Above the Law

Ed note: This is the final part of a two-part series. Read the first three steps to moving forward from the law here.

4. Pose a hypothesis

The threshold to networking effectively is being able to professionally and concisely answer the question, “So, what are you interested in? What type of work are you looking for?” You do not want to communicate uncertainty to people who could be in a position to help you (“I don’t know. I didn’t like y, but I’ve thought about z.”) or appear desperate (“I hate my job. I just need a change.”). Any interest the person may have had in helping you is waning already. Put yourself in their position: you have to give them something to respond to.

This can be daunting to many attorneys: How are you supposed to know what you want to do if all you have done is practice law? It seems like the chicken and the egg: you can’t know what you want to do until you speak with people, but you can’t speak with people until you know what you want to do.

The way around the conundrum is to recognize that you don’t have to know for certain to answer this question — they are not asking for a sworn commitment. You do, however, have to come up with a hypothesis—an educated guess. “I’m interested in learning more about x type of positions in y field.”

You don’t have to limit yourself to just one area in advance—instead you can have different answers for different audiences. As you have these conversations, use the information you gather to refine both the content and phrasing of your statements.

5. Build a narrative to make the case for yourself: why would you hire you?

Potential employers have no interest in what you want to get away from and little interest in what you want. They want to hear about how you can make their lives easier. The burden is on you to translate your skills and show the value you could add in a different type of work.

Before having to sell yourself in a job interview, articulate what you consider to be your most relevant skills and experience. Develop “talking points” of what you bring to the table and make analogies to tasks or issues in other industries. Then reach out to people who work in that area to ask what they have seen in order to verify that your analogies are accurate.

Use that information to develop more sophisticated talking points and hone your narrative for future contacts and in job interviews.

6. Prepare for networking conversations; don’t wing it

While most likely to lead to your next job, networking involves risk. Once you reach out to speak with professionals in your areas of interest, you are making an impression one way or another.

Presenting yourself as a potential colleague is key. You need to tailor your talking points about how you could add value to your audience rather than include irrelevant information.

Remember that you have legitimate questions to ask– It is not as if there is some book you didn’t read that has these answers–but they need to be good ones that show what you know. Asking good questions can make all the difference in how you are perceived. Use the opportunity to gather information on how you can become more marketable to employers in this field.

The goal is to convince people that passing your information along or having you as a potential colleague will make them look good. At a bare minimum, you have to come across in a way that you’re not wasting people’s time. The “educated” part of any “educated guess” you make is critically important. Don’t ask anyone a question you could answer on the internet.

Being unprepared can do more harm than good. Many people are happy to have a conversation about their work, but the same is not true of a second meeting if the first one did not go well. You often get one bite at the apple.

7. Expect it to take longer than you want it to before you’re in your next job

Networking takes time. While it’s possible something could fall into your lap once you begin having these conversations, that’s the exception.

Part of the reason many attorneys want to make a change is that their time is not their own. They don’t see how they can possibly figure out who their contacts are, reach out to them, schedule, and prepare for a conversation about what they might do next while they continue to work in a legal job that requires them to be constantly on call.

Alternatively, if work is slow, they feel they must devote their time to finding any billable work they can to avoid being singled out for low hours. If not currently working, it can be difficult to build and maintain momentum under pressure and in the absence of a routine.

Making a change requires that you prioritize how you spend your time. Waiting until you have substantial time to devote to your search means that months can go by while no progress is made. Making a career move is more important to you than to anyone else. There’s often no way to move forward until you put your own interests on at least equal footing with your current employer’s and devote time—even in small increments–to your search.

The job market remains sluggish—so much so that some attorneys who are dis-satisfied with their work feel guilty that they are considering leaving a law job since they know they are lucky to have one. Undeniably, many talented people have been hit hard by recent changes in the legal market that are totally beyond their control.

Nevertheless, just because you can get a job does not mean you have to accept it or to stay in it if it’s not a good fit. Every job has its pros and cons, so taking any position you can get in order to leave one you are unhappy with often leads to something else you don’t want.

At the same time, it’s unlikely that your next job will be your dream job. In looking for your next position, you need to find the overlap between what you are marketable for and what you want to do. You face several decades in the workforce ahead, and the immediate goal is to position yourself to move in a direction you want to go.

There is no substitute for speaking with people to identify the range of options for someone with your background, figure out how to effectively market yourself for those types of positions, and determine what type of work will be a good fit with your priorities going forward. Just remember to put yourself in their position and focus your conversations on what employers are looking for and ways you can add value in a different role or content area.

Keep separate the equally important internal conversation to determine what you want to get away from and what you want to have in your work life. You need that set of criteria to use as a lens to evaluate the information you gather from people and strategically pursue your professional options over time.

Kate Neville provides direction to attorneys interested in making a career move, whether within the practice of law or to another field. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Princeton University, Kate practiced law as an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and served as a Special Counsel in the public sector before shifting to do management consulting work for both public and private sector entities. She founded Neville Career Consulting in 2007 to advise attorneys how to identify the full range of their professional options and how to pursue them successfully, providing tailored and practical guidance in all phases of a job search.