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5 Tips for Job-Hunting Lawyers

By Joan Feldman

Worried about your job? Here are five tips for current and future legal job seekers.

lawyer layoffs

If news of the “quiet culling” at law firms made you a little paranoid, the latest rash of lawyer layoffs — stealth, open or otherwise — has likely sent you into overdrive, firing off texts and frantically setting up coffee dates.

Maybe your job is safe. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, there are things you can do.

Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean Your Job Is Safe

Sure, most of the layoffs are in big firms with bloated payrolls. The ones that overhired in sectors that were booming during the pandemic. And some of this is a return to business as usual — nothing to see here, folks, just some “rebalancing” and strategic streamlining.

But still. Annual reviews aren’t far off. Budgets are due. The tide is heading out. And you know that great saying about low tide and pants?

Don’t Get Caught With Your Pants Down

Here are five tips for current and future legal job seekers.

1. Treat Your Job-Hunt Like a Job

Once you’ve had a chance to process the situation (including re-reading your employment agreement so you know your rights), stretch your project management muscles and set goals and tasks for your job search. My favorite legal career coach, the late Wendy Werner, recommended writing a “search strategy statement” that includes the kind of position you are looking for, your primary areas of work expertise and, if possible, specific firms or companies of interest.

Do this work before you lose your job.

Research not only where but how you want to work. Is it time to go in-house? Or explore a different area of practice? Remote work and the gig economy have opened up new career options, including jobs as contract lawyers with ALSPs, technology companies and “legal companies.” Legal entrepreneur Dave Galbenski lays out some of the options in “Silver Lining of Lawyer Layoffs: Reinvent Your Legal Career.”

Reconnect with your friends, former classmates and colleagues and share your statement. Start setting up meetings with them to talk about your strategy and ways they could be of assistance.

Take advantage of job sites and check out tools like ChatGPT to help with this research and writing cover letters. Take advantage of resume-building sites too (just don’t try to game the system).

2. Keep an Experience Database

Most career advisors recommend updating your resume and LinkedIn profile at least annually. Like regular visits to the dentist, nobody enjoys doing it, but it can be much more painful if you put it off. The good news is your search strategy statement and an “experience database” will make it easier.

List-making is a powerful career tool, says Meyling Ly Ortiz. She advises keeping a “Done List” with the cases and matters you’ve worked on, new skills you’ve learned, volunteer work, recognition and awards.

Most reviews include a “self-evaluation” section, she explains, and being able to refer to a “done list” makes it much easier. “I knew that if I wanted to stand out as a great associate, I needed to be able to advocate my own value, and the only way to do so was to know what I did so I could give context to the hours I billed. Was 25% of my 1,900 minimum billable hours all document review, or was it writing dispositive motions and preparing for depositions?”

Business development expert Sally Schmidt also recommends maintaining an experience database.

“You may think you will recall everything you have worked on, but trust me, you will not. I can’t tell you how many partners, when preparing a pitch or for a meeting, will say something like, ‘I wish I could remember how many of these I have done.’ Why is this important? Because a lot of lawyers can say they worked on deals — but how many can cite the number of deals in a particular industry or the aggregate dollars involved? Numbers and facts are very compelling to prospective clients and employers.”

Whether it’s a spreadsheet, Google doc or Dropbox folder (using your personal account), regularly updating your career history is essential for your career progress — and your self-esteem.

Tip: Update your experience database and resume just before your annual self-evaluation and performance review. Even if you have no plans to leave and feel secure, the process helps you take stock. Also, sharing your resume with reviewers (in larger firms, they may not have worked with you personally) is a helpful reminder of your history and value to the firm. And if the review doesn’t go well, you’re ahead of the game.

3. Be Prepared

No one can ever really be prepared for the gut punch of losing a job. But there are things you can do to protect yourself before you get cut. Read your employment agreement; memorize the sections on severance pay and benefits. Take notes during and after meetings and exchanges with your seniors. Take lots of notes. This NYT article has excellent career, financial and even technical advice for the kinds of things you can do while still employed — including a strong reminder to always use personal devices and cloud storage accounts for personal business. 

As for physical things, thanks to hybrid work, fewer of us keep many personal items at the office. So, fears of being led out with a banker’s box of hastily packed family photos and a sad plant aren’t entirely accurate. The reality is you get the news via Zoom and never see your firm or office gain. So, your concern is what happens to your electronic “memorabilia.” If the firm suddenly locks you out of your laptop and phone — what will you lose?

4. Network

If your job search is confined to job sites, you’re overlooking a huge slice of the job market. While “networking” can strike fear into the hearts of many, it is crucial. Here are just a few tips:

  • If you’ve targeted a firm or company you want to work for, find someone there you know. Ask if they would be willing to send your resume to the appropriate person with a recommendation.
  • Don’t confine your networking to other lawyers or people you already know. Stretch your boundaries. Add reaching out to new connections on LinkedIn to your task list!
  • Conduct “informational interviews.” You can subtly obtain leads, inform prospective employers and contacts about your current skill set and career goals, and potentially secure a referral — all while you’re encouraging people to talk about themselves (something most people love to do).
  • If you are still employed, start collecting coworkers’ personal emails and phone numbers — the truth is, you lose touch with people when you or they change jobs. With their contact information, you’ll be able to reach them directly without spending time tracking them down on social media. Besides, it’s always a good idea to keep personal conversations confined to your pesonal devices.
  • Show up in person at conferences and events and work the room.
  • Always say thank you and you will stand out.

5. Don’t Panic!

“Perhaps the biggest mistake I’ve seen over the years,” says career coach Roy Ginsburg, “is the urge to reach out to anyone and everyone and network as soon as possible. Your head has a lot to work through. It’s not going to happen overnight. You want to be at your best when meeting people, and you’ll make a better first impression when you’ve had some time to process your situation. Roy has more good advice in “Yikes, I’ve Lost My Job! Now What?”

Partners Aren’t Immune From Lawyer Layoffs

It’s rare for partners to get caught up in the first rounds of law firm layoffs, but not impossible — especially if you’re a partner only in name. In “Departing Your Law Firm Partnership,” attorneys Daniel O’Rielly and Dena Roche have good advice for partners who are leaving by choice — or for other reasons. In both cases, it’s important to understand your rights and obligations to the firm and clients.

More Career Tips from Attorney at Work Authors

“17 Things I Wish I Knew as a Young Associate”

“Three Tips for Owning Your Career as a New Associate”

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Categories: Job Hunting, Law Firm Associates, You At Work
Originally published August 4, 2023
Last updated January 17, 2024
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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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