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The Legal Job Market Is on Fire! (It Won’t Always Be)

By Anna Sanders

This is how you position yourself for success in any type of legal job market.

Hot markets lead to atypical behaviors among buyers and sellers. During the tech boom of the late 1990s, buyers aggressively bid up the stock prices of companies when they added “.com” to their names. Over the last couple of years, home buyers have routinely snapped up houses above the asking price, sometimes without ever seeing the property in person. And in today’s white-hot legal hiring market, buyers are raising starting salaries and offering substantial signing bonuses for lawyers with in-demand skill sets and experience.

In the Legal Market, It’s “Econ 101” Writ Large

There is excess demand in the form of abundant work, but scarce supply in the form of lawyers to bill the hours. Because they have a healthy profit margin on the billable hours associates work and their ability to maintain and grow client relationships depends on the ability to meet client demands, law firms are willing to invest lots of resources to attract legal talent.

The result: The hottest legal job market most of us in legal recruiting have ever seen.

And this means that associates have more opportunities than ever to move from one firm to another, especially if they are:

Even if they’re not checking all those boxes, there are still a lot of opportunities in today’s job market.

But … we’ve seen this before.

One thing lawyers should keep in mind, particularly those in their first five or so years of practice, is that the job market won’t always be this way. It’s no time to be complacent. The pendulum can and will swing the other way. It will slow down.

With that backdrop in mind, even if you’re not actively looking, let’s go through some best practices that will make you an attractive candidate in any type of legal job market.

Ready or Not: Best Practices for Showcasing Your Experience

In every spy thriller, the overseas CIA operative has a “bug-out bag” they can grab at a moment’s notice if their cover is blown. They prepare it in advance — they don’t wait until the situation is urgent to pull together what they need. Lawyers should apply the same forethought when it comes to keeping their resumes updated.

Murphy’s Law holds that if anything can go wrong it will. In my experience as a legal recruiter, I’ve observed a similar phenomenon, which is that if a rare and spectacular job opportunity does arise for an individual lawyer, it will do so just before an important closing or deadline. Busy people tend to attract opportunities.

In other words, when something falls in your lap requiring you to update your resume immediately, it will be at a time when you’re stretched thinnest. So it’s better to do it now. The same goes for your LinkedIn profile.

Reminder: Your resume is not your biography.

In terms of what to focus on with your resume, keep it simple, streamlined and professional. You don’t need to hire a graphic designer. But you do need to make sure it’s error-free, up to date, and every dash that separates dates looks the same! If you’re more than a year out of law school, your resume should highlight your legal work experience, not all the organizations you were a member of in law school.

An additional point to keep in mind is that the language of your resume should conform to the language used in the job description of the position you are applying for. For example, if you’ve been doing transactional work at your current firm, but the firm you want to get hired by is looking for a “capital markets” lawyer, make sure that your capital markets deals occupy the first two bullet points. Even if you’ve done a bit more M&A or finance, your resume is supposed to showcase how you meet a need, not be the historical record of things you’ve done. It’s a little thing, but in hiring, the little details often matter.

If you are a transactional lawyer, keep your deal sheet current.

Each deal feels unforgettable while it happens, but give it 18 months and the details get hazy. Having a good writing sample handy will also serve you well. What makes it good? It should be high-quality, recent and on topic (if you are applying for antitrust, or environmental or class-action focused roles, have a writing sample that will resonate.) Redact as necessary and get the finished product down to no less than five pages and no more than 15 pages as a general rule.

Beyond LinkedIn and Your Resume

If you have all of these materials polished and pulled together, you have the equivalent of a “bug-out bag” for your legal job search. But don’t stop there. You can take some additional steps to make yourself an attractive and visible candidate in any type of legal job market.

  • Position yourself for unadvertised jobs by maintaining consistent contact with your network, including law school classmates and former colleagues.
  • Stay on top of what’s happening in your niche. Know which firms do the type of work you do and do it well. These will be the firms with needs for lawyers like you in the future, and knowing what they are doing will always serve you.

Perhaps most important, spend some time figuring out what you like and don’t like about the practice of law.

  • What type of work do you like to do?
  • What type of people and clients do you like to work with and for?
  • What’s your long-term career vision?

You should be taking these and other issues into consideration when evaluating your options.

With so much money being tossed around right now, a lot of jumping from frying pans into fires is going on. You don’t want to make that mistake. In most cases, more money alone isn’t a good reason to move. Too many lawyers are learning this lesson the hard way. One of the ways legal recruiters add value in the process is that they have seen what factors go into a successful transition — and can help identify common blind spots that lead to bad decisions.

It’s a white-hot job market, though it won’t always be.

Regardless of what type of market it is at any given moment, it’s always a good idea to get yourself ready to move even if you have no intention of changing jobs.

You never know when an opportunity will find you.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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anna sanders Anna Sanders

Anna Markham Sanders is a Senior Director with VOYlegal, a boutique nationwide legal search firm that connects lawyers with great opportunities and employers with top legal talent. She graduated from University of Virginia School of Law and practiced with a media, information and technology group in Washington, D.C., before turning her talents to making introductions professionally. She places partners, counsel and associates and can be found on LinkedIn.

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