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Your Career Goals Should Define Your Job Search, Not Vice Versa

October 31, 2011

As a member of the Young Lawyers Division leadership and a member of my office’s hiring and recruitment committee, I have a lot of contact with young lawyers and law students looking for work. Their frequent struggles provide me with regular opportunities to reflect on the pitfalls of job searching, particularly for young attorneys in this difficult job market. My most recent opportunity was a workshop on informational interviews for Drexel Law’s excellent co-op program, for which I served as a discussion-group leader and panelist. The students were eager and engaged, and their co-op experience had left them more informed about the day-to-day character of law practice than most law students I meet. But many of them still exhibited two problematic tendencies that most law students and new lawyers share: 1) they were approaching their job searches (and career development in general) too reactively, and 2) their job searches lacked sufficient focus. As I’ll explain, both statistical and anecdotal evidence bear out my point that these tendencies are closely linked, although it may not obvious on the surface.

Putting the cart before the horse.

Let’s step back for a moment. For a job opening to be filled, a connection has to be made between an employer and a worker, each of whom has something to offer the other. A reactive job seeker waits to act until an employer makes some overture—most commonly via job listings, recruitment activities, and headhunting. This is problematic on a number of levels. Such overtures cost time and money, and are not always unnecessary to satisfactorily fill job openings. So, employers often forego them. In this time of slow legal hiring, it is particularly true. As a result, the vast majority of job openings—more than 80%—are never advertised publicly. And as the supply of jobs on the public market dwindles, the competition for those jobs among reactive job seekers increases. Thus, as the Wall Street Journal points out, reactive job-seeking is not an effective strategy, especially in hard times, such as today and during our economy’s last great malaise, the Great Depression.

But the big, dark economic rain cloud does have a silver lining. Reactive job hunting always has substantial downsides, even in better economic times. But when the economic engine is purring, it may not be absolutely necessary to job-hunt proactively, so there is less incentive to do so. Thus, reactive job seekers end up finding jobs, but not necessarily the jobs that they’re best suited for. I’m reminded of college and law school classmates who took jobs with firms that recruited on campus because that was the most obvious career avenue. Many of those classmates found these jobs a poor fit, and many of them were outright miserable, notwithstanding the outsized prestige and compensation that came with those jobs. In contrast, two of the best jobs I’ve had resulted from deciding very specifically what kind of work I wanted and then cold calling employers that met my criteria to inquire about job openings.

So, the aforementioned silver lining is that these tough times can provide the impetus to think more creatively and expansively about job hunting and career in general. Even if you find schmoozing unappealing, consider how you can strengthen and expand your networks, whether through old-fashioned handshaking and phone calls (the Bar Association is a good place to start), or by sending emails to potential mentors and fellow alumni seeking informational interviews, or by learning how to leverage LinkedIn’s many tools. This is also an opportunity to add precision and focus to your job search (and your career development generally). As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, the importance of well-defined career goals cannot be understated. (One word of advice: getting rich probably shouldn’t be a lawyer’s main goal, or even a goal at all.) Once you have well-defined career goals and a career development that is proactive, not reactive, you will be well on your way to not just gainful employment but a fulfilling career.

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