Charting My Career Trajectory

Published: Mar 10, 2009

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Dear SJL:I am a second year associate in a big NYC firm. I like my firm and my group very much. To be honest, I don't really have any specific complaints about my job or my firm. I just don't know whether I want to be here, or doing this, for the rest of my professional life. Is that wrong? It isn't that I've decided that I don't want to make partner here, I'm just not sure whether I do. To be very clear, I do really like it here. I'm having a great experience, I'm well regarded, I've gotten good reviews and I find the work pretty stimulating. I just wonder what else might be out there. I feel like I'll never know if this is the perfect job for me unless I explore what else could be. I had a conversation about this issue with another second year in a different group. She thought I was crazy to be worrying about this now, saying that we have years to figure it all out. She might be right. Then again, what if she is wrong and I find myself wishing I'd trusted my instincts in three years?I guess what I'm really wondering is whether it is too soon to start thinking about my career trajectory? And, when the time does come, how do I evaluate my options and pick the right one? Conflicted But Curious Dear CbC:Let me start by commending you for confronting such a difficult question at this point in your career. It may seem (and your friend appears to believe)that you have a lot of time to figure it all out. And, in some ways, you do….and in others you do not. I am not going to say that anyone who doesn't figure out where he/she is going by their third year is doomed, or any other such melodrama. But it never hurts to start thinking about these issues early in your career and to focus your attention on getting the skills you need to be successful and to control the direction of your career. I honestly wish more associates asked themselves where they want their career to take them earlier instead of later; more self-critical thinking like yours would lead to a higher degree of satisfaction in our profession. Unfortunately, many attorneys never think about where they see themselves going until it occurs to them (sometimes deep into their 6th or 7th year of practice) that it isn't here. By your 6th or 7th year, it is a little late to start building the skills needed to succeed at a firm, in-house, or the legal job of your dreams. I know that sounds a bit harsh, but many very bright attorneys bury their heads in the sand when it comes to their careers. I've had too many friends and colleagues who have stayed with their firms because "It-isn't-too-bad-and-I-know-everybody-here-and-it-could-be-worse-somewhere-else." Or because they decide "I'll-just-wait-one-more-year-to-see-how-things-go." This may sound harsh, but even if you have not developed all the skills needed for your perfect job, somebody else has. And they will get your dream job, instead of you. That applies to every job you might want from partnership to a position in-house to a wide variety of other things. Obviously, it is always better to evaluate your skill set, your career goals,and your dream job like a Chicago voter --- early and often. By asking these questions early in your careerm, you can position yourself to get that job of your dreams, because you never know when it might happen to fall into your lap.. Taking those steps can be as simple as seeking out specific types of cases or deals and making sure you're building your skill set early, or as life altering as starting to search for a wholly new (maybe even that perfect)position. That depends on you, as this is a very individual analysis. No matter what it entails, the sooner you start asking (and answering) these questions, the better position you'll be in to actually get what you want when you decide you want it. Okay, so we've established that you need to be thinking about your career trajectory early. How early? Ideally, the moment you start practicing. Recognizing that, at such an early point, it is doubtful that you will know with any degree of certainty where you want your career to go, you still need to be open to these thoughts, which will help you harness all the experience you gain and simultaneously evaluate what you're learning; about law, about firm practice, about yourself and about your ultimate goals. Self-EvaluationSince every trajectory is different and based on the attorney's practice and goals, it is impossible to give specific feedback in this forum because I do not know your practice areas and goals. What I can do, however, is start you on the road to unearthing and ultimately charting your trajectory. You've demonstrated the initiativem, now put it to work by engaging in some very important self-evaluation; start by asking yourself the following questions:• What do you like best about your job? Least?• Do you find the work you do stimulating? •Look at the people around you, including mid-level and senior associates, and partners. What aspects of their lifestyle and day-to-day responsibilities do you think would suit you? That you think do/would not suit you? Why?• How do you feel about the culture of your group and of the firm as a whole? Too big? Too small? Just the right size?• If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?•Do you like practicing in a law firm? Why or why not? • What was your expectation coming into your law firm? What did you think your day-to-day professional existence would look like? Does it look like that? If not, how is it different?• If you think you'd like to pursue a long-term professional home outside the law firm setting, what about in-house opportunities are attractive to you? What type of company do you envision yourself counseling? Does your firm represent such clients? Are you currently working for any of them?Take the time to think about and develop meaningful answers to these questions and it will help clarify your true desires and make you confident about the choices you make. In terms of where your career can take you, the possibilities really are endless. Unfortunately, this column is not, so I cannot possibly touch on them all. Instead I am going to focus on just two among them; the options to make partner in a law firm, and the options to move in-house. These are certainly the best known options for the stellar lawyer, and I will reference them throughout this article. Find your building blocks and use themIn order to maximize your trajectory possibilities, there are a few things you MUST do. First, you make sure you are building the skill set you need for any job you might want. When in doubt, be over-inclusive. How do you know what skill set you'll need? Ask. Everyone you've worked with is a resource. Ask the people who have gone in-house to a client how they did it, what would be expected of you there, how they are enjoying the new positions. Talk to friends and colleagues that currently have a job that you would, or might, want. Ask about the work they've done and how they got the job they have. If the person is a partner in your firm (or another firm) ask him/her what the process was like and what was important to the partnership when she/he came up. Most people will be happy to help you by telling you more about themselves and their experiences. Now that you've done some homework and figured out the skills you need to work on developing, you must once again critically and honestly examine your current situation, this time to determine if you are getting all you can out of it. The goal here is to determine how to maximize the opportunities that present themselves in your current position. Whether you plan to/decide to stay there and make the run, leave for an in-house position in 1-4 years, or something totally different, there are skills to be gained there and you should be making sure you maximize them. Talk to headhunters Now is also the right time for you to start a relationship with a recruiter, but not just any recruiter. I know that sounds a bit self-indulgent, even with the caveat, but it really makes all the sense in the world to partner with a legal recruiter who can and will help you attain your goals. First, a good recruiter will understand the market, the industry as a whole, and will be able to intelligently discuss the variety of opportunities that are out there for you. Second, s/he will also have information to assist you in obtaining the skills you need to get the job you want. Recruiters know what skills their clients are looking for, both at law firms and companies. We know what profiles have been successful in the job market, for many different types of jobs, and which have not. Finally, legal recruiters can be extraordinarily important allies in this process as they are often the gatekeepers to the best opportunities in corporate America. 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, and be a much needed guide throughout the search process.I am not saying that you should pick up the phone and trust your career to just anyone. I am saying that you need to find someone who is going to be willing to go the distance with you; investing a lot of time, perhaps even years, in helping you obtain the right job for you, even if the right job for you will never bring her/him a fee. Some of my favorite candidates are people I never placed and I'm not the only recruiter I've ever heard say that. You will know when you've found one. NetworkingYou've probably heard this before, and if you read our column regularly you have heard it from me and my colleagues, you also need to start networking. You can find out a lot of helpful information this way. There are terrific resources available to you if you're really committed to planning and executing your career trajectory. Talk to the alumni director of your law school's placement office. Ask them for contact information of school mates who have moved into professional positions that you would like to learn more about. In keeping with the "alumni" theme, you might know that many law firms have annual reunions of their own "alumni" who have pursued different career paths. You can, and should, take advantage of that. Another reason to network: most of the most professionally fulfilled in-house lawyers I know are people I never placed. They secured their jobs through their own contacts. As people always say; it's all about who you know. Expanding your network can open the door to in-house jobs that either aren't publicized at all or that are the subject of fierce competition from lots of top law firm associates. In fact, most jobs are filled via networking rather than help-wanted postings or internet ads, recruiters, or other traditional channels. You never know how the perfect job will, or could, come to you. So maximize your potential for being on the receiving end of it. If you need a little help with the tenets of networking, I highly recommend taking a look at the column written by my colleague, Lauren Krasnow, which was published on Vault on January 21, 2008, entitled "Networking Your Way to Having it All."Once again, I applaud you for having the ability to recognize that you need to take an active role in setting the direction of your career trajectory. You are now in a position to begin charting your career path. Good luck!Best,Traci