Friday, April 12, 2013

          Self-Advocacy in a Competitive Market

          A competitive job market such as we are seeing now requires candidates to ramp up their marketing and self-advocacy efforts.

          The article is reprinted with permission from the April 12, 2013 edition of The Recorder

          by Sari Zimmerman

          We often find that our clients are far more comfortable advocating for others than for themselves, so here are some tips to bear in mind.

          To be a successful candidate, you want to show the employer that you understand that law is a business and that law firms, just like any business, need to think about the bottom line. Firms need to anticipate market trends for their clients and themselves, they need to be responsive to their clients, and — above all — they need to add value. Now more than ever, the client is king: they are dictating terms, scrutinizing bills, and they care deeply about efficiency.

          What does that mean practically for your job search? You need to show firms that you understand these business realities, that you understand their clients, their businesses, that you can get up to speed quickly, and that you know how to cultivate relationships. How? Let's say you're interested in tech transactions. Let the employer know that you follow tech blogs, that you are active in relevant professional associations, that you've had client contact (even if it was a sales manager for an electronics company in college).

          If you're not doing those things, it's never too late to start. Get out there and talk to business managers and in-house counsel. Ask them what matters to them, what business constraints and challenges they are facing, and then turn all this great information into leverage that works for you. Employers these days often want more than a great researcher or writer. They want attorneys who understand how business realities impact their clients' legal issues.

          I recently worked with an alum who had left legal practice for several years to pursue a career in the arts. She was facing a lot of pushback and questions in interviews about her legal "intermission" and was feeling defensive and anxious about how to best present her skills. Through the course of our coaching session, she came to see that her past — her narrative — was her strength. Her time away from the law gave her clarity about the practice of law and the fact that it was the right path for her. She was able to say to employers, "Rather than living with regret, I took the bold move of acting on a dream and had an amazing experience that adds to my life perspective. That departure from the law helped me see that my true home is the law ... specifically X practice area. My path since then has been the path back. When you get me, you get someone who is more dedicated than ever." By embracing her story, rather than apologizing for it, she showed how it added value. Because she wasn't anxious about it anymore, she was able to better shape how employers heard her story.

          Many of us have resumes that could raise questions for employers. Maybe it's a change of practice area, or practice sector (government to private sector or law firm to nonprofit). Maybe you have a gap due to illness or family issues. Maybe your experience in a particular field is all academic, or through activities rather than actual professional experience. Whatever it is, you have the ability in large part to shape the way an employer hears your story. If you are confident and think strategically about how your past adds value, focus on that in your presentation. Rather than apologizing for the lack of formal work experience in a certain field, highlight the coursework, the outside reading and your relevant professional affiliations. Need something to add in that regard? Write an article on the subject and reach out to attorneys in the field to interview them for the article — it's a great outreach tool.

          We hear so many stories from clients that highlight the importance of inviting others into your search. One client who came in recently relayed the story of sitting on BART and falling into conversation about his job search with an attorney in the next seat. That conversation ended up turning into an eventual job interview. My client jokingly said it was a good thing he wasn't wearing his headphones that day. So often when we are wrapped up in our world, we lose track of how simple human connection can turn into great job leads. In the career office we constantly hear job search success stories that started with a conversation on BART, the casual carpool, an intramural sports team event or at the dentist, optometrist, hair salon or manicurist. The takeaway from these stories is to wear your search on your sleeve. It may be the last thing you want to talk about when you're not actively writing resumes, but you ignore serendipity and the role of simple human connection at your peril.

          Here's a message many people won't want to hear: Focusing solely on job listings is dangerous. Why? The bulk of employers never post openings. National surveys consistently show that people find their jobs primarily outside of listings. The two most productive job search approaches are relationship cultivation and initiating contact directly with employers. Let's look at these two techniques separately.

          Relationship cultivation: An employer is staring sadly at a pile of 100 resumes on her desk, wondering how to start going through them. All of a sudden she gets an email or a call from a colleague who says, "I've just forwarded an application from a great recent law grad whom I mentored/supervised/taught and I highly recommend this person." In a flash, that employer's review job is made so much easier. She has a candidate who stands out from the rest by virtue of a recommendation from a trusted colleague. Wouldn't you look at that same candidate differently?

          The more professionals you know in the field that interests you, the better positioned you are to hear about job openings, to get recommendations and referrals, and to stand out. I once worked with a grad in the bottom 10 percent of the class who was hired by an employer who normally hires only from the top of the class. How? This graduate knew respected local attorneys who were willing to pick up the phone and personally vouch for her abilities and her experience.

          There are great books out there on networking. One of my favorites is Building Career Connections by Donna Gerson. Even armed with great advice, you're not alone if you approach this part of the job search with some trepidation. Think of it as a muscle you'll need to stretch. The bulk of clients come from referrals, so you'll need to start forming relationships anyway in your practice. Why not start early and show employers through your search technique that you have the very business development skills they are seeking in their hires? These skills are important not just for private sector attorneys, but also for public sector attorneys. The other important piece to note is that relationship cultivation is about asking for deliverables. A job may not be an easy deliverable, particularly when you've just met someone, but advice, information and referrals are all easy for people to share.

          Directly contacting employers: The other job search approach all too often neglected is to directly initiate contact with employers in your areas of interest. Start by researching employers. Use all the resources available to you. Ask those you know and meet to help you brainstorm a list of respected employers in your focus area. Do online research in databases such as and Whittle it down to your "A" list, "B" list, and maybe "C" list. Craft tailored cover letters that show you've done your homework about the employer and why you are targeting them. Highlight your knowledge of hard facts pertinent to them such as practice areas, practice groups, clients, litigation or transactional successes, etc. Send it off with a resume.

          All cover letters should be followed up by a phone call (this is the all-too-often neglected piece) introducing yourself and saying that you are calling to follow up about their hiring needs. Avoid asking if they received your materials — that calls for an easy yes/no answer. Do something to advance the conversation, "Hi, Mr. Smith, this is Samantha Jones. I'm the recent X law school graduate who wrote to you about possible openings in your bankruptcy practice. I wanted to follow up by phone and introduce myself and touch base about any hiring needs you may have." Ask if you can keep in touch with them in case their hiring needs change.

          Use listings, but don't rely exclusively on them. Get out of the house and meet people through your law school and professional associations. Embrace your unique story and think strategically about how to market yourself. Good luck!

          Sari Zimmerman is assistant dean for the Office of Career and Professional Development at UC Hastings College of the Law.

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