Gavin Rubin is a senior recruiter with the Los Angeles office of Attorney Network Services, a national legal recruiting firm.
Fresh out of law school and looking for a job? Downturns, upturns, unexpected turns, turns for the better -- whatever turns you may face in your career, it is up to you to be ready for them. This does not mean you have to read tarot cards, become clairvoyant or otherwise predict the future. It is more a matter of effectively managing your career so you are prepared to respond quickly and strategically regardless of whether you are just starting out, receive a great opportunity, or forced to make a change because of unforeseeable events. If you are a recent law school graduate, currently employed or simply unemployed, seeking a new position or not, you can always take steps to control your career as much as possible. It all starts with knowing what you want.
Career management starts with taking stock and reflecting upon what you want from your life. For both aspiring and practicing attorneys, that means establishing and defining your personal platform for practicing law. This vital process is often neglected for many reasons. You simply do not know where to start. If you're a new graduate, you feel you must first pass the bar exam. You are too busy at work to think about your platform. You think the process is too hard. Your career has gone so well so far you can imagine no reason to engage in the process of defining your platform. Perhaps the whole idea is just too overwhelming, depressing or confusing.
Bottom line: Reality dictates that you cannot effectively land the job you want without knowing what you want. Understanding and defining your platform for practicing law, whether you are a recent law school graduate or senior partner, centers around four basic principles:
- Choosing a setting in which to practice, ranging from a large law firm or a smaller public service organization.
- Selecting a field of law to practice, and/or a particular industry in which to focus.
- Describing in some detail the duties and responsibilities of the position you want.
- Defending those three choices in terms of your basic values as an individual.
Please note that these principles are not, and need not be, defined in particularly complex terms. A third-year law student's principles are usually defined in very basic terms, and inevitably develop as her career evolves.
For example, Mary Smith is a third-year law student. She has always been a good student and is interested in helping people. She defines herself as politically liberal, and is involved in her law school's clinics helping low-income members of the community. Mary has a very independent and creative personality, and a wide variety of interests outside of law. She enjoys legal writing and received an A in two such classes. She also did very well in contracts and enjoyed the subject matter in several contract law courses. Mary has also developed strong mentor-mentee relationships with some of her contracts and legal writing professors.
Now, let's apply our principles to Mary Smith:
Setting: Your basic large firm with its bureaucracy, rules, large corporate clients and long hours is probably not the best setting for Mary. She would likely fit in better with a smaller firm or organization that will afford her the opportunity to both practice law and develop her outside interests the law. She should also investigate public interest-type settings that often call for direct client contact with individuals. Mary should note that large firms' high salaries, while appealing, come with the expectation of long hours and specifically designated tasks that allow for very little creativity and flexibility in the first few years of practice.
Field or industry within the setting: Practices like insurance defense, for example, would probably not be a good fit for Mary. While there is the potential for exposure to writing in insurance defense, the writing required in such a field tends to be very limiting with little diversity of issues. Furthermore, insurance defense would not provide Mary with an opportunity to develop any of her skills in contract law. Mary needs to focus on a field that takes advantage of her writing skills and her ken for contracts.
Mary would probably be suited for a position in general corporate work and real estate. Such fields would allow her to utilize both her writing skills, given the focus on drafting documents, and knowledge of contract law. Mary would also probably enjoy representing smaller start-up companies, which would appeal to her desire to help others, rather than larger institutional clients. An optimal position for Mary might be with a public service organization representing first-time business owners in transactional matters.
Duties and responsibilities: Mary would probably do best in an atmosphere where she receives supportive mentoring and is allowed a certain amount of freedom to get her tasks done. As previously mentioned, a rigid environment where responsibilities are based on seniority, not capability, is probably not the best fit for her. These values are often present in large firms. Again, a smaller firm or public service organization would more likely share Mary's attitude towards duties and responsibilities.
Basic values: Last but not least, Mary must defend her choices in terms of her basic values. As such, implicit in steps 1-3 must be an analysis as to how Mary's identity and her beliefs tie into the setting in which she wishes to work, field of concentration and duties and responsibilities. For example, if Mary is environmentally conscious, she is eventually going to get put off representing alleged polluters no matter how much money she makes or how nice the people with whom she works are. Employment opportunities conflicting with an individual's basic values are all too often short-term.