Changing Law Jobs: The Big Picture

Question: I think I know how to put my resume together and how to respond to blind ads, but that's about all I know about looking for a job. Is there a big picture, and just what are the components of a job search?

Answer: You know more than you think, just by perceiving that there are questions to ask. Yes, there is a big picture, and it has to do with planning your search, as your own advocate, and addressing prospective employers' needs and those of their clients, rather than just how a new job would benefit you. Here is an overview of the job search process to assist you:

Analyze your career.

Take the time up front to analyze your previous career choices and methods of finding jobs. Spend the effort to assess what it is that you want and need, and the role your work plays in your personal life. An integrated, affirmative approach to your future makes it more likely you'll find a job you'll enjoy and want to keep.

Crystallize your focus.

Once you've analyzed your career goals, crystallize your thinking to focus on the jobs you want. You may choose to search in several directions, but you'll know why each is of interest to you and be in a position to present your ideas for your future cohesively.

Identify your strengths.

Work to identify your strengths. The world is not cleanly divided into the legal and nonlegal: Experience in business, managerial acumen and contributions to the community are examples of valuable strengths that supplement the legal tasks you've mastered and help convey a fuller, more accurate, more impressive picture of your worth in the workplace. If you look past your own strengths, then others, consequently, will do so as well.

Formulate your search identity.

Have you had a series of unrelated jobs, or have you benefited by seeing the practice from a variety of perspectives? Have you had only part-time jobs, or have you been enterprising by putting multiple opportunities together, while you look for the full-time job you want? Cast your "facts" in a strong light to project your value and your control over your career.

Write a resume that works.

A resume is an opportunity to advocate, to make yourself understood, as well as to report about where you went to school, where you've worked and the tasks in which you've engaged. Use headings and subheadings to help your reader; highlight your accomplishments and contributions; consider formats that are professional and that work for you, as opposed, simply, to the standard look of the nonadvocate's vitae.

Use cover letters that complement.

Waste not another chance to advance your cause: Write letters that take your resume one step further, rather than ones that just repeat the resume information. Characterize and foreshadow the resume information. And don't forget to write with the employer's perspective uppermost in mind, rather than focusing on what the new job would do for you. Use your cover letter and resumes well in answering open-market ads and in following up when networking the "hidden" job market.

Identify your network.

Networking is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the job search, yet a vital component. It is not "cold-calling" to ask about job openings; instead, it is using one's good will, and that of others, to move person-to-person to help find opportunities. You must identify your network and plan your approach, incorporating the hard work you've already done in identifying your strengths and formulating your search identity.

Interview with strength and enthusiasm.

Once you've generated an interview, you need to maximize all your effort by interviewing productively. You need to do your homework on the prospective employer, then take an active part during the interview itself Use your resume as a springboard in answering the employer's questions. Show yourself to be friendly and flexible, as well as knowledgeable and capable. You should have anticipated the questions, and your responses, and be ready to converse congenially and persuasively.

Provide appropriate references and writing samples.

Your references should be professionals who know and like you and your work. You'll be constrained by confidentiality, perhaps, from using someone in your current workplace as a reference, but opposing counsel, trusted clients, former supervisors and co-workers, judges, law school professors and colleagues are all good choices. Be sure to enlist their support and to tell them about your enthusiasms for particular opportunities. Select writing samples equally carefully. Focus on one or two concise examples of your legal writing, a 10-15 page brief, or part of one, using both law and facts, for example. Don't barrage the prospective employer with multiple samples that go on page after page.

Accept the right offer with grace.

When you get an offer, express your appreciation and seek adequate time to consider whether this is the job for you. If you have other strong prospects, notify them of the offer, so you can resolve any choices you might face. Negotiate your salary and benefits, if the offer requires you to do so, but accept a valuable offer in a timely fashion and provide reasonable notice to a current employer. As you look ahead to begin your new job, you'll want to leave your former colleagues amicably and professionally. Set your goals for success-and enjoy the new opportunity. You've earned it.

Kathy Morris is an adjunct professor in ethics at Northwestern University School of Law, and her Career Question articles appear monthly in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.