Telling Your Story

In the legal world, credentials and experience are extremely important, and often determinative as to what types of opportunities will be available to you for both short and long-term employment.  But when I am evaluating whether to work with a particular candidate and how successful I think they might be on the lateral market, one of the first and most important things I need a candidate to tell me is why they are looking to move jobs.

You would (or maybe you wouldn’t) be surprised at how many would-be candidates either have not given this question sufficient thought, especially given the fact that they are making a decision that will impact their lifestyle and career for many years to come.  As a would-be lateral candidate, you are asking other people, other professionals, to buy into you, to invest time, effort, and in the law firm world a whole lot of money, into you.  On top of the credentials and experience a firm needs to service its client base and expand its future business opportunities (and too many candidates make the mistake of not understanding that firms are absolutely a business first and foremost), you need a compelling story.

When I was interviewing for law firm jobs, I found myself across the desk from the chair of the litigation group at the head office of the firm I would eventually join (and which is now the largest firm in the world).  Yes, he looked at my resume and saw my law school, my journal membership, my appellate clinic experience, and everything else on the single page intended to provide the best possible window into my background.  But what the interview and conversation really focused on was my perspective on what it meant to be a litigator.

It has been nearly a decade since that day, so this is not a direct quote, but what I simply told the partner was that, when boiled down to its essential elements, the heart of being a litigator is simply telling a story.  Your client has a story.  The other side has a story.  And your job is to take everything you can within the case, the facts, the law, the psychology of the judge (and jury, if applicable), and to tell a convincing story about why a decision for your client is the correct outcome.  Much to my delight, since I was trying to convince this partner to hire me, he sat back in his chair, smiled, and said “that’s exactly how I look at litigating too.”  Yes, there is a lot more that goes into it in terms of technical details, discovery practices, evidence, the applicable law, but at the end of the day, as a litigator you are telling the best story you can.

Circling back to your own career as a would-be lateral candidate, you need to be able to tell your own story convincingly enough that the people in charge at a firm, and preferably your top choice of firm, want to bring you on board.  Let me rephrase that – you do not just need to tell your own story convincingly, but you need to have a convincing story to begin with.  And that can take a lot more thought and a lot more work than most attorney candidates might imagine, or would like to invest in their own search.

So why are you looking to change jobs?

If it’s because you are looking to move to a different part of the country, why are you wanting to move there?  Unless you have close family there, or your fiancee or spouse already moved out ahead of you, there needs to be a compelling reason behind your decision.  You are trying to convince a firm to invest in you and your career, both in terms of the opportunity cost of choosing you above all other potential candidates, but also in terms of moving expenses, salary, training, support staff, and the time and energy it will take the partners and other associates to bring you into their matters and get you up to speed.  If you’ve only visited an area a couple of times, and just happened to “like” it, that is not very convincing, especially to firms in smaller cities and legal markets.  They want to hear that you know a lot about the region, that your desire to be there in the long term is greater than your desire to be somewhere else, and that you will stick around.  So give it as much thought as required so that a solid answer will roll off your tongue when the question inevitably comes up in an interview.

If you are looking to change jobs because you are unhappy at your current firm, you will need a compelling story about why you are unhappy (i.e., you are being pigeonholed into a practice area you do not like, and NOT that the hours are too long or you have difficulty getting along with the partners).  If your story is that you are tired of working big firm hours, or that you’ve been at the firm for a couple months but it isn’t working out because of hours, a clash of personalities, or because the work is not what you expected, you are basically telling a story that you are not a dedicated, hard-working attorney, did not do your due diligence in researching your current firm, and are not a team player.  Your ideal story is that you are on an upward trajectory at your smaller firm, and want bigger and more sophisticated opportunities at a larger firm.  Or, alternately, you have been very successful at your larger firm and have a number of prospective clients, and the only thing getting in the way of developing your own significant book of business is the prohibitively high billing rates at your current large firm, which is why you are seeking to join a sophisticated mid-sized or boutique firm.

If you are looking to change jobs because you want a higher salary (an extremely common reason among job seekers I talk to who are in solo or small practices), it is fine for you to want to make more money, but you will have to tell your story in a compelling manner to a firm as to why you are worth more than you currently make and will provide more value to the firm than any competing candidate for their open position.  If you are struggling to attract and retain clients at your current firm or solo practice, what are you bringing to the table to your would-be future firm in exchange for a higher regular salary?  Perhaps some of your clients have legal matters that require a larger and more sophisticated set of services than you or your current firm can provide, and thus by joining a larger firm you can expand both your own business and bring in additional business to that future firm.  But if that is the case, you need to be able to tell that story in your business plan and interview responses in a detailed and compelling manner.

As a legal recruiter, it is my job to inform a firm why the candidate I am representing to them is the best candidate for their open position, and will bring significant value to the firm’s practice expertise and, above all, their bottom line.  Similarly, our client firms ask us to convince top candidates that their firm is the best home for that candidate and their book of business – still telling a story, just with the roles flipped.  At the end of the day, attorneys have all sorts of reasons why they are seeking to switch jobs, but you will not have a successful search unless you first get your story straight.

How to Handle a Big Law Layoff

As a recruiter, I occasionally encounter candidates who have been laid off by their firms.  At most AmLaw 100 firms, the dismissal is handled in a fairly civilized manner.  The candidate is taken aside and told that “things are not working out”; and that he has approximately three months to find a new position.  During this three month grace period, the firm usually allows the candidate to continue to use the office, keep his profile page on the firm website, and generally maintain the appearance of employment while he pursues a new position.

Reactions to the Dismissal

Candidates who are dismissed from their firms often experience a variety of reactions.  They are angry, hurt, frustrated, and sometimes even confused.   Questions like “What did I do?”, “Why is this happening to me?”, and “How will I ever find another job?” are very common.  Often a candidate did not “do” anything.  When you are dealing with candidates who have been high enough achievers all their lives to even get a job at an AmLaw 100 firm, then it becomes increasingly unlikely that they actually did anything to precipitate their dismissals. It is more often the case that the firm (or more specifically the candidate’s practice group) is slow, and since the firm is unwilling to admit that they are slow, they decide to tell the candidate that “things are not working out”.  Another fairly common scenario is that the candidate got on the wrong side of the wrong partner in the group, and his entire existence is now colored by his experience with that partner.  In fact, the very way candidates who have been dismissed are treated – e.g. given a three month grace period – suggests that the firm knows that the candidate is not wholly (or may be even partially) at fault.  Take solace in this perspective; be grateful for your grace period; and focus on finding a new position.

References Are Critical

When I encounter a candidate who is being dismissed, I ask him whether he can obtain references.  In the last ten years, firms have begun to take the position that they do not give references for departing attorneys regardless of the manner in which the attorney is departing.  Firms will merely confirm dates of employment.  Occasionally, when a firm has this policy a partner (who likes the candidate and knows the real reason the candidate is being dismissed) will act “off the record”.  Other times, a candidate can reach out to a partner or senior associate with whom he worked but who is no longer with the firm; and, therefore, can act as a reference.  If neither of these options is available, then the candidate must be able to provide references from law school, a clerkship, or perhaps even another law firm where he summered.  It is imperative that a candidate be able to provide references both for the new firm, and also for me.  I will not work with a candidate who cannot provide references because I value my clients – the law firms – and I do not want to jeopardize my relationships with them by submitting a candidate who may be a difficult or problematic employee.

Maintain Your Hours at a Respectable Level during Grace Period

It is hard to show up at a law firm where you have been dismissed, and no one is going to minimize how difficult it may be to show up every day for three months while you try to find a new position.  I am not going to make life easier by telling you that not only must you show up for work each day, but I highly recommend actually doing some work while you are there.  I make this recommendation because a new trend among law firms is to have all candidates – not just partners – complete a Lateral Hiring Questionnaire (“LHQ”) as part of the hiring process.   The LHQ always asks for your hours to date.  If you learned that you were being dismissed in February (and stopped doing billing), and you are completing a LHQ in May, and you only have 350 hours for the year, then it is going to raise questions that you probably do not want to answer.  In all likelihood, the new firm will figure out that you have been laid off, and may even pull the offer.  It is critical that you continue to bill hours while you look for a new position.  You can even explain to your current firm that you do not want to be in a position where you are accepting a check each week, but not doing any work.  I am confident that they will find some project you to handle so that you can stay busy, and be honest when completing your LHQ.

Keep Track of Your Submissions and Engage a Committed Recruiter

Usually, I do not need to tell a dismissed candidate that he should submit his resume as broadly as possible.  Often I have the opposite problem.  A candidates may be so anxious that he thinks that using multiple recruiters and submitting to the same openings repeatedly will increase his chances of getting interviews and offers.  It will not.  If anything, this scattershot approach – much like suspiciously low hours – will be a red flag to new employers.  A dismissed candidate who has been laid off should absolutely explore all possible job opportunities, including jobs in different geographic locations; however, he should keep track of his submissions so that he does not submit multiple applications.  In addition, a dismissed candidate will have much better results if he finds one recruiter who really believes in him and wants to invest time in his search.  One committed and experienced recruiter is worth more than ten experienced but less than dedicated recruiters.

Conclusion

Weathering a dismissal from an AmLaw 100 firm is challenging.  It is absolutely normal to experience a wide range of emotions and reactions.  Feel your feelings, but do not wallow in self-pity or agonize over the past.  Accept the things you cannot change; and you most certainly cannot change the past.  Focus instead on the future.  Who will you use for references?  Having excellent references is critical.  Who at your firm will continue to give you work?  Seek out that person and maintain your hours.  It is likely that you will be asked about your hours to date by your new employer.  Who will help you with your search?  Find a reputable and dedicated recruiter who understands your predicament and believes in you.  Multiple submissions are not a good idea, but a focused and experienced recruiter who genuinely knows that market and is loyal to you is invaluable.  As the saying goes . . . “Stay calm and carry on!”

Choosing a Recruiter: Red Flags to Watch Out For

The job market has vastly improved for attorneys in 2015. That means that many attorneys are thinking of making a move; seeking a better salary, a better lifestyle, a different city, or another practice area.  You may be getting multiple cold calls during the workday, most of which you quickly dismiss.  But how in the world do you go about vetting a recruiter, and deciding which one you want to work with?

Probably the most reliable way to get a great recruiter is through friends or colleagues who have worked with her.    However, not everyone has access to someone through these channels, or they don’t know who to ask.  If you feel you need to choose from among the recruiters who are contacting you, or the ones you can find online, here are some red flags to definitely watch out for.

  1. She Asks You For Money.

If you have never worked with a recruiter before, know this: a good recruiter will never, ever ask you for money.  Reputable recruiters have law firms for clients.  They pay us well, and you pay us nothing.  Recruiters who do not have law firm clients paying them are probably not recruiters you want to be working with. While some services like resume services or job boards with exclusive listings may require payment, legal recruiters do not make their money by charging the attorneys we place. In short, if a recruiter has to ask job-seeking attorneys for a fee, they are not making their money making placements, and you should probably keep looking.

  1. She Doesn’t Understand The Legal Market

Many legal recruiters are former practicing attorneys or have a background as placement coordinators in law firms.   This enables them to truly understand what attorneys do.  Ask your recruiter if all they do is place within the legal industry (preferably only attorneys).  If they are also placing accountants, IT people, restaurant and zoological workers, they probably don’t truly know what you do all day as a Derivatives, ERISA or IP attorney.  Handling multiple industries is just too much for a recruiter to really understand them all.  If they handle more markets than just legal, please proceed with caution, and make sure they understand your profession as well as you do.

  1. She Doesn’t Know Your Geographic Area

Similarly, many recruiters attempt to handle the whole country, or even the whole world.  I clearly remember when I was an associate at a major law firm, I was approached by a recruiter who was working out of his home somewhere in South Florida.  I was trying to make a move from DC to Chicago, and it quickly became clear that he didn’t understand where I was coming from (DC is a very special legal market), and was attempting to market me as someone I wasn’t.   He just wanted to get a hold of my resume and plaster it all over Chicago without understanding which firms might actually be interested in someone with my background.

While no recruiter is going to be able to know each and every firm, she should have an idea what type of firm you are coming from, what practice areas your firm is known for, what types of clients it services.  Then she can assess, using her knowledge of the firms in your target geographic area and her research skills, where you might fit.  Beware of recruiters who don’t seem to understand what type of practice you are coming from, and are sending you openings where you obviously would not fit.

  1. She Is Pushy and You Don’t Feel Comfortable

A great recruiter is flush with great candidates and great connections.  She makes a comfortable living doing what she does, and is not desperate to make a quick placement; she’s more interested in her long-term reputation in the community, so placing you in a position where you will be happy long-term, and where the law firm will be happy with you, in her long term interest.  A good recruiter is not trying to make a quick buck by placing you in a position where you will not last.

While I often encourage my candidates to keep an open mind and talk to as many firms as possible, even ones you think you don’t want to work at, you should also listen to your gut feeling.  Here are some things to be very cautious of: Is the recruiter trying to push you to fudge your skill set?  To exaggerate your book of business?  When you say you are not interested in a particular opening, will she not take no for an answer?  Do you feel like she is trying to sell you something you don’t want?  Here’s my advice: If your gut tells you something is fishy in the way she conducts business, run a mile.

In sum, a good recruiter should know almost as much about your practice area as you do.  She should know which firms in your target geographic area might be interested in someone with your specific background.  She should truly listen to what you want and, while it is great for her to be overinclusive in presenting options to you, she should listen when you say no, and move on.  She should not pressure you to pretend to be someone you’re not so that she can make a quick placement.  A great recruiter will not try to sell you anything you don’t want, and is happy to take her time to ensure the right fit for you.

Do-It-Yourself Interview Prep

One of the most effective things you can do to prep for interviews is to practice interviewing.  Get ahold of a list of frequently asked interview questions (your recruiter should have one) and have a friend ask you the questions on the list.  Put aside an hour for the interview.  Note where you stumble, or where you feel like you didn’t give the best answer; it is fine to take notes while you are doing this portion.  When you hit roadblocks, think about how you would best answer each question, and take your time thinking about what you want to say before you answer.  Then practice once more; your answers should go more smoothly this time.

Once you’ve practiced your answers a couple of times and feel like you have solidified the substance of what you’re going to say, record yourself.  Most people have a smartphone nowadays, so you can video yourself as well.  Here are some common interview killers you can watch and listen for.  You probably don’t even know you’re doing them:

  • Saying “um” or “you know” too frequently;
  • Talking too quickly;
  • Acting stiff or unnatural;
  • Talking too much, and launching into long answers without stopping first to think about what you are going to say before opening your mouth;
  • Fidgeting, like rocking back and forth, picking at nails or hair;
  • Changes in the tone of your voice. Do you become animated when talking on certain topics, but not others?
  • Talking too loudly;
  • Failure to make eye contact or smile.

You might be surprised what you discover about yourself if you record and watch yourself interview.  If you do this, I can guarantee you will feel far more confident, and will interview more effectively when it is time for the real interview.

Joining a Law Firm as Either Partner or Of Counsel

I recently submitted a partner candidate to a large law firm.  He was in his 40’s, and had a book of business of around $500K – $600K.  Everything during the interviews went great.  But then late in the process (actually at the offer stage), we learned that the firm would not be hiring the partner as a “partner,” but rather as an “of counsel” with the expectation that after a certain number of months when the appropriate firm committee was scheduled to meet, he would be elevated to (income) partner.  He was told that this was the result of a new “policy” in which every partner candidate came in as of counsel, regardless of how much business they had.

Although I had warned him that this sort of thing was becoming more common with the big firms, the candidate was not happy with this news.  The candidate was an income partner in his present firm, and income partners in the prospective firm were normally required to show that they had at least $500K in business.  So under the circumstances, the candidate had the reasonable expectation that he would join the firm as an income partner.  There were three other good reasons for this expectation.  First, the usual way lateral partners changed firms was that they were given the same title they had in their prior firm and/or at least the same title as an attorney inside the firm with an equivalent amount of business.  Second, it is in everybody’s best interest to bring in a partner candidate as a “partner” in order to assist the candidate in further business development.  Third, the law firm did not appear to have anything to gain with this “policy,” other than an increased risk of losing high quality partner candidates with business.

It used to be that “of counsel” was a title reserved for retired, part-time or former partners (such as judges) that still had a limited relationship with the firm.  The term has also been used for more senior attorneys who do not or cannot develop business and/or otherwise make partner, but have some sort of rare and valuable specialty or quality that has allowed them to keep a job in the firm.  Now, we are seeing increasing use of the term for what are effectively “probationary” partners.  Some firms limit the use of this “of counsel” policy to partners who have a limited amount of business, perhaps below the firm’s threshold for income partner.  That kind of limited use of this kind of policy is more understandable.  But other firms, like the one in my example, generally refuse to grant any lateral any kind of partnership status regardless of the circumstance.  In my situation, we were able to resolve the issue by having the partner wait until the time the committee met and then was granted partnership right after he joined the firm, thus effectively eliminating the required “probationary” of counsel period.

The lesson to be learned here is that you should find out early in the process what “policies” the firm may have for lateral partners.  If the firm has a policy that you are not comfortable with, you should seek to negotiate a workable solution.  If that does not work, you will have to decide if the opportunity is good enough to justify the change of title.  It is often not a major deal and as a result many partner candidates accept the change in order to get into the right firm.  But this change in title, even if temporary, may not be acceptable to everyone for every firm.

Weighing Your Job Offer

As a recruiter, it is always an exciting thing when one of my candidates generates immediate interest from law firms, and even more exciting when a first interview turns into a first offer.

Believe it or not, however, there can also be a downside to this situation, the problem being when a candidate hesitates on the offer or interview because of this immediate and seemingly effortless success.

Yes, there are some practice areas that are so hot, and some candidates whose resumes and experience are so strong, that they are all but guaranteed multiple interviews, and likely multiple job offers in their lateral search process, but for all the new hiring and recovery we have seen in the lateral attorney market across the board, interviews and job offers are far from being a dime a dozen.  More like a dollar a dozen.  Or twenty.  You catch my drift.

As a candidate entering into your lateral job search, and especially if you have a strong background and happen to practice in an area that is currently very much in demand, you should mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of a quick interview and offer process.  Paradoxically, you should also mentally prepare yourself to have to wait quite some time before anything concrete materializes.  In either case, however, if you do happen to be one of the lucky attorneys who does get quick action on your job search, you should be prepared to decide quickly and possibly accept that first offer.

We have seen too many candidates who hesitate or turn down their initial job offers, even when they really like the firm(!), because they become stuck in the mentality of needing to weigh options, or explore what else is out there, even when we inform them that this first quick offer may be the only offer for months, or that it was a very pleasant surprise because their practice area is otherwise generally slow in the overall market.

Yes, recruiters have an interest in getting you into a job.  But they also know the market very, very well.  You should certainly ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable about making a decision to join a new firm, and make sure you know what you are getting into with that particular firm, but the bottom line is that when a solid job offer presents itself, it is very much advisable to accept it, or at least give it very serious consideration given the relatively tentative state of the current hiring market.  Sometimes the worst regrets are the chances you *don’t* take.

As always, best of luck with your job search!

Special Opportunities for Solo Practitioners

The current market is stronger than it has been in years.  If you are a solo practioner who has been given any thought to the possibility of joining a firm, now is the time to explore this option.   There are multiple advantages to working in a firm.  But the primary advantage is that it is much easier to develop clients, grow your practice and increase your compensation.  This is the primary reason why solo practioners consider moving into a firm.  When you are a solo, you have to spend a great deal of time trying to bring in new clients.  In a law firm, they make it easier for you to get new work from both your current clients and prospective new clients.

Firms do this in three primary ways.  First, they allow you to “cross-market.”  Say that you are a solo commercial litigator.  Whenever you obtain work in a different area, such as corporate, RE or ERISA, you have to refer it out to some other attorney who can do the work.  As a result, you are unable to get any credit or compensation for the work.  But if you are in the right kind of firm, you could send such work to your partners in the appropriate departments.  You get credit for it, and you get paid for it.  Plus your partners get more work.  Everybody wins.

Second, you can get additional clients and work by using the flip side of cross-marketing.  Again, if you are a commercial litigation partner in a firm, you can be introduced to the many clients serviced by other lawyers in other practice areas.  This allows you the opportunity to market your services and obtain more work from other clients of the firms.  This is also a huge advantage over being a solo.  As the saying goes, it is far easier to get business from a client you already have than from a stranger client that is being solicited by numerous other lawyers.

Third, even with respect to soliciting “stranger” or prospective new clients for business, there are major advantages in doing it as a partner of a reputable firm.  Not only are there the cross-marketing opportunities, but there is also the greater prestige, reach and resources that the firm offers to prospective clients.

The bottom line is that for solo practioners now is the perfect time to contact a top notch recruiter and investigate firm opportunities.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  If you find the right firm, your work and your income will substantially increase.  If you don’t, you have lost nothing and still have obtained valuable knowledge.  Perhaps soloing really is best for you.  But can you be sure without investigating the alternatives?

How Many Firms Should I Apply To?

This question has multiple meanings, and thus multiple answers.  If asked with respect to a job search in general, the obvious answer is “as many as is necessary to find the right job.”  But not all job searches are the same.  There are some job searches where the attorney is reasonably happy where they are and thus is not “actively looking” for a new job.  Nevertheless, for purposes of exploration, education and other good reasons, the attorney is taking a look at select firms in order to compare them to the present firm.  If it turns out that the attorney finds something significantly better during their more limited search, then they will make a move.  If they do not, then they will stay where they are for the time being.

But with respect to the more common open-ended search for a new job, the question I hear most often from my candidates is how many firms should I apply to initially?  The usual answer to this question is “as many as you can handle.”  Once again, the goal in a typical job search is to find that new job as soon as possible.  This means you should work as hard and as long as it takes to accomplish your goal.  On the other hand, there are necessary limits that you must recognize.  The two biggest limits are time and energy.  If you are still working full time (or more realistically for an attorney, more than full time) you are only going to have so much time and energy that you can dedicate to interviews and other necessary aspects of the search.  If you are unemployed, however, then you will have much more time and energy at your disposal for your job search.  Consequently, you should put some kind of appropriate limit on the number of initial applications based on these two limiting factors.

The other factor is the strength of your credentials.  Are you likely to generate a significant number of interviews from a relatively small number of applications?  If so, you do not need to send out as many initial applications to get to your estimated limit of interviews that you can handle at one time.  If, however, it is more likely to take a larger number of applications before you get an interview, then you should take that into account and maximize the number of initial applications that you send out.  As interviews come in, you continue to manage your time and energy limitations in determining how many subsequent applications to send out.

The other reason you should have as many applications as possible – both initial and subsequent — is that you want to be able to interview with as many firms as possible.  In this way, you can best learn about different firms and educate yourself on what kind of firm works best for you and your practice.  If you just jump on the first offer that comes along, there is a possibility that you have not had a chance to fully investigate your options.  On the other hand, there can be very good reasons for accepting that first offer.  One good reason would be if offers are going to be very few and far between, and this option is likely to be your best option.  Another good reason would be that you just happened to have just hit upon the right firm on your first try.  This is unusual, but it does happen.  In that situation, you do not need further investigation.  You have already reached your goal.

The Timing of Transition

I speak with countless attorneys who tell me they would like to switch practice areas, some very early in their career, and some many years beyond law school.  Those who are more than 1-2 years out of school will invariably say they are “willing to start over as a first year,” or “take a big salary cut” to get into the practice area they want, and believe that firms will jump at the opportunity to get a “discount” on an experienced (in another practice area) attorney for a first-year salary.

Plainly and simply, jumping to a new practice area is a very difficult, and often entirely unrealistic move to make.  The following are just a few reasons why:

-Structuring and client optics.  I have written more extensively about this before, but at the bottom line, most law firms do not want to hire more senior attorneys at a “discount.”  Maybe one or two years adjusted from an attorney’s graduating class year, especially if that attorney has been in house, which most law firms do not view as the equivalent in work experience or training relative to years spent at a large law firm.  But by and large and medium size firms tend to be fairly rigid in their class year composition (smaller and boutique firms less so).  Reasons include wanting to structure their practice groups and overall attorney staffing to ensure a consistent flow of promotion and advancement at the appropriate class and skill level; not being able to justify higher billing rates on their client matters by staffing more senior attorneys (and on the flipside wanting to avoid the optics of a client wondering why a Class of 2002 attorney is being billed out at a first-year rate and the perception of that attorney not being “good”); and wanting to avoid turnover when a more senior and skilled attorney gets bored doing lower-level work and sees another lateral opportunity on the market when the economy improves.

-Training.  It costs a lot for a firm to hire and train an attorney, and even if you are one of the best mid-level litigators the 21st Century has ever seen, a firm with a dire need for a mid-level transactional associate because of a large client matter is not going to want to spend the time or effort required to re-train that attorney into an entirely different practice group.  They also cannot justify billing out that attorney at their appropriate class year if the attorney does not have comparable skills, in which case you are talking about a class year discount, which gets into the issues in the section above.

-Perception.  If you are 4-5 years out of law school, and all of a sudden want to switch practice groups entirely and “start over” from the bottom, just imagine for a second how that is going to look to a prospective employer.  Will they be overjoyed they get a more senior attorney at a discount, or will they be wary that this candidate did not demonstrate the foresight to pick the right practice area to begin with, or have the fortitude and commitment to stick it out and be successful in their current practice area?  Most job seekers tend to employ at least a little bit of wishful and creative thinking, which is great when you are trying to market yourself to a particular position where your skill set might not be an exact fit, but this can be a liability if it leads to being completely unrealistic in terms of your lateral job search.

All of this is to say that if you are going to transition to an entirely new practice area, say from litigation to transactions, it can be done (and I have placed a number of candidates in this manner), but it must be done within your first two or so years of practice.  Any later than that, and you begin to run into the huge wall of issues above.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to transition into a practice area that is at least moderately related to work you were doing before, say going from commercial litigation to labor and employment litigation, or going from corporate transactional work to technology transactions, there is a lot more potential to have this be a viable option even 3-5 years out in your career.  Any more senior than that, and it becomes an extremely difficult proposition if you are targeting medium to large size law firms.

The broader lesson is to really think hard about what type of practice you want to have before leaving law school, and try as hard as you can to get into that practice area, or at least a closely related practice area, because there is a fairly small window of a couple of years to make a large change once you have started your career.

Modesty is Not the Best Policy

Attorneys are generally risk-averse.  Because of this tendency, in interviews, we want to manage the expectations of whoever might hire us so that they are not disappointed once they figure out we are not fluent in all aspects of our practice.  Therefore, often, attorneys lead by talking about what we can’t do, rather than what we can do.  This is a mistake, and it is also completely unnecessary.

I spend a decent amount of my time talking to my candidates about selling themselves effectively during an interview.  Some people do this well naturally, some even need to be toned down a little.  But in most cases, attorneys have a tendency to undersell themselves during an interview.   This is especially true of junior-level attorneys who lack confidence in their overall abilities.  I have also seen it in attorneys who have taken a career break, are trying to expand a very specialized skill set, or are trying to transition to a different area of the law.

Instead, always lead with your strengths.  The direction of this discussion, in an interview setting, is often up to you, because the interviewer will ask something open-ended like, “Tell me about your experience.”  You can start by talking about the area in which you have the most expertise, or the area in which you have the most interest, describing your relevant experience.  Let your enthusiasm come through during this discussion- this is another great tool in selling yourself effectively.  If you have experience that is not exactly on point but translates well to the job you are targeting, be sure to discuss that experience and point out that it is similar to whatever duties you may be asked to perform. While I am not suggesting that you should ever represent that your experience is greater or different from what it actually is, you can do yourself a lot of favors by emphasizing the positive in this manner.

Let your interviewers follow up on areas of experience that you may not have mentioned.  If you do not possess the experience they are asking for, again, talk about similar work that you have done in another area of the law, and point out in detail how it might translate to their practice.  If you really feel that you have no skills to offer to a certain part of the set required, you can simply say so, or point out that you are willing to learn.

If you are interviewing, it is because someone at the firm saw something on your resume that they thought they could use.  Emphasize that thing, whatever it is.  Don’t spend time telling them about everything that won’t help them.    They probably want you for what you can already do, so focus on that and don’t worry about the rest.