Doing Your Due Diligence: Taking the Steps to Find Professional Happiness in (or out of) the Law
I am a junior level attorney at a BigLaw firm. When I first began practicing after graduation, I really was happy with my job and the firm I had chosen but, now that the newness of it all has worn off, I find that, on my best days, I think my job is "fine" and on my worst days, I wake up absolutely dreading going to work. I am definitely well-regarded at my firm - my yearly evaluations are very positive and continue to deliver good work product despite my unhappiness. Clearly, I need to make a change of some kind but I have no idea what my options are or where to start. Because I am still a junior level attorney, I'm thinking I should and may want to continue my formal training with a law firm - I don't feel I'm ready or would be that marketable for any worthwhile in-house opportunities. Or maybe I should just get out of law altogether - it's not like it will be different anywhere else. I'm clearly at some sort of crossroad - any advice?
Lost But Hopeful In New York
First, good for you for not only on recognizing your professional dissatisfaction, but wanting to do something about it - too many attorneys have resigned themselves to the idea that being bored or miserable is actually a part of their job, that all practice areas and firms are the same and that there is nothing they can do to improve things for themselves. You know who I'm talking about - they complain endlessly but do nothing about it. I'm happy to hear you're different.
Now that you have drawn the conclusion that something is missing from your job, it is paramount that each step and decision you make to change that is well thought-out and makes sense. You must always keep in mind the sanctity of your resume - you don't want to make a change that is going to prompt someone reviewing your resume down the road to say Why did she make that move? It doesn't make any sense. Don't make a change for the sake of making a change; you want your move to get you a step closer to whatever your professional goal happens to be. Be thoughtful. Here's where I can be (hopefully) helpful.
What Is Missing?
It is imperative that you pin down exactly what you don't like about your job. Do you find the work unstimulating? Do you like the work but there is just too much of it? Have you not found a mentor who is invested in your professional development? Are you disappointed with the culture of your group or of the firm as a whole? Are you unhappy with how the firm is managed? And on the flip side, you need to really understand what would make your job fulfilling. Would you be happier practicing a different type of law? Do you need to be assigned more substantive work? Would you excel in a smaller group? A larger group? It is not enough to say "I am unhappy." It is essential to figure out what is making you feel that way so you can fix it. Put a pen to paper - write down everything that makes you dissatisfied and what would make you satisfied. Do your diligence - talk to attorneys in other practice areas and find out what their positions involve or why they like going to work in the morning! This is the time to go beyond the surface, dig deep within yourself, and take the steps to really understand what is going to make you professionally happy.
Don't Assume You Need To Change Firms.
I cannot tell you how often I hear of attorneys giving notice and their partners saying, "I wish you had come and talked to me." Don't roll your eyes. I'm serious. It is an easy cop out to assume nothing can change at your firm; if you assume that, then you don't have to initiate a potentially awkward or intimidating conversation with your employer about your unhappiness. However, it sounds as though you have built up a fair amount of goodwill at your firm and it certainly seems as though they appreciate your work and work ethic. While it may seem hard to believe at times, partners would prefer to have happy associates and most don't want to lose a good associate over a problem that they could have fixed - honestly.
Therefore, after you have clearly determined the cause of your dissatisfaction, you then need to analyze whether it is fixable at your firm. If you believe you would be happier practicing in a different area of law and your firm has that practice, you need to have a conversation (most likely with the head of your group) about switching practice groups (BONUS! It will almost always be easier to "retool" into a new practice area by doing so within your firm, where you already have a your reputation and the firm already has a stake in your success, then in trying to lateral to a firm without experience in the area of law in which you wish to practice). If you think you are being overworked and disliking your job as a result, you need to speak with the assigning partner or the partner with whom you work the most and try to work out a solution that leaves you with less on your plate. If you feel like you are without a mentor, you must be proactive and make a real attempt to find a mentor. I understand these conversations can be uncomfortable. I understand that there are times when such conversations will prove fruitless and you'll see no change whatsoever. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that your firm will be able or willing to accommodate whatever you are asking for. But I can sit here and tell you that I've seen success from such conversations - I've seen workloads decreased, I've seen associates get the opportunity to work with a variety of partners, and when I practiced, my firm was particularly accommodating about allowing me to switch practice groups (and eventually move into their recruiting department!) - but if you don't have the conversation, I can guarantee that nothing will change. In the words of my favorite style maven, "Make it work, people, make it work."
Can It Be Fixed By Making A Lateral Move?
It may be the case that when you take a good, hard look at why you are unhappy with your position, the reason may be unfixable by your firm. Perhaps your firm doesn't have the type of work you want to do or they won't allow you to do it. Perhaps your firm does not have the client base you need to be in contact with in order to eventually transition to the in-house job of your dreams. Or maybe the partnership track at your firm is an impossible one, no matter how much of a superstar you are. The important thing to always, always, always remember (even during your most cynical days), is that, contrary to popular belief, not all law firms are the same (my profession wouldn't exist if they were!), Assuming there is a part of you that still enjoys practicing law, in most instances, there is a firm out there that will meet your priorities. But the first part of that statement is an incredibly important one to answer for yourself - do you still enjoy practicing law? I have met with so many candidates who are initially adamant that they are done with the law - until we start weeding through their experience and really get to the root of what bothers them about their particular position - and it is often fixable without having to leave behind the practice of law entirely. But I also know some very fine individuals (some of whom are now my colleagues, in fact) who took that same introspective look, who even made a lateral move to another firm in an effort to find professional satisfaction, and ultimately made the difficult decision that no job practicing law was going to fulfill them. Heck, I fall in those ranks as well and I'm here to tell you that it does not mean professional happiness cannot be attained elsewhere. You are not chained to the practice of law just because you devoted years of your life to professional schooling. But you must take the time to understand the root of your dissatisfaction, own it and then fix it.
Making A Lateral Move Is The Right Option. Now What?
If you have taken the time and made the effort to really understand what is prompting your dissatisfaction at your firm and you have concluded that you still enjoy the practice of law or at least still believe you want to give it more of a chance, which you seem to be implying in your question, that means you are ready to embark on a search. However, that certainly does not mean that is where your diligence ends.
Use a Recruiter. But Not Just Any Recruiter.
As self-indulgent as this may appear, it makes all the sense in the world to partner with a legal recruiter for your search. The right recruiter will understand the market, the industry as a whole and will be able to intelligently discuss the variety of firms that are out there for your consideration. The right recruiter has relationships with law firms because they have impressed those firms on a professional and ethical level. The right recruiter will be a true advocate on your behalf, will make inroads for you that you cannot make for yourself and will get the feedback for you that would otherwise be unattainable. The right recruiter will manage your process, manage your expectations and will be a helpful resource throughout the search process. But the key is finding (and MEETING WITH!) the right recruiter. To determine how to find that "right" recruiter, I highly recommend you taking a look at the column written by my colleague, Stephanie Wechsler, which was published on Vault on February 27, 2008, entitled "Headhunter Need Not Be a Dirty Word: How To Find a Headhunter You Can Trust.
Don't Lose Sight Of Your Priorities. Attain Them.
You have to remember your priorities - what are the key things you are looking for in your next firm? Do not lose sight of those priorities during your search - they may change in importance, but they should never be abandoned. If you picked the right recruiter, he or she will be someone who also keeps your priorities in mind; the firms you and your recruiter ultimately decide to send your materials to will be reflective of those priorities - the object of the search is not to find you "a" job; it is to find you "the" job (or the job that will bring you closer to "the" job). So don't have your materials sent to all firms with openings; have your materials sent to the right firms for you.
This Is Your Search. Do Your Own Diligence.
Just because you have found a great recruiter who is looking out for your priorities does not mean you should sit back and be a spectator at your search event. I understand that you are extraordinarily busy at work, you want to spend what little free time you have catching up with your DVR and besides, once you have found the recruiter, isn't it their role to get your job? I know you want me to agree with you, but I would be doing you a disservice if I did. You are PARTNERING with your recruiter which means you should still remain actively involved in your search. Ask questions about firms you are meeting with. Take an active interest in the substance and formatting of your materials. Research the attorneys with whom you are interviewing. Take advantage of the vast amount of information out there on the web (though take most of it with a grain of salt). A good recruiter will be in touch with you on a consistent basis but take responsibility for that relationship as well - check in with them, ask for updates, look for feedback, request mock interviews or interview preparation sessions. Ultimately, though your recruiter is doing a lot of the legwork and should have much of the market knowledge, you are responsible for your search and you must have a vested interest in making the search successful. Once again, kudos to you for understanding the shortcomings of your current firm experience, for recognizing that you can change it and for taking a proactive role in making that change, You are now armed with the steps you need to find professional satisfaction - feels good, doesn't it?
Stay in touch,