Trying to Figure Out Your Legal Career? Expert Advice From a Career Guru

Katie SlaterToday we’ve got a really fantastic interview with Katie Slater, founder of Career Infusion Coaching. Katie spent seven years as a BigLaw associate then went in-house for a few years at an international energy company. Now she puts her extensive legal experience to work in a new way — helping dissatisfied lawyers transition into more suitable roles.

She’s generously agreed to share her expertise, so let’s get this show on the road!

Alison: I’m a law student, and I’m not entirely sure which area of law I want to pursue. What should I be thinking about, and doing, to help me decide?

The first thing I would urge all law students to consider long and hard is: what is your goal?

I know for many of you, the immediate goal is to get a job that will help you start re-paying your loans!

But put that aside for a minute — actually consider what kind of career, and life, do you want in the short and long term?

One example: Consider where you want to live long term. If you want as part of your goal to still practice law, think about the considerations of that legal market. A lawyer I know who started his career in New York but whose goal was to return to Texas as a lawyer realized that he had to ensure that he had the opportunity to experience a variety of corporate work, as the Texas legal market often prefers people who are not highly specialized.

Once you understand what you would like long-term, then you have to figure out what kind of job, or area of law, will allow you to have the life you envision.

You will need to ask yourself various questions. For example:

  • If you think you might want to do public interest or government law, what are the big policy issues that seem to be looming on the horizon in the next few years — nationally and in your region? Two examples are health care policy (whatever happens to the Obama administration’s reforms, we are facing all sorts of legal issues around healthcare in the next 50 years) and water rights (that’s going to be a huge issue, particularly in the western part of the country, over the next 50 years). Do any of those issues grab you? Or other issues? Are you okay with not making a lot of money, but having (sometimes) better hours and perhaps better benefits, and working for a broader societal goal?
  • If you want to work in-house, what size or type of company would you be interested in working for? What do such entities need from their in-house counsel? For example, many public medium- to large-size companies will have a corporate law generalist in-house, with experience in securities laws, particularly securities filings. This means they tend to look for people who have worked in medium or large firms for a few years. Do you like working in teams? Are you comfortable being a generalist or, possibly, a Jack or Jill of all trades? Are you interested in budgeting and cost control?
  • If you want to make quite a lot of money at least in the short term, you probably will need to work in Biglaw. You will want to find out what areas the major law firms are currently hiring for (or not letting people go in). Unfortunately, many firms are still not up to pre-recession hiring levels, but there are some bright spots — energy mergers & acquisitions, for example, is still doing okay. Are you okay with long and unpredictable hours?

To figure all of this out, you have to use some analytical and research ability. Fortunately, those are things all lawyers have in spades!

Your main research should be to ask people in the job or field you are curious about for the scoop. Informational interviewing should become your second job.

It’s free information from a person who can give you the good, the bad and the ugly — something difficult to discern from online research (you typically get just the good, just the bad or just the ugly). Plus, if you prepare well, are polite, and ask good questions — you’ve just made a great impression with a contact in your potential future area.

As you think about this, make sure you are being honest with yourself about what you like or dislike and what kind of environment you thrive in.

Do you want to interact with different types of people, or do you like being holed up in your office, researching and producing work? What subjects or types of things have you always enjoyed doing in school or in other jobs — think of everything from subjects you liked the most to which associations you enjoyed belonging to and roles you had the most fun filling.

For example, I really loved my courses in development economics and emerging countries when I was an undergraduate. I sat down in the summer between my first and second year and thought about how I could possibly do anything related to that in a law firm. I did some research online about practice areas, spoke to an established lawyer I knew in Biglaw, and discovered a type of transactional practice called project finance, where you work on financial transactions that fund development projects all over the world. I looked into what firms were some of the major players in the area, and focused my efforts on them — my first job was with one of the firms I targeted in my research.

Of course, any plan is subject to the curve balls that life throws at us!

I didn’t end up doing project finance until about eight years into my career. But I did end up practicing a similar type of finance, and really enjoyed the intellectual challenges and international work that was involved.

You spend a lot of time coaching attorneys through career transitions. What three things do you find people consistently do, or think, that prevent them from moving in the direction of the career and life they really want?

The number one thing that stops most people — lawyers or otherwise — from changing is, basically, dirty old fear.

Lawyers often have a tremendous amount of fear.

It manifests itself differently and like all people, we have our own unique fears, each quite real to us. However, one pretty constant one for lawyers is what I call the “homeless under a bridge” fear — that is, if you leave your current unhappy situation or even try to change or improve it in some way, you will never find another job or gainful employment, or you will get fired from your current gig and end up homeless under a bridge. It is simply not true, but it is very deeply rooted in many of us.

I will own up to having had this fear for years!

Financial security is a huge value for many lawyers, and they often feel so stuck because they cannot see any other means of achieving it except in their current jobs.

That’s where a coach can be a great help — we can provide alternative perspectives, and teach people ways to overcome their fears to move in the direction they want.

The second thing that I’ve discovered that often prevents lawyers from getting what they want (at least in the short term) is failing to understand the value of networks.

I don’t mean doing mindless networking at various lawyer events, but rather, understanding that opportunities, whether we are talking about developing business (required for pretty much any lawyer), new job possibilities or career advancements, almost always come from people you know or you have a connection with in some way who understand what you offer.

For a variety of reasons, lawyers tend to not cultivate relationships as much as they should until they have to, and it takes a while to build an effective network.

Start while you are in law school, and make sure you keep in touch with people you like and respect when you graduate. Connect with them at least twice a year, preferably in person, and have a proper conversation with real listening.

Do the same with your undergraduate relationships, and people you connect with in any organizations you join along the way.

There is a lot of great advice online about effective and authentic networking — go find it. It’s something that all lawyers need to incorporate into their practices, starting now.

Third, I have to add some advice for young lawyers, so they don’t get locked down and become unable to move in a new direction.

Keep your living expenses down once you have a job, so you don’t get used to a certain lifestyle and the income level of that position.

You will increase your options if you aren’t obligated to maintain a certain income level. It’s not insolvable if you do get stuck in that situation, but it takes more discipline to climb down from a higher spending level than if you don’t go up that much in the first place.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in an average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

One thing that I love about my job now is that there never really is a typical day!

A day can include everything from me coaching a client on Skype, then going to lunch with someone I’ve met through an association to talk about what we do, to developing a new tool for clients and practicing a presentation to be given to a young professionals group in Houston.

I caught up with a former law school classmate the other day who is also running her own business, and I was laughing with her about how I never would have thought in law school that I would end up doing something like this.

Back then, I couldn’t see past the first few years of practicing in a law firm! While I am not one that has always had the dream of being an entrepreneur and small business owner, I am really enjoying the challenge of building a business (Like many lawyers, I always was one for a challenge!).

And, I get to use my experience and my interests to help people get more of what they want and deserve, which is, frankly, awesome.

— – —

Or you can read Katie’s fantastic 5-part series: Job Hunting for 3Ls and Recent Law Grads.

Have questions about your legal career? Leave them in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Mark Jones says:

    Well, fantastic advise to say the least, I really like the fact that after reading this article you feel completely different about yourself and the future prospect.
    Doing a law degree in my opinion is very rewarding, but sometimes it can be frustrating because you hear so many graduates not been able to find jobs, problems with the economy and so on, but I hope that with the advise I got today I’ll be able to plan my future better.

    Thanks
    Mark

    • Certainly it’s a tough job environment, but I continue to think there are opportunities, with the right mindset!

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