Career
Career

This is a good time to take stock of your career progress. Maybe you’re thinking about changing jobs or going in-house. Or maybe you haven’t thought seriously about your legal career at all since you landed your first job or made your last move. For many practicing lawyers, the work and the deadlines just keep flying at them so they just put their heads down and keep working. (And that’s been my lot the last month; hence the delayed blog post). We all have to do that sometimes.

But periodically — like now — it’s good to pop your head up and see where you are and if you need to redirect your energies.

This issue of Color of Law is about things to consider if you’re thinking about making a move. In a future post, we’ll talk about making the most of out of the job you’re in, or the one you land in next.

Sometimes lawyers tell me they’re frustrated because they aren’t getting the experience they want at their current employer. My first question is usually: Have you asked for it? I’ve had lawyers tell me they want to move so they can get X experience, or handle Y type of matters — that other lawyers in their firm or law department are handling — but they’ve never asked to do so.

You have to manage your own career; you can’t expect someone else to guess what you want or how you want to develop. If you’ve made your intentions clear and you’re still not getting that experience or working in a way that feels right to you, or it’s simply not available with your current employer, definitely consider a move.

Your employer’s primary focus is on getting the work done, not making sure you have a great, fulfilling, enriching, work experience. If you’re incredibly fortunate, your boss keeps those things in mind — as I try to do for my team — but in the press of business, deadlines, and financial constraints, they may not.

I can’t say this enough: it is up to you to manage your career because no on else cares about it as much as you do, or should.

If something about your job is frustrating you, but you haven’t had an adult conversation with the right people about how to fix it, don’t assume making a move will solve your problems. It’s your career, so you need to take ownership for how it goes rather than expecting others to divine what you want and deliver it to you. You may be surprised at how receptive folks are to your concerns. Especially now, everyone is so busy dealing with their own situation that they may simply have forgotten to consider yours; that doesn’t make them bad people, just human.

Even if you are content with your employer, your workload, and your pay, it’s still important to think about the future and make sure you are steering the ship of your career. Maybe you need to go elsewhere to increase your earning potential, get better benefits, have room for family, pick up skills and experience not available from your current employer, or work in a field more suited to your interests. But again, discuss these issues with an employer you’re otherwise happy with before deciding to jump, because much of it may be available for the asking.

Maybe in-house seems like the promised land. I have many friends and mentees who love their in-house jobs. I have just as many who don’t. And a few times I’ve heard friends — who’ve confided to me that they are miserable in-house — talk on a career panel about how they love being in-house. (LOL!) My point is, if you are unhappy at your current law firm, don’t assume that taking the first in-house or shiny new law firm position offered to you will make you happy. You still have to do your homework.

OK. So, you’ve thought about all that and decided, nonetheless, it’s time to move. Cool. But please — don’t make the common mistake of buying what recruiters are selling without doing your due diligence.

Below, I’ve got some resources for very junior lawyers, law students, and recent grads who may not know enough about available career paths or have a solid network to assist in choosing the right path.

But if you do have enough experience and exposure to know what you want, you can still move into a bad job by not asking the right questions about your future employer.

I’ve known so many lawyers who went from a job they didn’t like into what they were hoping would be their dream job — only to be even more miserable than before, often for less pay or more hours.

You probably did on-campus interviews. Remember who the law firms sent to recruit? Mostly the friendly, diverse, warm and welcoming types. And if you got call-backs, who did you meet with at the firm? More of the same. They hide the ogres, condescending jerks, sexists, and disorganized messes. Newsflash: many corporate law departments and law firms do the same thing in the lateral hiring process. Once you get an offer, ask to interview with everyone you will be working with—both up and down the organizational food chain. It’s a red flag if some folks aren’t available absent a really good reason. And if you’ll be working primarily with one person, once you have a job offer, ask for a follow-up interview to get to know them better.

Ask questions like these:

  • What do you enjoy most about working here?
  • Are there things you find frustrating about the job?
  • If you could change one thing about the firm/department/group, what would it be? Why?
  • Can you tell me a little about the people you work with most?
  • I’m sure you’ve made a lot of adjustments in the Pandemic; what’s gone well and what still needs work so things run smoothly?
  • Who will I be working with the most?
  • What should I know about working with them?
  • Who’s received a promotion in the past year? What was it about that person that made them right for promotion?

The key is to find out how the work relationships function. Are they positive or negative? Do people like or at least respect each other? Do they enjoy their work? Also consider what your values and priorities are. Ethics? Family time? Excellence? Working on complex matters? Taking the lead role? Getting individualized coaching and mentoring? Skills-building? Prioritize them so you have a top three. And then actively listen to the answers to your questions like the ones above to consider whether these people’s values and priorities are in accord with yours.

Afraid they will rescind your offer if you want to meet more folks and ask more questions? If they do, is that really who you want to work for?

As law students, we are usually focused on the pay, perceived prestige of the employer, and maybe diversity. But as you gain more experience you realize—it’s the team and leadership around you and how they interact with you and one another that matter most.

This is particularly important if you’re going in-house or to a very small firm. In a large or mid-sized law firm, if you and a partner don’t mix well together you can often transition to working with another partner. In-house, the most likely transition is out the door if your boss doesn’t like you. I’ve seen it happen all too often.

It’s now considered a management best practice to have all interviewers ask each candidate the same set of questions. It’s a good practice for candidates to use this technique as well, but for different reasons. First, you are looking for themes and consistency across different people at different levels to the same questions. If the recruiting and on-campus-interview types are telling you it’s paradise, but enough others seem miserable, well, miserable is probably the right read. Second, as you interview with different employers, you will start to see stark differences in those themes that wouldn’t otherwise be readily apparent, helping you to choose the place that’s right for you. Third, you’ll never run out of questions in an interview.

(Hot tip: I usually interview candidates after the rest of my team has done so. When I ask if they have any questions and the answer is “no, all my questions have been answered” — that tells me this probably isn’t the right person for a job that requires creativity, curiosity, and the ability to think on the fly. Maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it.)

And don’t stop at the interviews the employer sets up for you. Reach out to your network to find out who knows folks at that employer and ask them for the real deal. Alumni of the employer can also be a great resource, but proceed with caution as they may have sour grapes — either for a good reason or a bad one. If you don’t have a network that can deliver these connections, then please read these posts about expanding your network via LinkedIn, or simply by investing time in helping your friends, ASAP.

It breaks my heart to see lawyers who are unhappy blindly move to another job in which they are just as unhappy, or more so, often for less pay or more hours. All because they didn’t ask themselves — or their prospective employer — the right questions.

Ask the right questions of enough people and you are immensely more likely to find the job that is the right fit for you. Where you will enjoy your work, your colleagues, your boss, and the interesting work presented. But please don’t settle. You’ve worked too hard for too long to settle.

If you are getting a lot of calls and emails from recruiters recently, that means your skills and experience are in demand. Which means not that you should pick from one of the offers presented necessarily, but that you should make sure your career is headed where you want. Ask your current employer for what you want. Tell your friends and mentors what you’re looking for. The best opportunity may in fact be presented by a recruiter, but often it is presented by a friend or mentor who is only looking out for you — not a commission or a quota. Yet, if all you do is accept one of the options people present you, you are limiting yourself unnecessarily.

For law students and junior lawyers without a robust network from which to gather intelligence about potential career paths and work environments, take advantage of the social networks that are now available through LinkedIn, podcasts, and blogs. In the Key Connections section of ColorOfLaw.Us, you’ll find some amazing lawyers of color worth following. They often post insights about career choices, great jobs openings, and other intel. You’ll also find some great blogs and podcasts listed that may help you up your game. Three of the very best:

The Meybe ‖ A beautifully crafted blog by Meyling Ly Ortiz, sharing her own growth experiences in her unique voice as a mom, lawyer of color, successful former BigLaw associate and current in-house counsel.

MentorInLaw ‖ A weekly newsletter for law students and new lawyers with tips on career success, finding the right job, different fields of practice and career paths and all the other stuff no one tells you — crowdsourced from leading practitioners and thought leaders.

Leg Up Legal ‖ An online mentoring community and mobile app that connects law students and college students to attorney mentors.

It may be that with some tweaks, some questions, some creativity, and some negotiation, your current gig may turn out to be ideal. It may be that the dream job is out there for the taking; you may even luck into it. But having discussed these issues with scores of immensely talented young lawyers, I can tell you the odds increase exponentially if you do your homework and tap into a network of people who care about you and your success.

Because when we lift one another, we all rise.