This month marks the longest recession since the 1930s , and the worst legal job market in decades. It’s scary out there, but Sheila Nielsen, a Chicago law career consultant and former federal prosecutor, has some suggestions for the newly unemployed. Nielsen spoke at a recent Chicago Bar Association event, and we present a few excerpts from that presentation:
“… There is no question that the economic crisis is having a huge impact on the legal workplace. Big firms, especially the aspiring global players, are doing some heavy pruning. Cutting away lawyers in less productive practice groups, and all of them trying to land jobs at other firms with the same slow practice areas.
So how do you find a job in this incredibly difficult legal market:
You’ve got to be your own recruiter. Direct your search efforts to places in the market where there is work to do right now or there will be work coming along soon. How do you know what practice areas are hot or will be hot? Stay current. Read the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the local business and legal trades, the law blogs. This way, you learn about mega trends and local trends, and any local gossip that might help make educated predictions about what trends could be fertile ground for a job search, and how to position yourself. This is especially important if you want – or need – to move to the counter-cyclical side of the market. For example, if your practice area was real estate deals, you would want to try to move into workouts. If you practiced in corporate finance, go for liquidations and bankruptcies.
In January, some of the hot pockets for lawyers were intellectual property, patent, benefits, bankruptcy, work outs, liquidations, advising banks on TARP funds, and health care. Last month, more hot practice areas opened up, including litigation, class actions, and white collar crime. And still more are predicted to heat up, among them compliance, estate planning/asset management, and government. Some large cases are said to be in the works at the SEC and the US Attorney’s Offices. That’s likely to generate work for lawyers who do white collar crime, but may also indicate the need for contract (temp) lawyers for document review as well. As large firms shed lawyers, they may well find that when the market heats up again they will need to restock the practice areas, but are likely to be uncertain about the future and reluctant to hire laterals who would be on track for partnership. Many large firms and corporations will want to limit their obligations to their lawyers and to stay agile in a quickly shifting market. Again, that would indicate a proclivity to utilize staff attorneys and/or contract lawyers especially if they are well credentialed.
Network now as if your life depended on it. That means creating and building many, many relationships. It’s this networking “net” that will save you if (or when) your job or your law firm vaporizes … if it hasn’t already. These networking relationships don’t have to be deep or long-standing. But they do require you interact with many people, and that you have an authentic interest and concern for others. A true networker actively works to help others in many little ways. Such as helping a contact out with a referral to a good moving company or nanny service or a lawyer for their son’s DUI. If you take the time to learn something about your contact person, you have an opportunity to engage in small but meaningful good deeds. Good will is hard to quantify, but after more than 30 years in this business, I can say for a fact that what goes around comes around.
Be careful how you use the “J” word. Everyone – recruiters, career services, vocational counselors; even the career section of the Sunday paper – advises job-seekers to network. What they don’t say is to how to network effectively. The conventional wisdom is to talk with everyone you can, tell them you are looking for work, and ask them to let you know if they hear of anything. In my opinion, that’s counter-productive. The moment you utter what I call the “J” word – Job – all your contact wants to do is get off the phone as quickly as possible. My advice to clients is to not even to use the “J” word when they begin to network. When you do, you limit the extent of information you will get in that interaction. Your contact will probably say something like, “Well, I don’t know of anything, but if I hear of something I will call you.” By using the “J” word, you inadvertently cut the conversation short. You don’t learn anything about the market; what’s hot and what’s not. You don’t learn anything about which new law firm in has captured a bankruptcy group that needs to staff up. You don’t learn that one of the associates in that group is a friend of your contact, and who would probably be glad to meet with you.
These days, in this market, you have to be your own recruiter. That’s your job right now. And once you begin, no one will do it as well as you because no one is as motivated as you to get you a job.”
– Sheila Nielsen (www.nielsencareerconsulting.com) is a Chicago-based law career consultant with a national practice. Excerpts used with permission.