YourABA June 2011 Masthead

Legal hiring outlook 2011: Tips on landing your dream job; Expanding practice areas

Richard L. Hermann

Richard L. Hermann

While the U.S. economy has been picking up steam, the legal industry has only slowly begun to recover, with Am Law Daily reporting a slight gain in legal employment in April, as a result of a small uptick in demand for legal services. The legal sector is about 1,500 jobs ahead of where it was last year—hardly a turnaround, but definitely a move in the right direction.

With the competition for available jobs still high, YourABA recently met with Richard L. Hermann, author of two ABA-published books, Managing Your Legal Career and Landing a Federal Legal Job , to discuss today’s expanding practice areas, and to share advice on how lawyers can best navigate today’s legal hiring market.

With signs of stability in the U.S. economy last year, the legal hiring market seemed to be slowly coming out of its deep freeze. What are some of today’s expanding and new practice areas that lawyers should consider?

The “overall outlook” is not very instructive. Any assessment of the outlook for the legal hiring market has to segment diverse legal employment sectors, practice areas and geographic locations, and assess them independent of one another. Moreover, the assessment methodology will vary by sector.

For example, one very effective means of gauging major law firm practices is to survey the topics that these firms are writing and presenting about. Law firms have become mini-publishing and Internet-broadcasting companies and seminar/webinar providers. They do this for business development purposes, focusing on areas that they think will generate business and paying clients. A quick scan of what the law firms are writing, presenting and broadcasting about tells you what they think the major issues of the day are—and/or will be in the very near future.

Thus, they are a strong indicator of where the major law firm jobs are likely to be—or not to be.

My March 2011 survey of what 10 randomly selected major law firms with multiple offices were writing, webcasting, podcasting and presenting seminars about reveals a great deal about where law firms believe their businesses are heading. The top ten topics—out of 80—follow, along with the total number of “events” for each topic:

  • Banking & finance law and regulation – 78;
  • Government & public policy – 46;
  • Securities law & regulation – 35;
  • Technology and new media – 25;
  • Energy & infrastructure – 23;
  • Health law & insurance regulation – 20;
  • Doing business in China – 15;
  • Intellectual property –15;
  • Private equity – 14; and
  • Compliance – 14.

While this list is national in scope, emphasis on particular issues will vary with geographic location. For example, Wall Street firms are disproportionately oriented toward corporate finance, investing and transactions; Washington, D.C., firms toward government regulation and contracting; Miami firms look to Latin America; and Seattle firms are geared more toward Asia and high technology.

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Are these topics the same for small firms as they are for the larger ones?

Determining what is hot at the other private practice extreme, small firms and solos, is more difficult to discern.

Here is where trends analysis has to be consulted. Demographic trends are an excellent indicator. The “aging up” of the baby boom generation means that 10,000 boomers reach age 65 every day, and will continue to do so until 2026. That is good news for practices such as elder law, Social Security disability income appeals, Medicare appeals and real estate.

The growth of non-traditional families means that family law is becoming very dynamic, replete with numerous cutting-edge issues.

The transformation of the corporate asset mix over the last 25 years from 68 percent “hard assets” to the current 78 percent “soft assets” (e.g., patents, trademarks, copyrights, intangibles) is a paradigm shift ripe with opportunity for legal job seekers. This transformation creates jobs in intellectual property, intellectual asset management, technology transfer, and efforts to combat counterfeiting and piracy domestically and internationally.

You say that the standard mantra that 90 percent of job seekers get their jobs through networking is a myth—How so? Are you implying that networking isn’t important?

Networking is a very important component of any legal job search. The only survey of this topic came up with a figure of 56 percent. However, that survey was done in the pre-Internet era. I suspect that now the figure might be somewhat higher given the rapidly expanding use of social media to make contacts. However, I also sense that the figure for face-to-face networking, which is far and away the most effective strategy, is much lower because so many attorney job seekers find social media networking a convenient way of avoiding having to actually speak to a prospective networking contact. 

What are some of the common mistakes lawyers make when job searching in today’s employment market?

Here are three of the more egregious ones:

Failing to research practice areas - Interest in a practice area is not enough. Practice areas rise and fall, depending on demographic changes (aging baby boomers; changes in the definition of family), legislative and regulatory initiatives (healthcare reform; financial regulatory reform), law attempting to play catch-up with technology (moving trillions of dollars around the planet with a keystroke; stem cell research; combination drug-devices; e-discovery).

“Narrow-casting” a job search - A prime example is failing to realize that the U.S. government is not a monolith. Environmental practice aspirants naturally look first at the Environmental Protection Agency and, to their detriment, often look no further. There are more than 100 additional federal law and program offices that also practice environmental law.

Another way candidates unnecessarily restrict their job searches is through failing to think expansively about law-related opportunities where a JD is an asset, but not always required, such as contracting, compliance, risk management, landman positions with energy companies and hundreds more.

A third self-limitation is geographic. If a candidate has geographic flexibility, s/he will find that legal job opportunities in particular practice areas are unevenly distributed. Trademark law, for example, is highly concentrated in Washington, D.C., and to a lesser extent in the Northeast Corridor. However, once a candidate expands his or her job search to smaller cities in the South, Midwest and West, the picture changes dramatically. Employers in these areas often have difficulty finding qualified trademark lawyers.

Failing to perform due diligence on a prospective employer - Omitting this last essential step in a legal job campaign all too often leads to bad decisions. Candidates need to know all that they can about an employer before accepting a job. Ideally, that would include: financials, assets, employee morale, marketing commitment, industry or practice area trends, the state of the technology, competitors, any legal or exposure issues, and client relations, among other items. Some information will be available through Internet research. Much can be learned during job interviews. Candidates can defer the more probing questions for the time period between getting and accepting a job offer.

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The public sector has offered many attractive alternatives to private jobs with law firms and corporations. How does President Obama’s recent freeze on federal employees’ salaries affect your advice on public sector employment?

This is difficult to answer until we see what, if anything, results from the current wrangling about budget deficits, the national debt and the fiscal year 2012 federal budget. President Obama wants a two-year federal civilian pay freeze. The GOP budget plan would impose a five-year pay freeze. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wants a pay freeze that would also include a ban on step increases—largely automatic and often annual adjustments within pay grades.

Assuming that the president and Congress can actually reach a compromise on pay freezes—perhaps an unrealistic assumption given the political polarization in Washington—and that Rep. Issa’s proposed step increase ban does not fly, I doubt that there will be a significant impact on federal employment.

Currently, federal agencies and law offices are being barraged with an unprecedented number of applications, both in response to vacancy announcements and unsolicited ones, from attorneys. As long as private sector job growth remains slow, the federal government will likely continue to be attractive to legal job candidates.

Weaknesses in a job seeker’s resume can make it very difficult to find employment. Specifically, many casualties of the bad economy have gaps in their employment because of layoffs and firings. How should a job seeker handle these resume weaknesses?

Two options for mitigating gaps in employment are possible, and they are not mutually exclusive: (1) Express dates of employment in terms of years only rather than months and years. You may have lost a job in January and now it is December, for example, but if expressed in years, you will not have to draw undue attention to an 11-month gap. (2) Do something to fill in the gap. For example, obtain a credential, such as a certificate or something comparable, in a field that enhances your legal credential.

A resume can make the difference between getting a foot in the door and getting the door slammed shut. What are some tips for crafting resumes that get noticed?

Here are three suggestions:

Include a profile or summary of qualifications (3-4 lines of text) at the top of the resume immediately following your name and contact information. Include all of the key selling points about you that you want an employer to see, mindful that employers read through resumes with decreasing attention and focus. The profile enables you to bring interesting facts about yourself that might otherwise be overlooked, up to the beginning of the document, such as second language skills, graduation from prestigious schools, law review, class rank, etc.

Liberate yourself from the constraints of a traditional reverse chronological rendition of your work experience. If you had a terrific experience several jobs ago, you risk the employer not focusing long enough to get to it. You can do this by following your profile with an employment history where you limit yourself to stating whom you worked for, and when, period. You place this immediately after your profile in order to allay employer suspicions that you are hiding something negative about your prior employment. Then, instead of describing your work experiences by employer, you use headings to describe your work background, such as Litigation, Transactions, Regulatory, Energy, Health Law, etc. This technique also permits you to move your headings around for best effect depending upon the employer and position.

Add a “significant highlights” addendum to your resume , in which you show prospective employers how you approach and solve a problem. The subject should be something that had a positive result or was an accomplishment that shows you in the most positive light. You can employ a variation of the scientific method, such as Problem – Analysis – Recommendation – Implementation – Evaluation and, beneath each heading, explain what you did in narrative form. Try not to exceed one page and reference the highlight in the body of your resume immediately following the relevant bullet point. Note: I have yet to encounter a legal employer that was not delighted with this resume addition. Don’t worry about exceeding some unwritten “rule” about resume length. A two-page resume plus a significant highlights addendum is perfectly acceptable.

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Applying for a job is not what it used to be. So many employers now utilize online applications and other technical means to receive information on job seekers. Any tips for job hunting online?

First, you should follow-up your online applications to make certain it has not disappeared in the ether. Second, make sure that your application can be retrieved from a database by whatever search terms are used to retrieve applications. The legal job scene is littered with sad stories of highly qualified attorneys whose online applications did not contain the search term(s) used to extract them from the database. Third, supplement your online application by sending a resume to the hiring official, accompanied by a cover letter or transmittal email that indicates (1) that you applied online per the instructions, but (2) want to make sure that the hiring official has an opportunity to see your resume, which presents you more effectively than could an online application alone.

You say that “headhunting” is one of the most misunderstood components of legal job hunting. Can you elaborate?

Most attorneys believe that sending their resume to a headhunter is a worthwhile job hunting tool. However, given that legal headhunters largely work within the strict criteria set forth by their client law firms or companies (90 percent of legal headhunter work is with large law firms), only approximately 2 percent of attorneys can meet those standards.

Legal headhunters work for the buyer (the law firm or corporation), not the seller (the candidate). It is the buyer who pays the placement fee. The seller pays nothing.

The core of successful headhunting is persuading a highly accomplished attorney who is not seeking a change of employer to make such a change. The extremely rare exception is when a resume comes over the transom from a stellar (placeable) candidate. That does not happen often.

Finally, legal headhunters have zero interest in entry-level attorneys.

Getting a job interview is a part of securing employment. Any tips on what candidates should impart for a successful interview?

Prior to the interview, you need to (1) thoroughly research the employer and, if possible the interviewer(s), and (2) make a “trial run” to the interview site in order to identify any potential transportation and building security problems that might make you late for your interview.

At the interview, the most important and effective “self-endorsement” you can make is asking good questions of the interviewer(s) when that stage of the interview is reached. You should memorize a number of probing questions, such as “How does the legal department contribute to shareholder value?” (corporate interview) or “Which practice areas are growing and which are declining?” (law firm interview). It is such questions that make you memorable and distinguish you from your competitors once the interviewing phase of the hiring process ends and decision-time is at hand.

Closing the interview well is also important. You should reiterate your interest in and enthusiasm for the position (if true and not over-the-top); ask what the next step in the hiring process will be;and follow-up with a thank-you note or email. If they have not yet submitted a reference list, they should do so at this point, even if one is not requested by the interviewer. A well-constructed reference list—name of reference, contact information and preferences, relationship of candidate to reference, and something impressive that the candidate did for or in concert with the reference—can make a significant difference because it manifests the candidate’s superb organizational skills.

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