Your Dream Job Is Out There, and We Can Help You Find It

Sarah Breen and Angie Rentz
If you find it difficult to envision yourself happy in a traditional legal setting long-term, talk to other attorneys who’ve made the switch.

If you find it difficult to envision yourself happy in a traditional legal setting long-term, talk to other attorneys who’ve made the switch.

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Who among us is not on the quest to find a dream job, that elusive opportunity where we are challenged daily, have a great work-life balance, see a clear path for advancement, and are generally happy to get up and go to work in the morning? Sometimes we get lucky, and the perfect opportunity presents itself at the perfect time. Other times, we need to find our dream job when we aren’t in a great work situation, or worse yet, when we are unemployed. Between the two of us, we have navigated both of these scenarios in our legal careers and have lived to tell the tale. You can, too.

Here we offer a variety of tips to help you navigate the legal market and interview process. For those of you who feel unhappy or uncertain about your current situation, and even for those of you who have lost your job and are unemployed, we promise, hope is not lost. It may not be easy, but if you put in the effort, you too can get there.

Whichever boat you are in—the one with the tiny leak or the one that feels like it is sinking—the first step toward your next great opportunity is getting to know the market. The legal job market is just that: a market. It has its highs and lows, and this is true in terms of both geographic location and practice area. If you are fortunate enough to wait to change jobs until the market in your location and practice area is “hot,” or what we would call a “candidate-driven market,” you can use the demand for your skillset in your favor when it comes to selecting your next position and negotiating your compensation. However, if you need to make a move when the market isn’t exactly booming, there are options to help you swing the pendulum back in your favor.

If You Need to Make an Immediate Change

Change in Location

Your first option is to consider a change in location. I know that there are a million reasons why relocation isn’t possible for some, and a million other reasons why it is highly unattractive for others, *cough* BAR EXAM *cough*, but if it is an option, a change of location might send your career stock through the roof. Our company has offices all across the country, and after speaking with our experts nationwide, we can tell you that some of the practice areas that are exploding in Chicago are on life support in other areas of the country. For other practice areas, Chicago is struggling and other markets are on fire.

How a Recruiter Can Help. We have our ears to the ground and are talking to candidates across the country in your practice area every single day. If you want to know where in the country your area of practice is “hot,” we are happy to help.

Change in Practice Area

If a change in location isn’t a possibility for you, you may want to consider a change in practice area. There are certain practice areas whose attorneys continue to be in demand nationwide. Our experts have been seeing, and are continuing to see, a “candidate-driven market” for corporate attorneys (especially M&A and private equity); commercial real estate attorneys; patent prosecution attorneys (especially those with backgrounds in electrical engineering and computer science); and healthcare attorneys, to name a few.

If you are interested in one of these areas, it may be worth looking into, but it is important to be realistic about your options. The first question you should ask yourself is: Why are you considering a change in practice areas? If you love what you do and the only reason you are even considering making a change is due to the current state of the market, it is likely not worth it long term. You also need to ask yourself if you have the right background or experience for the change. Even if you are interested in patent prosecution, if you don’t have a science background, that particular practice area is probably not for you. The truth is, not all transitions are realistic for everyone.

If you happen to be interested in a different practice area and you have the background to be successful, making a change may be the answer. The first thing you can do to beef up your resume in your newfound practice area is to request work from partners in that group at your firm. The important thing to remember is to follow the proper channels to do this, which might involve some internal investigating on your part. The last thing you want to do is step on anyone’s toes or anger a partner in your group. You should also think about joining a practice-specific organization or bar section. But the trick is that you need to become actively involved, not just a dues-paying member: join a committee, attend meetings, write an article, and network. Not only will this allow you to become better versed in the law, but it will allow you to meet others who can help you to make the transition easier.

Keep in mind that if you are successfully able to transition practice areas and end up interviewing for opportunities, you will likely be “classed back” in your new practice group. While you may have three years’ experience in your old area of practice, you are starting fresh in your new area, and your employer will likely want to class you (and pay you) accordingly. In the short term, this may be frustrating, but the benefits of being “classed back” often outweigh any negatives. We always tell our candidates to think about it this way: in the eyes of your new partners, you can either be the “rock star” third-year whom they love giving work to, or you can be the fifth-year who is constantly behind the curve and they end up questioning why they are paying you so much. It is pretty obvious which associate you want to be. Aside from your newfound rock-star status, being classed back also allows you extra time to build business connections in your new practice area and lets you get in the much-needed facetime before you are up for partnership. At the end of the day, it is a small sacrifice for long-term success and stability in your career.

In addition to getting to know the market itself, it is also important to get to know the players in your market. Get to know who’s who in your practice area and follow them on their social networks. Don’t be afraid to favorite their tweets, share their posts, or comment on their articles. Trust us, they will appreciate the “likes,” and it may be a great way to start a conversation and show off your shared knowledge and passion.

You also need to remember to market yourself. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is updated and includes a professional photo, your resume, and keywords for your practice area that will result in your profile showing up in hiring managers’ and recruiters’ searches. LinkedIn also has a new feature called Open Candidates, which allows you to signal to those outside of your company that you are open to new opportunities—use it. And, even though it’s 2017, you can’t stop at social media. Nothing beats a face-to-face connection, and this brings us back to networking. No one loves doing it, but it is the best way to connect with other attorneys in your practice area. Lastly, don’t forget to tell those you trust—especially other attorneys—that you are open to new opportunities. People, even your friends, are unlikely to think of you when they hear about jobs in your practice area if they think you are not interested in making a change. Use the network you already have to help you!

If You Aren't Quite in Your Dream Job Yet

If you have been contemplating a move, the beginning of a new year is an ideal time to make it happen—you won’t be leaving a bonus behind, new positions will open up as your peers make similar transitions, and you will be taking advantage of a very hot lateral market.

When contemplating a job change, it always helps to assess the pain points with your current position to help you target the right employers and opportunities. As recruiters who speak with attorneys seeking change daily, lateral moves are typically made for the following reasons: salary, firm culture and work-life balance, geography, and disenchantment with traditional legal roles. Some of these things can be easily remedied by a move from Firm A to Firm B, but others require a more creative approach and a more involved search.

Salary

If you feel that you are underpaid or are otherwise looking for a bump in compensation, it first helps to conduct an assessment of the market whether your salary is consistent with your peers. If you confirm that there are more lucrative opportunities out there, you might consider transitioning to a larger firm, moving to a market with higher salaries, or even relocating to a more affordable city with a lower cost of living. If your firm’s compensation is not lock-step and you feel that you are performing at a level above your counterparts, you could ask for a raise or an additional performance-based bonus, but you will need to be strategic and tactful in your approach and provide quantifiable data to support your request.

How a Recruiter Can Help. Seasoned legal recruiters are salary experts—we gather salary information from candidates daily and are armed with resources to gauge market compensation. We have access to salary statistics nationwide, so we can help you identify alternative markets with higher pay-scales or connect you with local firms that pay above-market. If you do receive an offer through a recruiter, we can also help you negotiate a higher salary, a signing bonus, relocation coverage, or other incentives you may not have considered.

Lack of Advancement Opportunities

When interviewing for new opportunities, ask specific questions about advancement. Ask the internal recruiter, or the hiring partner, how many associates in the group that you are interviewing with were made partner in the three previous years. Ask about your prospects for partnership if you join the firm. Many larger firms require associates to wait at least two years from the date of a lateral hire to be considered for partnership, and this is important to note if you are a more senior associate looking to make a move. If you are not satisfied with the answers that you are getting, you may need to consider making a change to a smaller firm, or to a smaller practice group, to make partnership happen. You could also discuss alternatives to partnership and ask to speak with some attorneys in counsel-level or other non-partner roles to determine whether they ended up there by choice or otherwise.

How a Recruiter Can Help. A recruiter can ask advancement-related questions anonymously on the front-end so that you don’t end up in a dead-end position. We can identify firms with shorter (or guaranteed) tracks to partnership and present you to those firms. We can also negotiate on your behalf if a firm asks you to take a lateral penalty.

Firm Culture and Work-Life Balance

It’s typically hard to truly assess firm culture and work-life balance in an interview, so you may need to dig deeper to get a true feel for what a firm is like day-to-day. During the interview process, ask to go out to lunch or for drinks with some associates to get to know them more informally. Ask around the legal community for insights into firms you are considering. Conduct a Google search. If a firm has an exceptional reputation (either good or bad), dirt on (or praise of) the firm will normally be readily available.

How a Recruiter Can Help. Because we talk to candidates daily, we know where associates are happiest (and least satisfied). We can also anonymously ask the tough questions about work-life balance and true billable averages so that you can avoid awkward conversations during interviews. If you tell us what you are looking for in a firm, we can connect you with firms that match your wish list.

Geography

Are you seeking to move closer to friends and family? Are you tired of long winters or miserably hot summers? Lateral relocations are extremely common, and most firms are very open to relocation candidates. Just be aware that making a move from one market to another might present challenges that might not work for you. As was discussed above, what’s hot in your market could be cold in your home state. You may have to take a pay cut. If moving to a market of a different size, the firm culture and work/life balance will likely be very different.

How a Recruiter Can Help. A recruiter can help you avoid some of the challenges in relocating from one market to another and also make sure you are aware of what to expect in terms of culture, commute times, weather, etc. Because we live and work in the markets that we represent, we can connect you with resources that will make it easier to settle in once you have moved. If you are hoping to relocate to a market you are unfamiliar with, a recruiter can be an essential guide in identifying the right firm for you.

Disenchantment with Traditional Legal Roles

Some attorneys simply do not enjoy the practice of law, other pain points aside. The good news is that there are options beyond working as a practicing attorney, depending on what your background is. Lawyers are extremely successful in business-focused roles, finance, human resources, compliance, contracts management, real estate, law firm administration/management, corporate training, politics, government, public interest/nonprofit, recruiting, and academics, just to name a few. If you find it difficult to envision yourself happy in a traditional legal setting long-term, talk to other attorneys who’ve made the switch and try to follow their path. As former practicing attorneys turned legal recruiters, we both agree that we are happier (and, by extension, more successful) now than we ever were as practicing attorneys.

How a Recruiter Can Help. Sometimes candidates who are feeling disenchanted with the practice of law just need a change of scenery. We can help assess whether making a move to a different work environment or location will alleviate some of your dissatisfaction or whether you should consider leaving the law altogether.

What’s Next?

Will this be the year you find your dream job? Whether you were ready to move yesterday, or you are just curious about the market generally, it’s worth it to do your research, evaluate your options, and take proactive steps toward the opportunity that checks all (or at least most) of the boxes on your wish list.

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Sarah Breen

Sarah Breen is the division director of permanent placement/recruiting at Parker + Lynch Legal in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Angie Rentz

Angie Rentz is the attorney search & placement director at Parker + Lynch Legal in Chicago, Illinois.