Want a job change? Tips for the best fit

October 2015 | Around the ABA

Have you ever dreamed about a different work life? Maybe you work in a big firm but always wanted to serve clients in a small-town practice or teach at a law school?

A webinar called “Switching Sectors for a Better Fit” offers tips on what you should think about when considering a change from two experts:

  • Heather Fine is managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Chicago office, where she serves as an executive recruiter placing lawyers in-house in company law departments.

  • Mark Smith is the associate vice chancellor and director of the Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis, where, among other responsibilities, he advises pre-law undergraduates.

Finding a “better fit” means defining your professional strengths – your passion and skills – and finding the right career to match, Fine said.

The first step is to know yourself and where you’ll be most productive. Are you in the right size office, working in the right area of law? It’s also important to know why you’re thinking about making a move, Smith said. How would you fit in a public or private setting? Narrow down the choices so you know where you want to search.

Look at in-house law departments in a variety of sizes – solo, small, midsize, large, local, regional national or global firms, Fine said. Also consider boutique firms, or firms that specialize in a niche area of law. There’s also government, nonprofit or public interest/advocacy to consider, she said.

The academic world offers many options for lawyers, too, not only in teaching but administrative opportunities, Smith said.  You could also work in the judicial sector as a judge or clerk. Within the government sector, you could work for the military or in the political sphere, such as on Capitol Hill.

“Some firms work with political issues whether it’s governmental, regulatory and policy work or a lobbying group, or you could go outside the law and start an entrepreneurial enterprise,” Smith said.

You must also weigh your personality type, and what kind of work environment you thrive in.

 “One of the things I liked about working for a law firm was the prestige,” Smith said. “Whether you’re at a small local firm where you’re the go-to person for doing people’s wills, or a large, multinational firm that’s working on huge deals, it’s great to have people coming to you with their problems.”

However, one downside of firm work is lack of control over your life, because your time doesn’t belong to you – it belongs to the client, Smith said.

Fine said working as in-house counsel can be appealing. “It really depends on the company. There tends to be a lot of collaboration in-house. It’s a myth that in-house work is easier or less time-intensive than work in a law firm,” she said. “Certainly it’s more predictable, but there are definitely fires to put out and late nights to endure in-house as well.”

Both Smith and Fine agreed that most people don’t discover what they enjoy about the law until several years after graduating from law school. Changes in your life – getting married, having children, moving to another city – can all be factors when deciding to make a career move.

Identifying where you want to go is the most important step, Smith said. “Once you decide where you want to go, start asking others how to get there,” he said, adding that people like to talk about their work, so don’t be afraid to ask them. What do they like best about it? What do they like least?

Managerial experience is important, Fine said. Volunteer to serve on committees and offer to handle projects to gain experience directing others. Highlight your hands-on experience when updating your resume. “Frame your resume in a way that highlights the skills needed for a specific job,” Fine added.

Expect to start at the low end of the managerial chart when switching sectors, at least at first. “When you make a change, plan for the first year or two to be hard,” Smith said. “You’ve got to get up to speed. Plan for that.”

Also, be prepared to accept a lower salary. “It’s worth it to take a step backward in order to move forward,” Fine said. 

The desire to change sectors doesn’t necessarily signal that you’re unhappy, but that you’re ready for new challenges, Smith said. It’s possible to change sectors even after 20 or 30 years, but that can make it tough going back a level in compensation.

Your alma mater is a good place to learn about avenues of opportunity. “I’m always a big fan of talking to people from your law school,” Fine said, adding that former professors are often a good source to hear about leads.

Smith also recommended reaching out to bar associations, especially if you’re also changing location. “Ask yourself, what am I good at, what do I really like and where is there a need?” he said.

Smith recommends a re-check of your priorities every year. “If you’re not happy, do something about it,” he said.

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