You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Four Tips When Searching for Your Dream Job
As the Rolling Stones pointed out in their infinite wisdom, “if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.” As a legal recruiter, it’s my privilege, and my job, to help lawyers who are considering making a move to weigh their options, be analytical in their job search, and make decisions that leave them confident in the final outcome. Part of that responsibility is helping my candidates to strategize about their career when the job they want for the long-term unfortunately may be out of reach in the short-term.
More than a few times in my years of recruiting, I’ve watched otherwise-highly marketable mid-level associate attorneys who want to make a move apply only for jobs for which they are just not viable candidates. The most common of these scenarios are associate attorneys looking to move in-house prematurely and associates looking to retool. These lawyers are effectively asking employers to think outside of the box with their candidacy despite the highly competitive market.
Spend a few years in legal search, and certain truths will become evident. For instance, the loudest call for legal recruiters’ services is from top-ranked law firms to have us identify, vet, and introduce “square pegs” to fill proverbial square holes. While I have successfully and creatively placed “out-of-the-box” associates whose introduction required me to present a carefully crafted narrative on the candidates’ behalf, those outcomes are the exception to the rule. Lawyers hoping to make a move are less likely to succeed when too much explaining is needed as to why they do not fit the requirements of the role they seek. If someone is determined to retool their practice, they must clearly communicate a few core elements; why are you switching? What experiences led you to that specific practice? What relevant skills and training do you bring to the practice? What is the benefit to the firm?
With that being said, to increase their likelihood of obtaining that “dream job,” I advise attorneys who find themselves in search of a position which may be out of reach that sometimes it’s best to “pursue what you have to do now in order to do what you want to do later.” In other words, seek opportunities within reach that still offer something qualitatively different from – and more enjoyable than – their current role and which better position them for long-term career success.
The best opportunity sits at a crossroads between four considerations: what you enjoy doing; what you do well; what will open the most doors for you down the road; and what pays you well enough to cover your needs and wants. When choosing their second, or even third, job out of law school, attorneys would be well advised to pay particular attention to the third prong; will a job supplement or otherwise round out their training so that they’ll be prepared to answer when their dream job finally comes calling?
If a lawyer is not yet sufficiently trained to be a viable contender for a dream job, I can help them find a job that will allow them to develop the skills they need for the future. Some examples of these are:
- Firms that boast a strong record for secondment of non-partner lawyers – Many law firms have deep histories and strong relationships with their clients and periodically assign their associates to go in-house with those clients temporarily. This offers the associate valuable experience as an in-house lawyer while further deepening the firm’s relationship with the client.
- Firms with a broader or different client base than the candidate’s firm of origin – many associates only exposure to a certain practice or specialty is obtained in service of clients in a single sector, (e.g., financial services). Joining a law firm that supports clients in another industry (e.g., life sciences or technology) will broaden a candidate’s understanding of and exposure to a practice. It will also expose a lawyer to new companies which might ultimately extend them an offer of employment.
- Firms with lower leverage – Several law firms employ as many as five or six associates for every partner. Associates stationed at such firms frequently find that a move to a firm with lower leverage will get a chance to work hand in glove with partners. They will also enjoy steadier client contact. All of this will expose them to new training opportunities and has the potential to make them better lawyers over time.
- Firms with free market systems for assigning work to non-partners – Free market systems, or firms that allow associates to put their hands up when they’re ready to take on new matters, reward those who proactively seek work. It lets them work on a broader variety of matters with a wider range of potential mentors (and potentially a wider client base). A lawyer who wants to broaden her practice to include a new component has a better chance of capturing that sort of work that she wishes to do more of.
Mid-level associate lawyers who don’t find professional satisfaction in their current roles and who are not yet marketable for the sorts of opportunities they seek have not reached the end of the road. Rather, they must work to figure out what changes they can make that will help them inch towards their ultimate goal. It’s my job to present options that offer career development while positioning them to ultimately get to where they want to be, professionally speaking. And ultimately, it’s important to remember, sometimes progress means that you must move over to move up.
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Valerie A. Phillips, Esq.
Senior Director, Associates, Counsel, Partners
Mestel & Company, New York