Young Lawyers: Tips on Finding a Job in a
On-campus recruiting (“OCR”) has been the only means by which many young lawyers have been exposed to serious job hunting – and the carefully-controlled interactions between firms and students which are the product of OCR often have a slightly surreal quality to them, such as employers conveniently slotted into back-to-back interviews via an electronic bidding process. However, as the economy recovers, young lawyers may find that their OCR experiences are now outdated and/or inapplicable. Instead, junior attorneys have joined the real world and must market themselves along more traditional lines and understand what sells and what doesn’t in an economy that has picked up, but that by no means is back in full force.
This article seeks to provide guidance to young lawyers looking to transition after two to three years of practice, whether from a brief spell of unemployment or those merely looking to move laterally. It is geared mostly to those seeking firm jobs, as many junior attorneys seek a structured environment in which to learn their craft, and because most opportunities for junior associates are likely with firms. This article does not delve into the finer points of drafting a resume or interview skills. Instead, it focuses on common-sense approaches to strategy and presentation in order to maximize young lawyers’ marketability.
1. Be confident but not overly so
By and far, the most important aspect of a job search is to be confident in yourself and the skills you offer to any potential employer. I am continually bowled over by the number of young lawyers I meet who are suffering serious crises of self-confidence, in some cases even blaming their short and checkered job histories on themselves. Remember that the established model of job-hunting and job-progression was turned on its head by a recession that has often been called the most serious since the Great Depression. The guarantees which aspiring attorneys thought in place upon entering law school in 2004 or 2005 no longer exist for reasons completely out of their control and for which there was no real way to foresee. As a result, understanding that the economy is the first and foremost driver of employers’ hiring (and firing) needs is the initial step in restoring confidence to a bevy of young lawyers who are highly qualified, but emotionally adrift.
The flip side to the confidence coin, however, are those junior attorneys who understand that the economy was the primary cause of their current job woes and who expect employers to lessen their degree of scrutiny as such. This attitude is lackadaisical and unrealistic. Instead, it remains of utmost importance to be confident and aggressive in your job search, requiring both a clear-eyed focus on the ultimate goal and occasional self-sacrifice. For those who pass up less lucrative job opportunities in the hopes that Big Law will once again reopen its doors, I find the economy has been unkind – although hiring is picking up, an overabundance of new graduates are available at employers’ beck and call, not to mention the back log which has developed due to start date deferrals and general over-hiring in the past. A pragmatic understanding of this reality is needed to temper some young lawyers’ over-confidence.
2. Understand your position in the hierarchy
Law firms can be hierarchical places and with the overwhelming supply of lawyers on the market, it is important to understand your niche and to tailor your job search to fit your skills and general presentation. If you were laid off in your first year of practice and have been temping for the better part of a year, recognize that your competition is no longer your classmates, but rather the incoming classes of 2009 and even 2010. Employers generally consider those who have been practicing less than a year to be the equivalent of new grads, and will likely treat them as so. Use this to your advantage. Point out that despite the fact that you’ve been temping, that you have achieved goals generally unavailable to new graduates, for example, by gaining admission to multiple state bars or by publishing extensively in legal journals. This will set you apart from the crowd.
If you have been steadily employed since graduation, then you are not the equivalent of a new graduate. Instead, employers will be extremely interested in the skills and projects you have worked on, focusing on what you can offer them going forward. Highlight this in your resume and be prepared to speak on specific cases or matters you have worked on (without naming clients of course). In your resume, detail responsibilities from your last place of employment, e.g., researched and authored memoranda on topics such as X, Y and Z, as opposed to a general descriptor such as “researched and drafted memos in the area of bankruptcy practice.” You have concrete skills to offer an employer and it is important to emphasize as much.
3. Be aggressive in your search
Those looking to transition gradually have a luxury – time to conduct a thorough search and to avail themselves of opportunities which might crop up in the future, but do not exist now. But that often isn’t possible for young attorneys feeling the crush of student debt and other bills. Whichever category you fit into, it is key to be aggressive about your search and to prioritize as necessary.
Again, this is an area in which I am often surprised. Young lawyers with little job experience generally feel loyal to their first employer and approach a transition with mixed feelings and also a certain reluctance to job hunt aggressively. To be sure, this attitude was appropriate many years ago in which an employee might stay with one employer for his or her entire career. However, today job-hopping is the norm and workers may have five or more employers in their careers. Thus, understand that if you have chosen to leave, or if your employer has asked you to leave, the expediency which with you conduct your hunt may be crucial to your professional success. I am often surprised when I meet an intelligent young lawyer who is actively looking for a new opportunity and offer to circulate their resume within my firm for consideration. Under these circumstances, I generally anticipate receiving a polished resume in my in-box the next week, if not the next day. However, more often than not, I never receive their resume at all. Perhaps they have decided that my firm is not a fit for them, but this could also signal a lack of aggression and coordination in their job-hunt strategy.
4. Be selective on the back-end and not the front-end
Again, many young attorneys are familiar with job-hunting only through on-campus OCR, which experience is skewed from reality. OCR is a process by which students are wooed by firms, both through elaborate dinners and cocktail receptions and also by the interview process itself, which is generally friendly and open with alumni acting as interviewers. This lends the impression that students may pick and choose among a plethora of prospective employers. While selectivity is crucial, in this economy it may be wise to be selective on the back-end, after you have received offers, rather than being selective on the front-end, when choosing which firms to approach. Do not limit yourself at this initial stage as it is almost impossible to draw conclusions about any prospective employer without first meeting attorneys from that firm.
Further, sometimes I hear junior attorneys say that they do not feel that they are suited to a particular practice area and are looking to transition into another, e.g., from corporate to litigation. As a result, they may refrain from applying to an entire swath of potential employers in order to effect the transition. I advise against this for several reasons. First, switching practice areas is difficult. It may be easier to transition into some practice areas than others, e.g., from general corporate into funds-related work. However, usually a switch is difficult to sell and junior attorneys may be better off seeking a transition within their existing firm before pursuing opportunities externally.
Second, young lawyers are much more likely to find a job in their stated practice area. At this point in your career, you have likely developed skills which are valuable and marketable. Eliminating opportunities which play up your skill set will dramatically narrow your options. Should you be determined to transition, then junior associates have an advantage. As a relative newcomer to the practice of law, you may be able to recast yourself as a recent graduate and argue that the transition is not even a transition – in effect, you are starting over and the firm should consider you an incoming associate. But do not be surprised to be bumped down one year in seniority or even to be asked to re-enter as a first-year associate.
Last, more often than not, I find that the urge to transition stems from a lack of confidence rather than genuine disaffection for a particular type of law. Just because you may not have thrived at your past firm does not mean that you have no talent in that field. Therefore, give your old practice area a chance and don’t eliminate these opportunities when applying. It’s generally better to have more to choose from than less and you may find that once you have one offer up your sleeve, the others begin to follow with astounding alacrity.
5. Be selective in your choice of a recruiter
Recruiters in New York City abound and it is important to choose one who fits your profile and needs. Recruiters are paid as much as $30,000 upon a successful placement and are incentivized to oversell themselves as a result. Be aware of puffery on their parts. There are many good recruiters in the city, but also some who may view you as a project and not a person.
Referrals can be one way by which to find a good recruiter. Remember, however, that not all referrals are high quality – question in detail your contact’s interactions with the recruiter and the pros and cons of working with that person. Oftentimes, attorneys will simply pass along the name of a headhunter they have used in the past. But upon delving deeper, attorneys will often recall one or two attributes that they found unhelpful or unattractive, as well as sharing positive characteristics.
In general, established recruiters are a better bet than newcomers to the field. A recruiter’s value lies in their network of connections – not just in terms of knowing where job openings are, but also their personal relationships with key human resource (“HR”) contacts at each firm such that your resume is passed onto the right person for review and interview. Thus, it is more likely that those who have worked in the recruiting industry for years have an established network as compared with those who have just joined the profession. Moreover, a good recruiter will ensure that their HR contact sets up interviews for you with attorneys who are a good “match” for you, , e.g. those attorneys with whom you share interests and/or background, thereby facilitating a personal connection.
Recognize that, once your resume is submitted to a particular firm by a particular recruiter, that recruiter essentially is your contact with the firm and you may have no other means by which to get your foot in the door. Thus, recruiters may jump the gun and “spam” your resume to multiple firms without first taking the time to meet with you, to help edit your CV, or to help evaluate your long-term professional goals. Avoid this type of headhunter – they are more interested in their fees than they are in you and any repeat business you might generate for them.
Also, don’t be afraid to use more than one recruiter. Many recruiters claim to be aware of every job opening in the city thereby rendering this strategy unnecessary, but this is likely untrue due to the plethora of firms and opportunities in the Big Apple. With firms creating and/or reformulating practice groups every day, as well as a multitude of national firms looking to establish a foothold in the city and a number of smaller firms with active practices, New York is truly a legal Mecca. Instead, select two recruiters whom you like and ask them to give you a list of all openings in your practice area for your class year. You’ll probably be surprised at how little overlap there is and how many opportunities abound in general. But beware – if you do decide to use two recruiters, keep careful lists of the firms that each recruiter applies to on your behalf. Each firm should receive only one copy of your resume, and should they receive two copies from two different recruiters, this could mean the end of the selection process then and there. Accordingly, this strategy is best used by young attorneys who are meticulous record-keepers.
6. Lean on your support network
Job hunting is not an easy task and it is doubly difficult to coordinate and manage a search while working simultaneously. Lean on your support network during this time to ensure that you stay healthy and active and to buoy your mental state. Don’t be afraid to rely on friends and family and occasionally reward yourself for undertaking the stress of a job hunt. You’ll find that the results are well worth the effort and your career will be in better shape for it.
Also, do not be surprised if your transition takes longer than anticipated. Although some firms advertise themselves as hiring and may even conduct interviews, hiring needs can turn on a dime and may come to a full stop for reasons unrelated to your candidacy. Interviewing is a strategic marketing tool for firms as well -- some firms have been known to conduct interviews with no intent to hire, as interviews are one way by which to get their name onto the marketplace and into the minds of legal practitioners. Firms also know that conducting interviews lends the impression that they have a thriving practice and may use this to create marketing buzz about their brand. So don’t take it personally if your transition takes longer than expected -- remember, the economy and external factors are major drivers behind the success of any job search.
7. After your transition
Congratulations! The hunt is finally over and the next leg of your career has begun. Hopefully you’re able to take a few weeks or even months off before starting at your new workplace. However, a few tips after you’re seated at the new desk: First, do not harp on the virtues of your past employer. Even if your old firm was a great fit, constantly extolling your old company inevitably leads to questions in the minds of your new co-workers. Employers can be like significant others -- if you talk incessantly about an ex, in time the new girlfriend will be soured too. Instead, move on and enjoy what your new firm has to offer.
Second, take vacation judiciously during your first year on the job. I am surprised when young lawyers who begin work in late September/October immediately depart for long vacations in December, mere weeks after their start date. First impressions last forever and the image for junior associates to convey is that of budding potential and capacity to learn. By all means, take a vacation. But temper it such that you are perceived as an accessible and dedicated employee.
Last, enjoy yourself. You have survived through one of the most difficult economic times in recent memory. Believe in yourself and celebrate the practice of law. You will find your career better off for it!
Anting J. Wang is a litigation associate at Hahn & Hessen LLP (“H&H”) in New York City. She is also Founder and President of the Society of Young Lawyer Entrepreneurs, a professional group which functions as a resource for young lawyers and other practitioners who have formed their own businesses in response to the recent economic downturn. (http://societyofyounglawyers.wordpress.com).