Right now, many parts of the country are enjoying relatively low unemployment rates. In my home state Massachusetts, for example, the rate is 3.3 percent, the lowest in 15 years.
For anyone contemplating a career move, this should come as good news. As workers get harder to find, employers need to be more creative in hiring talent. We counsel our clients all the time to consider candidates who have transferable skills from another industry and this should be a good time for anyone hoping to make this kind of move.
The reality, however, is that industry barriers persist. In much professional hiring (certainly in hiring legal talent where I spend most of my time), hiring managers have a strong preference for seeing resumes of candidates who have industry experience. This is particularly true in the bio/pharma space, an important sector in my region.
For highly technical jobs, the barriers are not simply arbitrary. Having a good understanding of how a particular business functions can be critical to doing an effective job. But for many job functions, the particulars of the industry are relatively easy to pick up.
So why do so many employers insist on industry experience? In my opinion, it has to do with managing risk. No one wants to be responsible for making a bad hire. If you hire someone and they prove ineffective in their role, the last thing you want to have to do is justify that you hired someone who had never worked in the industry.
Does this mean we are all forever stuck with whatever industry hires us in our first job? Of course not. Many people change industries (including lawyers and other professionals). But what are some of the things you can do to increase your chances of making the move?
Probably the most important thing you can do in trying to make an industry change is to network effectively. If you rely only on posted jobs and submit resumes and cover letters without any follow up, you are limiting your chances of breaking through the “noise”. Instead, if you want to switch from financial services to the life sciences, for example, find people you know who work in life sciences. Use your network to get introductions. Connect with people who already know the quality of your work and your reputation. Leverage your contacts to get in front of hiring managers who are in a position to hire you. If you get introductions from people who can vouch for you, the hiring manager will be more likely to overlook the fact that you have not worked in their space.
While it may not be feasible for everyone, filling a role as an independent contractor is another way to gain industry experience. Employers tend to be much less strict about requiring industry experience when they hire on a contract basis. Find a good contract role at a good company and suddenly you become someone with industry experience.
Relatively speaking, times are good now. If you are thinking about shifting gears, take advantage of the economy. But don’t just fire off resumes. That may not be enough to get you in the door.
LinkedIn is a great tool for networking. Every day, I use it to identify talent when I am recruiting. Frequently, I use it to generate business leads (i.e. individuals who can introduce me to companies where I would like to do business; or individuals who are connected to people at those companies).
LinkedIn also helps me keep up on trends that interest me in HR, employment, hiring, the law, etc. and it gives me a way to remind my network that these are areas of expertise for me.
While LinkedIn should not be a substitute for live networking and phone calls, it is an important way that a professional can stay visible within their professional networks. It is an effective way to reinforce your reputation in a particular field.
When it comes to the personal or political, Facebook is usually my “go to” platform. Conventional wisdom suggests that LinkedIn is more of a forum for the exchange of professional ideas.
But this morning, a General Counsel in my network posted an article on food allergies and it reminded me that sometimes, sharing more personal content on LinkedIn is a nice way to go. The article she linked to was about food allergies and the struggles that she and her husband have had in dealing with two daughters who have had these issues. Aside from being interested in the subject, I was happy to click on the link and get more insight into the life of someone in my network (and what they may be dealing with outside of the workplace.)
In the coming months, I plan to return to more active blogging. The Election of 2016 has inspired me to put more energy into sharing my career and recruiting advice. But don’t worry. I will reserve my more partisan opinions for my Facebook friends.
We can all learn a lot about our own careers by watching the smart moves (and missteps) of those who are in the public eye. This year, surrogates for both campaigns have given us a lot of food for thought.
One thought that came to me over the weekend is the importance of “hitching your wagon to the right horse”. Clearly, Trump’s most vocal supporters (e.g. Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Stephen Bannon, Chris Christie, etc.) will benefit a lot having supported the winner.
We should all take heed that our careers can rise or fall depending on who we choose to “follow”.
For associates in a professional services firm, for example, the path to partnership can be paved by a partner with a strong and growing practice. If that partner becomes your ally, your chances of elevation to partnership can grow significantly.
Similarly, spend most of your time working for a partner who is disliked, not respected or whose practice is not growing, and you may find yourself out of a job when it is time for the partnership decision.
Of course as Election 2016 has clearly demonstrated, “picking the winning horse” is not so easy. Even if you think you have aligned yourself with winners in your firm, their fortunes may change unexpectedly and so too will yours.
Furthermore, while in our democracy, everyone gets to decide which candidate he or she will support, many of us often don’t have the chance to choose our superiors in the workplace.
So even if you are getting good work (working for the types of clients you like), at some point, you may want to think about making a job move. It is important to get good work experience in an industry that interests you; but having the “right” experience may not be enough if you want your career to advance.
I’m not suggesting that professionals should blindly follow successful partners in their firm. Try to choose “winners”; but be sure that the winners you choose share your values. If you don’t, then you may end up a winner in the short run, but feeling a profound lack of career satisfaction in the long fun.
A few months ago, I spoke to a friend of mine who does transactional work for a large law firm. He was bemoaning the fact that the pace of his workload was unsustainable. He felt like he was drinking from a fire hose. Clients and partners were emailing him at all hours, he was spending a significant portion of his family vacations on the phone and in general, he was feeling burnt out.
Fast forward several months and the situation has changed. My friend is still working hard; but by modifying his own behavior, he finds that he is feeling considerably less stress.
What was interesting about my discussion was that my friend had come to realize that a portion of his stress was self inflicted. Despite the fact that he had worked for the firm for over five years and had proved himself to be reliable and hard working, he was treating every phone call and email as urgent.
In short, he was not setting limits on any requests he was receiving.
So now, he turns off his phone at 8 p.m. every night and unless he is up against a deadline, he reserves the rest of his evening to spend time with his family and pursue his personal interests. More importantly, when he gets requests from clients at 5 p.m., he asks them when they need to hear back. More often than not, the answer is NOT 8 a.m. the next morning. Similarly, he asks partners when they need a response.
By turning off his phone in the evening and by asking clients and partners for REAL deadlines, this friend of mine has made a meaningful difference in his work/life balance. He still works long hours. But now he is much more selective about what work is urgent and which matters can wait until he gets into the office the next day. And life is much better for him.
Benjamin Barton, a professor at the University of Tennessee School of Law, offers a sobering assessment of the state of the legal profession–law schools graduating too many lawyers, graduates who can’t find jobs and a crushing debt load for the majority who don’t win the large law firm lottery and who end up in lower paying jobs. Barton also lays out the systemic changes to the practice of law including the increased use of technology and contract lawyers (both domestic and international) who perform lower level document review that was once completed by law firms.
He concludes with some positive notes about how the public as a whole will benefit from some of these changes. But anyone reading this book will think twice about applying to law school.
In truth, the message has already made it to the next generation of wanna be lawyers. Applications to law school are way down.
It’s a good read and it ties together a number of themes that have been percolating in the legal and popular press (particularly since the Great Recession).
Julie Fleming, of Lex Innova Consulting, has a nice post on how technology may be interfering with your business relationship building. It’s a short read, but right on point.
In the past 18 years, I have spoken to thousands of law firm associates about their career concerns. While there are a number of themes that are common (long and unpredictable hours, difficult clients, concerns about not making partner), one thing I have heard over and over again is the desire to go in-house. Simply put, many of these associates have a strong belief that life in a corporate law department is better. Getting one of these coveted jobs would be like winning the legal lottery.
In the 25+ years since I graduated law school, I have also spoken to many in-house attorneys and it is apparent to me that there is a gap between perception and reality when it comes to in-house jobs. While life can be great from the inside, there is hardly a universal feeling of utter career satisfaction amongst lawyers who work in a corporate environment. In fact, there are some real tradeoffs when leaving the law firm environment.
Lawyers who pursue the in-house route like the notion that they can get away from the billable hour. There is a perception that hours are better and because you are now acting as the client, you have fewer unexpected emergencies. There is also the belief that being on the inside is a chance to build ongoing relationships with your internal clients and an opportunity to become part of the “team”.
There is some truth to these perceptions. From my observations, in-house lawyers do tend to enjoy better hours and fewer unexpected emergencies (though there are many exceptions to this.) In-house lawyers are often freed of the burden of having to record hours and by living with one client, there is an opportunity to really get to know the business.
From speaking with many in-house lawyers, I also know that getting off the law firm track does involve some compromise.
First, unless you are doing licensing deals for your company, moving in-house means moving from the income side of a business to the expense side of the business. With this can come a loss of professional status. In a law firm, the partners rule. In a corporation, lawyers are viewed as a cost of doing business. In considering an in-house role, look at the status of the law department in that company. Does the GC report to the CEO? Or the CFO? Is the GC considered part of the senior management team? If there are several attorneys in the law department, what do they say about how they are viewed by the business team? Is their opinion respected? Are they brought in at an early stage before deals are made? Or do lawyers simply come in at the end to make sure everything is documented properly?
While many in-house lawyers do not track their hours, the reality is that this is not a given. In some corporations, you still need to track your hours so that the legal expense can be properly allocated to the appropriate business unit.
In a law firm, you generally have a broad mix of clients. In a corporation, you are dependent on one client. This means that you are putting more of your eggs in one basket. In other words, going in-house can be more risky because you only have one client. If that client is acquired or if the business gets into financial trouble, your job may be at risk. And since in-house jobs are not so easy to find, it may be hard to find the next job. Furthermore, once you go in-house, getting back to a law firm can be challenging because as you get more senior, law firms will want to know what business you can bring with you. As an in-house lawyer, you may not be well positioned to bring any work.
Finally, if you care about the level of sophistication of your work or maximizing salary, then consider whether in-house is the right place for you to practice. In-house lawyers certainly get their share of sophisticated work, but it is more likely that challenging or novel legal problems will be sent to outside counsel who see the same problems across a range of clients. Similarly, unless you get lucky with stock options, in all likelihood, if you leave a major law firm to go in-house, you will probably leave salary on the table.
None of this is to say that lawyers should avoid in-house jobs. There is some evidence that the there is a trend towards companies increasing the size of their law departments. There are also many happy in-house lawyers who do not miss the billable hour. But consider the tradeoffs before you make the move. It may just be that law firm life is a better career option for you. It may just be that you need to find a firm that offers you the right mix of work, billing rates, opportunity to build your own practice and culture.
There are many ways to build your reputation as a lawyer and cultivate relationships that can turn into referral sources. The important thing is to stay involved in activities you enjoy, otherwise, you will find yourself making excuses to avoid that activity and you won’t enjoy the activity enough to make it worth your while. When I do marketing training, I always ask who likes golf? I tell the attorneys who don’t raise their hands to avoid it because it is unlikely to be a positive experience and unlikely to help you build your relationships.
As a lawyer, there are many non-profit and civic causes where you can lend a hand and make a valuable contribution. If you are thinking about the best way to do that, on March 19th, I am participating on a panel with the Massachusetts Bar Association. Click here for more information. The program is free for MBA members and can be accessed remotely.
If you are like most of your colleagues, the New Year has come and gone and so have your New Year’s Resolutions. Change is hard and in the high pressured field of law, resolving to spend more time on non-billable work may be easier said than done. While there continues to be slow and steady movement towards project based billing in private practice, the reality is that most lawyers still bill by the hour; and most law firms still pay close attention to billable hours in determining how much of a contribution you are making to your firm.
In the short run, a lot of the incentive is to maximize the hours you bill. But for most attorneys, building your own practice is what will give you more career satisfaction and more control over your destiny.
So you resolved to spend more time on marketing in 2014. But as we approach Groundhog Day, that resolution may seem like a distant memory. The good news is that its never too late to start making change. So here are some tips for how you can be more successful with your Groundhog Day Resolutions:
1. Don’t try to change everything at once. Choose one or two things that you want to do differently this year.
2. Resolve to spend a fixed amount of time every week on marketing and put it in your calendar (perhaps 15-30 minutes every morning before you become consumed with client demands).
3. Choose marketing activities you think you would enjoy. If you like to write, write about something you want to be known for. If you like to speak, get out and speak about something that will reinforce the reputation you want. If you enjoy playing golf or attending sporting events with referral sources, do that.
4. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. When you work on a client matter, think about whether there are other prospective clients who might want to know about an issue. You’ve already done the work. Can you turn it into an article, check list or blog post?
5. Recycle your marketing. The goal is to be visible. Once you have written something, send it to individuals on your mailing list (start a mailing list if you don’t already have one). Create a newsletter that links to items you and some of your colleagues have already written (again, focusing on the subject matter where you want to build your reputation). Publicize your speaking engagements through a newsletter, on your website and in a LinkedIn update.
6. Send out articles (or links to articles) to people on your mailing list. “Thought this might be of interest to you.”
7. Get involved in a recreational, civic, non-profit or hobby related activity that puts you in contact with the kinds of people you want to meet. Again, choose activities you enjoy (i.e. not things you think you “should” be doing). You are much more likely to follow through and participate and you are much more likely to be relaxed.
Truly building a law practice can take years. So the sooner you get started, the sooner you will start to see the fruits of your labors. But don’t feel like marketing is an all or nothing proposition. Resolve to do a little more this year than you did last year and you will make a real contribution to your own success down the road.