Job Search Success: Can You Answer This Crucial Interview Question?

There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and attorneys are facing an immense amount of ambiguity about the job market. Whether you’re looking for a new position now or anticipate job-hunting in the near future, you may be wondering what your search will look like amidst such a rapidly changing landscape. While there is no crystal ball that can provide all the answers, one thing you can count on is this: if you find yourself on a job interview in the next year, your prospective employer is likely to ask, “What did you do during the pandemic?”

If a clear answer doesn’t immediately spring to mind, you’re not alone. With most of the country subject to shelter-in-place orders and a high degree of uncertainty in all areas of life, it may be challenging to come up with a cohesive, action-oriented response to that question. While employers should readily understand if there’s a gap in your resume coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, what you did during that gap matters tremendously. For job seekers—especially those who find themselves involuntarily on the job market—telling the story of how they spent their time between positions will be crucial. In fact, thinking about your answer now may contain just the opportunity you need to regain a sense of control over your career while offering a window into your unique qualities.

Normally, as a job-seeking attorney, you would be scouring job listings and contacting colleagues for coffee dates, but these are not normal times. Social distancing requirements may prevent you from pounding the pavement, and those with caretaking and home-schooling responsibilities may find free time to be in limited supply. Nevertheless, while current circumstances are unusual, all the things that mattered before still matter now—you just have to find a different way to do them.

As lawyers, we leverage our leadership and expertise to serve our clients in times of chaos and distress. It’s time to tap into those same strengths to invest in your own development. By strategically engaging in high-value activities, you can begin to exert some control in a chaotic world, enhance your qualifications for the jobs you are seeking, and nourish yourself as a person and a professional. Developing and demonstrating your leadership skills is not only achievable while sheltering in place, it is perhaps more important than ever—both for your own sense of autonomy and in displaying your value to employers.

Imagine how you would like to respond to an interviewer’s question about what you did during the pandemic—and then set about doing those things right now. Below are a variety of actions and approaches you could take; find what feels most valuable to you and make those activities a central part of your job-searching strategy.

Continue investing in your professional development

When work slows down (or dries up), it’s essential that you take ownership over your professional development. As you consider the opportunities you are seeking, identify what you can do to make yourself as attractive as possible to future employers. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Continue developing your knowledge. Are there gaps between what you know now and the expertise you need for the roles you seek? Take advantage of the webinars, podcasts, and articles available to deepen your legal knowledge or enhance your leadership skills; many of these resources are being offered online free or at reduced rates. For example, the Practising Law Institute is offering a series of free programs covering legal developments related to COVID-19; they also offer scholarships to unemployed lawyers to access additional programming. Or perhaps now is the time to pursue that certificate you’ve had your eye on. At the very least, stay current on industry trends to understand their impact on your potential clients.

  • Impart your expertise. Now is the perfect time to write articles, participate in CLE webinars, and get involved with your professional organizations. If you are looking to shift the focus of your practice, this is a great way develop a reputation as someone knowledgeable in your target area. You can publish articles on LinkedIn or contact bar associations in your geographic or substantive areas of interest to offer articles or presentations for their members. Get involved with committees that engage with issues you find compelling; in addition to advancing your knowledge, you will be expanding your professional network. The more you share your expertise, the more you enhance your reputation as a leader in your field.

  • Share your skills. There is a staggering amount of unmet legal need; consider sharing your talents through pro bono work. Helping others is one of the most effective ways to stave off feelings of worry in our own lives. To learn about opportunities in your area, contact your local bar association or legal services agency, or explore websites, like We The Action, that connect lawyers to remote pro bono projects around the country. You will expand your network, gain new skills, and provide a valuable service for those in dire need.

  • Stay connected to your colleagues. While it may be a while before you can meet people for coffee, don’t neglect your professional network. Check in with colleagues via email and phone to see how they are faring during these challenging times. Let them know what kind of work you are looking for and ask for their guidance on connecting with others in the field. Don’t overlook the relationships you developed at your most recent employer—those colleagues want to contribute to your success and help you land on your feet.

  • Create (and lead) community. To mitigate the isolation that is endemic to job searches, start an informal job search support group with colleagues who are also looking for work. Together, you can set goals, share leads, make introductions, review each other’s applications, and conduct mock interviews. Create a recurring weekly video meeting to check in with each other, and use a simple agenda to report on progress, request help, and celebrate achievements. In addition to helping your peers, this kind of community-building is a chance to grow your leadership skills and show a potential employer your ability to bring people together.

 Pursue activities to engage your personal development

Taking control of your professional development empowers you to chart a course for your future. At the same time, investing in your personal growth and development is just as essential to positioning yourself for future success. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Engage your talents (and consider sharing them). Now more than ever, it’s important to engage in the activities that bring you joy. Redeploy the time you would have spent on your commute to the activities that energize you and bring you peace. If you have a creative skill or talent, find ways to share it with others. In the last week alone, I’ve seen people using online platforms to perform music, teach cooking, share poetry, and lead guided meditations. Bringing some levity and joy to those around you helps you as much as it helps them.

  • Learn something new. When you were working at maximum capacity, did you daydream about the things you would do if only you had the time? Now’s your chance to learn a language, teach yourself how to play guitar, experiment with gardening, or dabble with watercolors. Discovering that you are capable of learning new things will help you cultivate confidence that you can take into your job search. Additionally, proactively making time for fun during a challenging period, especially if it involves creating something tangible, can help you manage your stress and create a sense of accomplishment.

  • Serve your community. Our neighbors are struggling; what is one simple thing you can do to help out? Can you organize a fundraiser? Make face masks for essential workers? Visit the grocery store for immuno-compromised neighbors or healthcare workers? Support your local food pantry? Promote local businesses in your community? Help your child’s school design new virtual learning policies? Being generous with your time and talent does not need to be limited to legal pro bono work.

  • Build better habits. In light of the long hours and high stakes of legal work, it’s no wonder that many attorneys struggle to achieve a sense of equilibrium. Take advantage of your time at home to cultivate habits that support your well-being. For some, that might mean adopting a meditation practice, healthier eating, daily walks, journaling, or any number of self-care rituals. Be deliberate and commit to simple practices that are sustainable both during your job search and when you return to work.

When a prospective employer inquires about what you did during a time of crisis, they are not asking, “What did you worry about?” They want to understand how you have turned obstacles into opportunities and overcome challenges. The activities suggested above, in addition to their intrinsic benefits, demonstrate to prospective employers the kind of contributor you will be, especially when the going gets tough.

Making an intentional choice to take action can be the perfect antidote to the fear and anxiety that arise during times of upheaval. Instead of feeling trapped at home, employing proactive strategies will prepare you for your next professional opportunity, enhance your personal development, and serve your community. And the icing on the cake: you will discover that you have a great answer to the question, “What did you do during the pandemic?”