Do’s & Don’ts When the Writing’s on the Wall

By Stephen Rosen and Celia Paul

Are you a partner at a large law firm? Are your clients failing? Is your firm’s future unpredictable? Does the writing on the wall say, “it’s time to find another employer, firm, or company”? Don’t wait for the grim news. This is an opportunity for you to think more broadly about your future career.

You have a bushel basket of resources, strategies, skills, and contacts. Unless you wish to retire, make your choices and decisions before you get burned out or fired. You can’t wait for serendipities, or gifts to fall into your lap.

To bring personal satisfaction to your next job or career, you need to plan for it. You suspect that you may not earn the same money, or perhaps even the same level of status, in your next career or job. Instead, pursue what you enjoy doing well. Others do: About 58% of those who start out as lawyers remain as lawyers; 29 % change careers broadly; and 13% change directions completely.

Even though you may have been very productive as a specialist, you may have to change career directions by thinking like a generalist. You already have the skills and discipline to build on. It’s entirely possible that success in your narrow specialty may translate to success in another area; but it usually calls for almost (or virtually) the same effort that led to the first.

You may be hired to do something for which you have not been formally trained, but you probably do not need another degree. Non-profit? Government? Public Service? Academics? Entrepreneur? Your law degree can take you in many different directions. However, you can get another degree if that’s what makes your heart leap, if it’s necessary, and if you can afford it.

It’s hard to avoid the present pervasive negative prophecies and despondency (the "nocebo" effect, the negative counterpart of the placebo) and to let this overwhelm your job choices and career decisions. Even unemployment approaching 10 %, means that most people must be employed. (During former dark depression days, many heard and sang a Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen song: “You’ve got to ac-cen-cu-ate the pos-i-tive…e-lim-i-nate the neg-a-tive”. Let’s bring this song back. (Better still, whistle it while you work.)

Situational or clinical depressions are not character flaws, but may be an appropriate adaptation to the economic meltdown. Both are matters of brain chemistry, and can be dealt with responsibly and appropriately. A game plan, a systematic approach, and regular physicial exercise, will go a long way to developing a ‘theory of victory’ – positive and optimistic--for your next move.

The melt-down is not personal. “You can control your sails—but not the wind.” Smart people make dumb mistakes and learn from them. They remind themselves of their strengths. They re-affirm their assets without denying reality. They don’t dwell on their failures. They learn…and move on. Here are some positive things you can do…

FIRST, start thinking about your most enjoyable accomplishments and experiences, especially those that are deeply felt and emotionally fulfilling; recall those activities you enjoyed the most, and imagine venues and occasions to do them again—with or without compensation.

SECOND, keep a career journal/diary to capture all thoughts, idea-associations, insights, and leads that occur to you as you recall your most enjoyable accomplishments and activities most enjoyed. Also, it’s essential to capture in your diary/journal of all conversations, idea-associations, leads, and so on, derived from these key information-gathering interviews and leads. This capture-process invests a much-needed ‘critical-mass’ of optimism, action, and forward momentum to your search.

THIRD, reality-test non-legal options by gathering market-place data from discreet conversations and aggressive acquisition of up-to-date job-market information. Identify people you know (or people who know people you know) who are doing what you think you might want to do. Find out what they like and don’t like about what they do, what their job/work/career is in detail, how they got there, and who else they know. Scour their network of 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation of contacts (or “degrees-of-separation”) to glean information about – and leads to -- others who may be doing what you’d like to do.

FOURTH, after you have decided on new areas to explore, prepare one resume and one personal profile/one-page bio for each new career direction you wish to research or examine (up to a maximum of four) based on information you captured and scoured from the information-gathering interviews.

FIFTH, ‘test drive’ job interviews to practice for the real thing…first for jobs you don’t necessarily want, and then for those you do want.

SIXTH, volunteer, if necessary, to try out a job or career on for size, so you can see if it fits who you are. Volunteer jobs take several hours a day, several days a week, even a few months—and they’re essentially extended job interviews that show what you can do.

Keep changing jobs or careers until you find the right one, the best one, the inevitable one…the one that engages you in “Work that’s a worthy expression of who you are”. Then make it your own.


Celia Paul and Stephen Rosen operate the New York City-based career management firm Celia Paul Associates, which specializes in coaching senior attorneys and partners. They also provide premium legal outplacment services to law firms. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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