Most of my female lawyer candidates feel that unless they match the job description perfectly, they should not pursue the opportunity. By contrast, I frequently receive applications from male lawyer candidates who do not, at first glance, seem to be perfectly qualified for a position. The key word in that sentence is “perfectly” – there is no perfect position or candidate; but there can be a perfect match. If we, as female lawyers, keep focusing on whether we are “perfect” for a position, we will stop ourselves from moving forward. Too much over-analysis at the preliminary stages will hold you back. By not even entering the game you are thwarting yourself from landing that next big promotion, job, or in-house position.
Three Case Studies
“I don’t have the right type of experience to go in-house”
I am working with a very impressive female lawyer who is currently working in a non-traditional legal role for a large, public company. She has the “perfect” academic and professional credentials, and is looking to transition to a more traditional legal role at another company. After taking a look at her impressive resume, we chatted at length and strategized about how to effectuate her transition. Ironically, she kept saying that she wanted to “go in-house” and understood that such transition was going to be difficult. I pointed out to her that she is already “in-house”, albeit in a non-traditional legal position. I advised her to use her current experience as a positive to prospective employers – show them that she does have “in-house” experience because she is at a large company and has learned to navigate that business world. Unlike a lawyer who has only worked at a firm, she can emphasize that she interacts, on a daily, face-to-face basis, with high-level business executives who need her to explain things in non-legalese language within a matter of seconds. She has first-hand industry knowledge and knows what it is like to work alongside businesspeople every day.
When we started the conversation, it was all about how she was (in her mind) going to make this difficult transition, when she did not currently match up to the typical in-house job descriptions. By the end of the conversation, it was about how we are going to use her current experience as a positive to springboard to the right position for her. Sometimes that’s what it takes – a mental switch or shift to get yourself going in the right direction. Stop viewing your experience as not yet good enough, and use it to propel you to the next step in your career.
“I cannot take the next step in my career because I just don’t have the right level of experience”
I have been confidentially working with an extremely impressive and seasoned in-house attorney. She has all of the right stuff – she is motivated, intelligent, accomplished and savvy. Furthermore, she is hungry to move on to a new challenge at a higher level than her current company can offer. Like so many female lawyers that I speak with, she knows that she will not advance at her current company because her male boss is fairly young and is not leaving anytime soon! As such, she is faced with the decision: does she quell her inner ambition and desire to become General Counsel at a company or does she stay in her comfortable position at her company?
Truth be told, there is no right answer; there is, however, a correct type of analysis. Let your mind think about leaving and see how that resonates with you. Get yourself in the game and test the waters to see if your experience interests those companies/positions that interest you. If you refuse to do that analysis, and continually tell yourself that you must wait for the “perfect” level of experience, you may be waiting a very long time! If you decide that the best place for you to be is exactly where you currently are, then good for you. Just make sure that your decision comes from an honest place, that also takes into account your true ambition and career goals.
So many female lawyers try to convince themselves that they are happy with status quo, largely because it works for their life. Many of them, like myself, have young children and need jobs that allow us to juggle life’s demands. So we stay at our law firm or company, never daring to envision that next step – it is too painful to think about what we may be missing out on, so we try not to think about it. What if you did apply to that position that seemed so out-of-reach? What if you called me and told me that you want to hear about opportunities that may be a fit for you? That step may propel you forward to the job that you really want, but think you cannot obtain or deserve right now.
“I feel like my experience has boxed me into my current position so I really cannot leave”
I am working with a senior female lawyer at a well-known New Jersey law firm and she clearly wants to move on. Partnership is not going to happen for her at her current firm, based on many factors: top-heavy with partners already; her portables are not significant enough to get the attention of the partnership; she works for one heavy-hitting partner a lot, and he will never view her as a peer. I hear that scenario all of the time: female lawyers are doing great work for successful partners at top firms, and if the female lawyer decides she wants to move on, she is absolutely paralyzed about how to leave that “nest” of security. What will she do without that partner to feed her work and keep her busy? At the same time, she feels stagnant and knows in her heart that it is time to move on to a different firm that will not view her as a “homegrown” service attorney forever. She has the skills to become a rainmaker and has started to attract clients, but that is not encouraged at her current firm. The message is clear – keep doing what you are doing and service this partner’s work because he is valuable to us and we need to keep him happy.
Is she crazy to think about leaving this purportedly secure job? In this market, wouldn’t a lot of attorneys trade with her in a second? The reality is that she has paid her dues and feels that she will never advance in her current position, and therefore is stagnated and vulnerable. When economic lay-offs occur, those senior lawyers who have not built a book and/or achieved partnership are extremely vulnerable. In fact, the partnership title is no longer a ticket to security – grooming your own book of business is the only true security at a law firm. She wants to step outside of his shadow and cultivate the clients that she has been nurturing for years. The best way to do that is to polish off her resume, make a Business Plan (painful but very worthwhile), and talk with me about the type of position she is seeking and realistically can obtain at this point.
Despite the ever-popular trend of wanting to go in-house, there are law firms in New Jersey that are growing and thriving and want female lawyers to succeed. Yes, you have to be realistic about your portables and your corresponding salary expectations, but taking the first step is considering the possibility of moving on. Loyalty is admirable but not to the point where you feel that it is really holding you back. It is not the fault of this senior male partner that my female lawyer candidate is being held back – she is holding herself back by not seeking out other professional opportunities.
I am not suggesting that you apply for positions for which you have no background/experience. Rather, think about your skill set and apply for positions that are somewhat within your reach, without your overanalysis! Talk with a legal recruiter that you can trust and ask them about their thoughts re your experience, and how it matches up with certain positions. Whatever you do and however you go about it, get in the game! Watching from the sidelines and waiting to get the “perfect” experience so that you can land that “perfect” job will only cause you to feel frustrated and overlooked.
The legal job market is still tight and it is still somewhat of a buyer’s market. It is scary to put yourself out there for rejection and to hear that your experience is not on target. If you are not even entering the race, you cannot win. As a recruiter, I know that it always ultimately comes down to a good connection between the employer and the lawyer. Even if your experience is not perfectly on point, if you can get yourself in the game and sell the skillset you have, you may get the position that currently feels out of reach.
Melissa A. Peters, Esq. is Managing Director at Princeton Legal Search Group. She focuses exclusively on the permanent placement of lawyers in law firm and in-house settings. She can be reached at 609.734.7490 and firstname.lastname@example.org.