Navigating the Path Towards Your Dream Law Job - A Wrap-Up
by Elaine Chang, Nicole Hoikka, and Connie Lam
WLALA’s Young Lawyers Section hosted its spring event, Navigating the Path Towards Your Dream Law Job, on April 28, 2016 at the downtown offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. A panel of four highly accomplished attorneys, all with advice and insights gleaned from the way they grew their practice of law, spoke to a group of 50 attendees. Amy Brantly served as panel moderator and provided the perspective of an attorney who started her own firm. Amy is a founding partner of Kesselman Brantly Stockinger LLP, and was Of Counsel at Susman Godfrey LLP for several years before that. Amy currently practices business litigation, including antitrust cases, trade secrets litigation, breach of contract matters, and class actions.
Elizabeth Bluestein (“Liz”), Vice President and General Counsel at Public Counsel and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School, discussed her experience as an associate attorney in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Corporate practice group who eventually transitioned into practicing tax law at Gibson Dunn. To make this switch, Liz contacted everyone she knew at a firm with a tax practice and asked them to see if their partner might consider a lateral from corporate practice. Although Liz had to “start over” in the Tax practice group, she felt it was worth it to pursue her passion. Liz then described how she leveraged her experience in transactional tax law at Gibson Dunn--which included advising and structuring transactions for a wide range of clients including start up companies, large corporations, and nonprofits--to develop her next career move and become a public interest lawyer. But she also shared the steps she took to learn more about public interest work. For instance, Liz suggested that attorneys seeking to demonstrate interest and knowledge in a new area of law go back to “school,” whether by attending seminars, conferences or lectures, or even enrolling in night classes at a local law school. To gain experience, attorneys should consider volunteering for pro bono matters that provide an opportunity to develop new skills.
Liz also shared an insight that was oft-repeated throughout the evening: talk to your network and maintain your contacts, as they can lend insight when you begin investigating your field of interest. While all of the speakers agreed that networking was important, they also explained that networking comes in various forms and is ultimately about building relationships. Therefore, social butterflies comfortable in large social settings can play to their strengths by meeting new people at networking events, while introverts can spend more time networking one-on-one by fostering relationships with former law school classmates and former colleagues from previous jobs, and asking these contacts for referrals with relevant experience.
Rosina Hernandez (“Nina”) stressed the value of maintaining a network as well. Nina was a litigation associate before she became Senior Legal Counsel at Yahoo!, Inc.. She is now Senior Legal Counsel at Snapchat. Nina emphasized that perseverance was key to navigating the path to her dream job -- she estimated that her job search from litigator to in-house counsel took two years, during which she continuously educated herself about the role and responsibilities of an in-house counsel and requested to be put on cases that would give her more relevant work experience. Nina leveraged her network to speak to former classmates who were in-house counsel, asked them to review her resume and asked them about the skills and experience necessary for the position, as well as what to emphasize in an interview. Knowing what the job entails is important so that you can describe how your experience makes you qualified for the job and convey that you have realistic expectations about what your job in this new field will be like.
Nina also described how to create a narrative to demonstrate your desire and ability to transition from your current job to your “dream job.” Rather than confess your inexperience with the new job’s responsibilities or practice area, confidently highlight the depth of experience you already have. Find something from your experience that could be perceived as an advantage in the job you are interviewing for. For example, a litigator could explain that her ability to issue spot potential problems gives her insight in preventing problems and lawsuits from arising in the first place. A specialist in a particular area of the law could describe her ability to quickly absorb information and develop a sophisticated understanding about a complicated area of law.
Creating a narrative and branding your practice could also involve developing a niche practice. You should be able to describe your practice concisely, preferably by relating it to a particular industry, such as advertising, entertainment, energy, or in Nina’s case, advertising technology. This way, you can begin to develop a reputation as an authority on a certain subject.
The speakers then all chimed in on how to prepare for a successful interview. First, be sure to thoroughly research your “dream job”: if it is a nonprofit, make sure you know its mission and what makes it distinct from other nonprofit legal organizations. Never speak badly about your former employer; focus instead on explaining why you want the job you are interviewing for. For an in-house or public interest position (or any position), never express your desire for an “easier schedule”: this will give off the impression that you are lazy and unmotivated. Also, read articles about the firm or organization. Determine what its revenue sources are and its organizational structure. If you know who your interviewers are, look them up on LinkedIn, read articles they published, see if they taught classes or gave presentations on a particular subject in law, so you can at least know what their perspective is should the topic arise in conversation during the interview.
On a different note, Kirsten Galler, Litigation of Counsel at Gibson Dunn, addressed the fortunate scenario after you’ve already landed your “dream job,” and what to do in order to advance in that position. Kirsten started with Gibson Dunn as a summer associate, but experienced many transitions within her firm by moving between different offices and transitioning from full-time to maternity leave to flex schedule. To succeed at her firm, Kirsten emphasized the importance of becoming an expert in something so that you can be seen as a go-to person. In addition, a willingness to work on non-billable activities such as business development, articles, or pitches is important. Kirsten credits making strong intraorganizational relationships and establishing a good reputation as the key to making a smooth transition within your organization. To ensure a smooth transition for her maternity leave, Kirsten created lists for her colleagues to refer to, and when her leave approached, she began copying colleagues on emails so that all parties stayed informed.
And for those who seek a more entrepreneurial path, moderator Amy Brantley described how she started her own firm with partners from a previous firm. Amy explained that she worked well with the partners at her prior firm so they decided to start their own firm together. Amy also explained that while she raised young children, she scaled back her hours and let her career stay relatively flat for a few years. But when she was ready to dedicate more time to her career, she realized that leaving her current firm made more sense than trying to advance within her firm. Because this path can be filled with uncertainty, Amy found it important to have a financial cushion and time to dedicate to such a venture. At a small firm, business development is important so maintaining networks with former colleagues remains important as a business referral source as well.
By the end of the evening, the speakers covered the crucial topics of networking, branding, and interviewing. The key take-aways from the evening were that:
- Networking is about building lasting relationships, so keep in touch with your former classmates and colleagues, and make new contacts through alumni networks, interest groups, or by asking for referrals.
- Maintain your brand by developing a reputation for being the “go-to” on a subject.
- Research the new job before your interview so you understand what the firm, company, or organization does and what they are looking for.
- Use every opportunity to learn more about your dream job and the practice area so that you can demonstrate an understanding of what the new job will entail.
- During interviews, craft your personal story and experience in a way that is tailored to the needs of the new job.
- Be confident in your interviews and emphasize the depth of experience you already have.
- Don’t fall prey to the “golden handcuffs,” i.e. become so reliant on your salary that you cannot afford to take a lower-salary position, even if that job with lesser pay would be your dream job.
Attendees came away from the event with key pieces of advice, and the opportunity to learn from four incredibly accomplished women about their individual journeys towards their dream law jobs.
A debt of gratitude is owed to our amazing sponsors -- Platinum Reporters & Interpreters, and our hosts for the evening, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
If you want to get involved with the Young Lawyers Section, you can contact Victoria McLaughlin or Stephanie Montaño at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Elaine Chang is an attorney at Glancy Prongay & Murray LLP and a WLALA member.
Nicole Hoikka is an attorney at Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi PC and a WLALA member.
Connie Lam is an attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP and a WLALA member.