers and how the law firm they are selecting can help them get there. Having such programs in place can help firms recruit the best candidates. By creating an environment where career options are openly discussed, transition programs can also help with retention. 

In other instances, the driving force behind a career transition program comes from the business development team, as they know that alumni can play a role in business development for the firm. If the firm can help its departing lawyers to land in a mutually beneficial place, those alumni may then be more likely to refer business back to the firm.

Your alumni network can be an invaluable resource to support people considering a career transition.

Objective 2:

Establishing Building Blocks

A career transition program will look different for every firm and it will be very dependent on the “why,” but every program should include confidentiality at its core. If people don’t feel that they can openly talk about their future plans without repercussions, the program will not be successful.

One place to start is by deciding whether you want to create a formal program to support career transitions or whether your firm will handle these transitions more informally. You may want to start with a more informal process where you can test the waters at your firm and start building internal buy-in for a more formal program.

If you opt for a more formal program, will you have at least one dedicated person working with those looking to leave or will this be an added responsibility for one or more people on top of their existing job(s)? If you decide on a dedicated person, will this be a new hire, or will it be someone internal? Is this a responsibility that will be added to people’s existing job responsibilities, and how will the firm adjust their workloads? How many people will be taking on this new responsibility? How much time is each person expected to dedicate to this process? How will you ensure a consistent approach among the people working in career support?

Another question to consider is whether those helping with career transitions play the role of coaches or consultants. If they are coaches, will they need to be certified coaches? If so, will these be internal coaches, external coaches or outplacement consultants, or a combination of the two? If they are internal coaches, do you already have certified coaches in your team? If not, will the firm pay for people to get certified, or will they hire a certified coach into their staff? If you plan to have both internal and external coaches, what role should each of these coaches play?

If people don’t feel that they can openly talk about their future plans without repercussions, the program will not be successful.

Objective 3:

Pitching Your Business Case

Hopefully when you get to the point of pitching your business case, you will have already answered the many questions above and decided what your program should look like. But before you pitch, there are other things to consider as well. Have you identified who the sponsor will be for this new initiative? Remember that this person can also be your ambassador to help you get further internal buy-in. Use your “why” to make your business case. Once you have identified the drivers behind your program, your program stakeholders should also become clearer. Knowing your program drivers and stakeholders can also help you identify your program deliverables.

Your business case should also include information on who you are looking to help, or your audience. Will this program be focused on the legal side of the house, or will it also be open to business services professionals? If opened to both, will it be done all at once or opened to different groups in stages?

Make sure your business case aligns with your firm’s overarching objectives and leave space in your planning for evaluation and adjustment. No one could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic, but firms that could respond and adapt were better placed to meet the evolving needs of their constituents during this period.

Objective 4:

Leveraging the Alumni Angle

Your firm’s alumni will be key participants in this project, and its beneficiaries. First, your alumni network can be an invaluable resource to support people considering a career transition. Alumni can provide insights on their industry, company, and/or region. They can share advice on how to transition roles successfully, including both how to land well in a new role and best practices to leave the firm in a positive manner. In the best cases, alumni may be able to help an applicant get a foot in the door for a job at their company. This can result in one of the best win-win scenarios, where the applicant feels supported and the alum has help in finding talent for their team.

It is also important to consider whether career transitions support will be offered to your alumni network. If so, ensure that you have sufficient resources in place to support this additional audience.

As with so many aspects of alumni relations, leveraging your alumni network for career transitions will come down to data. It is essential to know where and in what roles your alumni are currently working. Additional background can come in handy, such as their connections at the firm, and the office(s) and practice(s) they worked with. Lastly, find ways to determine and track which alumni are open to networking conversations or other career support functions — but ultimately keep in mind that people like to be asked to share their expertise, so never be afraid to reach out to an alum with a gentle request.

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Sharon Light

Director of Sustainability and Alumni Relations | Sidley Austin LLP

Sharon Light ([email protected]) is the Director of Sustainability and Alumni Relations at Sidley Austin LLP. She is the current co-chair of NALP’s Legal Employer Alumni Relations Career Transitions Working Group.

Graziella Reis-Trani

Alumni Program Manager | White & Case LLP

Graziella Reis-Trani ([email protected]) is a certified coach and the Alumni Program Manager at White & Case LLP. She is a former chair for NALP’s Legal Employer Alumni Relations Section and current co-chair of its Career Transitions Working Group.