Job Search Success: Strategies for Senior Attorneys

If you’re in the midst of a job hunt right now (or anticipating the possibility of one), you’re not alone: the economic impact of COVID-19 is being felt throughout the legal industry. While any attorney in search of a position can rest assured that their struggles are shared by many at this time, more senior attorneys face a unique set of challenges when making a career transition.

There’s no getting around the fact that partners and other senior attorneys tend to find it more difficult to land a new position—often feeling simultaneously overqualified and underqualified for a new role. Yet I have worked with many clients in this situation who not only successfully landed jobs, but even found unexpected new paths that brought them great satisfaction in the next stage of their careers.

While you may see a host of obstacles right now, know that your experience can also be an asset if you reframe your thinking and take a strategic approach. Here are a few of the suggestions that have helped senior attorneys with whom I work succeed in their job searches.

Practice patience

The further you are from your law school days, the longer it may take to find a new position. And the reality is that open positions are few and far between during the current pandemic. Even in this environment, however, you can take proactive steps to bolster your patience and reduce stress.

Securing a new job is your long-term goal, but you will find the process more manageable if you focus on the many smaller objectives that lead to your ultimate aim. Make it a point to celebrate milestones: every time you make a new connection, secure an interview, or get positive feedback.

Enhance your qualifications.

Consider how continuing legal education might increase your marketability. Keeping abreast of developments in your practice area or even getting training in a subspecialty does more than expand the expertise you offer to an employer. Investing in your own growth empowers you to take greater control of your career and counteracts the sense that you are simply waiting for other people to decide your fate. For example, I recently worked with a partner who pursued a certification as a privacy law specialist to position herself for an appealing in-house role with a privacy law component.

Be creative and open-minded.

Even if you think you know exactly what you want to do next, take time to consider all the possibilities. Many of the attorneys I’ve advised had been doing the same type of work in the same setting for most, if not all, of their long legal careers—and have found great professional satisfaction by venturing outside their old roles. Have you considered moving from a law firm to an in-house role (legal or business)? To a law firm administration role? How about moving to a smaller firm or to another firm in a reduced capacity so that you can pursue other interests? You might explore what it would be like to transition to a non-profit, a public interest agency, a governmental position, or academia. Perhaps you’d find it exciting to hang your own shingle. If you are curious about a different career path, now is the time to explore the possibilities.

Mobilize your network

One benefit senior attorneys often have is a large network of colleagues and contacts with whom they have developed relationships over the years. This support system is a vital resource in your career transition.

Reach out for assistance.

Those with whom you’ve built close relationships are eager to help you succeed. Enlist them to aid in your search—keep them updated about your plans, goals, and progress. Trust that they are invested in your success and will support your efforts by making introductions and connecting you to resources.

Consider former classmates, current and former colleagues, contacts through bar associations, neighbors, etc. You never know who will have a helpful connection, so remain open and cast a wide net. For instance, I recently worked with a senior associate who was introduced to a promising opportunity by an undergraduate student she was mentoring. Another client found out about a great job that hadn’t been posted yet through a parent at his child’s school. A number of my clients in law firms have heard about opportunities through former colleagues who had previously left their firms. During the past few months, with so many of us working from home, I’ve seen that attorneys who are willing to tap into their networks are pleasantly surprised by the success of their outreach; even the most distant connections have been responding relatively quickly to their emails.

Find your champions.

Identify the individuals who know your work well and can speak to the full range of your abilities. They can serve as the source of references and referrals that carry a lot of weight with a potential employer. Ask them early in your search to be professional references and prepare them with details about a potential position when you secure an interview.

Utilize LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is a great resource for highlighting your accomplishments, cultivating your network, identifying your contacts (and learning about their connections), and finding out about job opportunities. If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, or if your profile is sparse with few contacts, now is the time to up your LinkedIn game.

Interview strategically

View interviews as networking opportunities.

I have seen many talented attorneys land interview after interview, yet come in second place for the jobs, especially when they are pursuing high-level positions. While this can be disappointing, it is helpful to reframe interviews as opportunities to build relationships, regardless of the outcome. When you feel an interview has gone particularly well, and especially when you have received positive feedback from the interviewers, keep in touch with them, ask for their feedback, and make them part of your network. Many attorneys find that an individual with whom they had excellent rapport in an interview becomes a valuable ally who will recommend them for other jobs at their companies or at other organizations.

Avoid being painted as overqualified.

“Overqualified” is a word that can really sting when you are looking for a new position. For attorneys who are a decade or more out of law school, especially if they are partners, being considered overqualified is a backhanded compliment of the highest order—as if your impressive experience and years of hard work have, instead of setting you up for more success, made you seem unemployable. I have seen this characterization come up at times when clients have interviewed for in-house roles with individuals who are junior to them. In these instances, you want the takeaway from the interview to be that, despite your title or seniority, you are excited about the opportunity, you are a team player, and you would welcome the chance to roll up your sleeves alongside new colleagues and to support a potential new boss. Use the interview as an opportunity to highlight your genuine interest in the substance of the role and in the interviewer’s perspective of how the position fits within the legal team and organization. Describe how you believe you could make meaningful contributions, as well as how you could learn and grow in the position. Also emphasize the high value you place on teamwork and collaboration. Your interviewers may be wondering what it means for them if someone of your seniority comes aboard; when you show them that you relate to them as equals, they can more easily see your extensive experience as an asset, not a threat.

Overcome the perception that you are underqualified.

Even though you have years of experience that could cause some to assume you are overqualified, you may also be viewed as underqualified for certain roles. For example, if you’ve looked at postings for in-house roles, you’ve probably noticed that they usually state that prior in-house experience is preferred. If you are at risk of being perceived as “underqualified” based on a lack of certain specific experience, consider how you can describe your background in a way that rebuts this presumption. For example, have you served as the de facto in-house counsel for any clients without a legal department? Can you talk about non-legal work experiences you’ve had within companies? If you are pursuing public sector positions, consider highlighting all of the relevant pro bono, volunteer, and clinical experiences you’ve had over the years and the contacts you’ve made in the public sector. A strong referral or reference who can attest that you are more than able to jump into a new role can also go a long way in overcoming the “underqualified” label.

Attorneys with many years of experience have found success in their current roles by honing their abilities to think strategically, solve problems in unique ways, and re-frame challenges as opportunities. By applying these very skills to your job search, engaging your patience, and opening yourself to the many possibilities that lay before you, you will set yourself up for a successful transition into the next stage of your career.