- With one question, a good employer can quickly and efficiently eliminate those who might otherwise be a perfect fit for a position—and they should.
- Anyone who knows what they are doing should not be hiring you if you do not have concrete reasons for working.
- Most people do not have good enough reasons for applying to positions.
- Accordingly, they do far worse in their careers and lives than they might otherwise.
When I interview someone for a position, I start with some idle chat and then simply say: "So what is going on?"
What this question means is, "What made you apply for this job?"
A far more loaded question than it may at first appear. With this question, a good employer can quickly and efficiently eliminate those who might otherwise be a perfect fit for a position—and they should. Anyone who knows what they are doing should not be hiring you if you do not have concrete reasons for working. Most people do not have good enough reasons for applying to positions. Accordingly, they do far worse in their careers and lives than they might otherwise.
Yesterday I interviewed someone for a position at BCG Attorney Search. The attorney had gone to great schools and worked in a top law firm, but there was nothing in their background to indicate interest in legal placement. There was not anything in their cover letter either. The only reason I interviewed the person was that they applied at least seven or eight times for the position over a few weeks. They just kept applying for the position, and I assumed they must have a lot of interest in the job. I did not understand why they were so seemingly interested in the position and wanted to find out.
When you know about the employer, have spoken with people there, and have gone out of your way to be sold on them, and believe in the job and the employer, employers want to hire you. However, when this person entered the interview, they knew very little about our company and almost nothing about the job. Instead, they were focused mainly on compensation, looking to be sold on the job, and bragging about their accomplishments. I listened to such statements as "I took calculus when I was only 14!" volunteered in response to unrelated questions. At one point, the attorney intimated I was more interested in recruiting them to another law firm than trying to work for my company.
The mistakes he made in his interview with me are quite common. People apply to positions without knowing what the employer is about, what the setting is like, and what the opportunities are like. They have not presold themselves on the job before interviewing there.
I know so many people in the legal profession (and outside of it) who have risen from nothing by really wanting something and committing to it. Jeff Bezos, as an example, had a vision for what Amazon could ultimately be. He believed it would sell everything and become what it is today. Everyone that achieves anything of significance knows what they want, and commits to it. You can too.
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Many attorneys, law students, and others do not have goals. They do not have mission statements or know where they should be going and what is important to them. You absolutely must have goals.
There are very few people that I have ever interviewed or met who did not have goals and did not achieve them. Most people do not know what they want. They do not know where they want to work and where they want to go when they get there. Goals and having a direction for your career are fundamental—they may be among the most critical aspects of your job.
If you are going to get any job and advance while you are there, you need to presell yourself. You need to work yourself up into a "white-hot frenzy" about whatever it is you want to do with your career and life and then go in this direction. It may be at a law firm, working for the government, in-house, or another job. Regardless of what you are seeking, you must know where you want to go. If you are enthusiastic enough, it is going to be apparent when you get into interviews. It will come through in how you look, talk, your eyes, what you say, and more.
You need to presell yourself on the employer before interviewing for any job and preferably before applying. You should be preselling yourself in the cover letter, in your resume, and be ready to show up for the interview already "presold" on working for the employer. You need to presell yourself on the employer's location, their compensation, who your peers will be, the type of work you will be doing, the opportunities for upward mobility, and how this fits within your overall goals. The best employers will realize you are a superstar, and you are going to get better jobs than your background and experience would otherwise indicate. If you are not presold and do not want the job, it will become apparent, and most employers will hire someone else.
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Too many people are living and working soulless, aimless lives. They go to work each day in pursuit of money, or because they think they should be working a specific type of position. You need to believe in something and want it. You need to believe in what you are doing. If you do not have goals and do not know what you want, the world is going to take advantage of you, and you are going to settle and never get to where you want to be.
My life and surroundings reflect my goals and what I have presold myself on. They always have been and always will be. Your life is the same—regardless of the stage of your career.
When I finished my first year of law school, I was not happy. I worked extremely hard and did well in my first year—but not nearly as well as I had hoped. I had never seen people so competitive with one another as I saw in law school. I did not think the people I met were especially fun to be around.
Before going to law school, I was an asphalt contractor and found this much more exciting and fun. I liked the people, being outdoors, and feeling like I was in control over what I was doing and how much money I was making. In contrast, the law seemed like an atmosphere where people were undermining one another. There was too much competition for too few resources (jobs, clients), and there was much more rejection, unhappiness, and stress than in being an asphalt contractor. In short, I was quite confused about what I was doing and had some doubts that I was doing the right thing.
None of this mattered, though. Early in my college career, I had set a goal to get into a good law school. I had asked myself what I needed to do and then went out of my way to develop the background and grades that would be important to law schools. I even settled on a first-choice law school (the University of Virginia) and was in contact with the admissions office from the time I was a second-year college student—calling them, writing letters, and more. By the time I applied, they knew who I was and how much I wanted to attend. Early on, I learned that if you want something, you need to do whatever you can to go after it and be attractive to that person, place, or thing.
However, by the end of my first year of law school, I was quite confused. None of this was what I expected. I felt entirely alone in this competitive environment and was questioning much of the point of what I was doing. For my summer job, instead of earning thousands of dollars a week doing my asphalt business, I was working for free in the Justice Department in Washington, DC. I was staying in a cheap hotel that sold a greater variety of handcuffs and adult novelties than food in its gift shop. My room looked directly at an industrial air conditioning unit the size of a small house that blocked almost all the light coming into my room and shook so hard my bed would scurry across the floor when I was not in it. I was not enjoying myself at all. One evening, while trying to watch television in my room over the roar of the air conditioner, I went to get a soda from the vending machine and caught a drunk guy peeing in the ice maker on my floor.
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Regardless, I knew this was my best career option—and I needed to embrace it if I was going to succeed. I needed to become incredibly enthusiastic about practicing law, law firms, the city I wanted to work in, and what I needed to do. I needed to formulate a goal and a mission related to practicing law. My father always said to me that "you are not going to want to do asphalt when you are 40," and he was right. The people I knew in their 40's and 50's looked like lizards because they had spent so much time in the sun over hot, wet asphalt. Moreover, the lifestyle had its own set of problems that made it very difficult to sustain over the long term. It was also not healthy - it could kill you.
One day I was buying some asphalt sealer from the well-educated son of an asphalt sealer factory owner. He had recently gotten his MBA from the University of Michigan and was taking over running the factory. He was a very clean-cut "banker type" that seemed amused by the people to whom he sold his product. He looked like the son of privileged parents who had shielded him from the reality of their work.
"Does this stuff cause cancer?" I asked him one day, half-joking.
He looked at me very seriously and stated: "Not immediately."
To get sufficiently enthusiastic about practicing law, I started reading everything I could about being an attorney. I read books about law firms and books about successful attorneys. I studied these books and learned what attorneys did. I decided I wanted to be a litigator, not a corporate attorney, and developed reasons that this was a good fit for me. I saw myself doing this sort of work. I spent my free time becoming the person I wanted to be.
I watched the law firm attorneys I saw in Washington, DC, and asked them questions. At the Justice Department, I asked the attorneys that had worked in law firms about their experiences. I started formulating personal goals to work in a law firm and to do litigation. I made this my focus. I ignored negative messages about what it was like to work in a law firm and made sure I thought as positively as I could about it. I decided I wanted to work in New York City. For several weeks in the summer, I visited New York City and met attorneys there and asked them questions about the goal. I put on the face of someone that wanted to work there as a summer associate and attorney.
I made this a goal.
Because I had such a negative experience as a first-year law student and then working for free in my first summer of law school, there was no reason for me to be enthusiastic about speaking with law firms. The positions paid far less than being a contractor, and the people were less fun. I needed to sit in one place indoors and not run around outside, and there were so many other drawbacks to me at the time. Nevertheless, I worked myself up into a frenzy and sold myself on how badly I wanted to work in a major law firm and work in New York City. I learned about the law firms I was interviewing with, spoke with people about how to interview, and tried to seek out as much advice as possible. I was completely sold on the work I wanted to do and on getting a position with a major law firm in New York. When the interviews came around, I put on the appearance of someone well-suited to this.
When I interviewed with law firms in other cities, I dropped the ball because I was not presold. One law firm in Washington, DC, asked me where I wanted to live. Because I knew nothing about the area, I simply blurted out "Georgetown" after an uncomfortable pause—it was the only neighborhood I knew. In contrast, if someone had asked me a similar question about New York, I would have been able to engage in an extended conversation about different neighborhoods and the pluses and minuses of each. I had educated myself that much about the market. I prepared exceptionally well for interviews. I knew the geography where I was interviewing, had lots of information about firms I was interviewing, and knew about the people to whom I was speaking. I imagined how I would connect with each person I met before the interview and find commonalities and other ways to get along with them.
Most attorneys do not sufficiently sell themselves, do not commit to jobs when they get there, and never really know what they want to do. They (and probably you) get too caught up in the forest ever to see the trees. If you are going to become someone and get the positions you want, you need to have goals.
Most young attorneys want to work in law firms and make a lot of money. If this is what you want, set an early goal of going to the best law school you can, and doing as well as possible. A good goal—but it is not enough. Interest in money is also generally not enough. You need a purpose for what you are trying to do, and this purpose needs to be something that motivates you on an ongoing basis. People without goals often do not get anywhere.
I am sick and tired of seeing so many rudderless law students and attorneys. The fact is that anyone who graduates from law school and passes the bar exam can become extraordinarily successful and happy in their career if they know what they want and who they are.
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How to Create a Statement of a Chief Aim or Definite Purpose
If you are going to be successful in the practice of law, the most important thing you can do is have a statement of a chief aim or definite purpose. Ideally, you should write this down. This statement of a chief aim will guide everything you do in your legal career and can be redone from time to time.
If you have not done so, I recommend reading the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Many of the most successful people credit this book with their success. I read it when I was in college, and the thinking in it changed my life—it helped me get into the law school I wanted, the firm I wanted, and the life I wanted. I once heard Anthony Robbins say that he read it several times, and people who have read it twice as often are twice as successful as him while those who have read it three times as often are 3x as successful.
One of the most famous lines in Think and Grow Rich is, "Anything the mind of man can conceive and believe can be achieved."
After spending several years speaking with over 16,000 people, he found that over 95% of the people he spoke with had no defined chief aim in their lives. He discovered that the people who had well-defined statements of purpose, with specific plans for reaching these purposes, were the most successful. Hill wrote: "Any definite chief aim that is deliberately fixed in mind and held there, with the determination to realize it, finally saturates the entire subconscious mind until it automatically influences the physical action of the body toward the attainment of that purpose."
Hill believed that without purpose, most people do many different things, and their thoughts and effort go in numerous different directions. This lack of focus is something that "leads not to power, but to indecision and weakness." If you understand this statement, your life and career will change. The truth is you can achieve anything you want in your life and career if your efforts are focused. In contrast, if these efforts are scattered, you will not do well.
According to Hill, to reach any goal, you need to:
- Have a burning desire,
- Have a definite purpose, and
- Take the appropriate action to reach that goal.
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1. You Need a Burning Desire if You Are Going to Succeed as an Attorney and in Your Job Search
You need to work yourself up to know what it is you want. You need to learn everything you can about whatever you want to do and what is a good fit for your skills and abilities. You need to believe in that and commit to it, so your efforts are not scattered. You need to understand what is good for you and what is not and where your skills are most likely to be valued and in what practice setting. If you believe in something and want it, your odds of getting it are good. You need to want whatever it is you believe in, though.
I regularly come across attorneys that are incredibly enthusiastic about practicing law in one setting, practice area, or another and want it. There are too many examples to list, but having this desire is extremely important – it opens doors through some force of the universe I do not understand.
A few years ago, I was working with a woman who was clerking for a bankruptcy judge in a smaller Mountain state, had never worked for a law firm, and had below-average grades in a top 100 law school. She was a good candidate, but certainly not the sort of candidate you would expect to get a position with a major law firm in New York City in their bankruptcy department. Additionally, the economy was booming, and there were hardly any bankruptcy jobs. She had not even taken the New York Bar Exam. Regardless, she was "all over" working as a bankruptcy attorney in a major New York law firm. She told me she was not interested in applying to firms elsewhere because this was the only place she wanted to work. She would not listen to any form of logic.
- I explained to her that the sorts of law firms she wanted to work for did not hire clerks and would not hire her if she had not been a summer associate in another large law firm. She did not care.
- I further explained that major law firms in New York simply did not hire attorneys out of her law school and especially ones with below-average grades.
- I told her that the market for bankruptcy attorneys was virtually nonexistent at the time—she did not care.
- I pleaded with her that she was committing career suicide since it was now July, and her clerkship ended in August, and she needed to find a job. She did not care.
- I told her that without ever having worked in New York and had no contacts there, law firms might not understand her interest in the market and would be unlikely to interview her. She did not care.
This woman had worked herself up and knew what she wanted. She knew some people from college who had gone to better law schools and gotten jobs in New York and had spoken with them and wanted to be like them. She had investigated the market and spent time studying it. She had seen attorneys from New York come into her court and watched them and decided she wanted to be like them. Before contacting me, she even spent weeks investigating all the recruiters in New York and the ones she thought would work the hardest for her and open the most doors. She took every action she possibly could to position herself for success. Before working with her, she emailed me and contacted me several times, pleading with me to personally represent her.
Because she wanted success so badly, I decided to represent her and give her my all. I wrote a cover letter to firms where I explained her singular passion for the New York market. I informed firms with no openings that I realized what she was seeking to do seemed next to impossible—it would force them to lower their hiring standards and take a chance on someone with no law firm experience—but that I thought it would be worth it for them because she was so committed. I doubted anything would happen because there were no openings, and large law firms in New York are incredibly selective and have tons of people to choose from, but I gave it my all and did my best.
Ultimately, though, it was not me who got her a job with a major New York law firm—it was her. From the moment she did a phone screening until she showed up to interview with the firm that gave her the first offer, she was "on," and the law firm had no choice but to hire her—she wanted the job and it showed. I had a small part in getting her in the door, but her commitment got her an amazing job. She is still at the job years later. She wants success so much she goes to networking events consistently, meets lots of people, is developing business, and becoming a top New York bankruptcy attorney. Her transformation has been amazing, and it is all because she wants something.
You need to develop a passion for whatever it is you want to do. One very successful litigator I know became an incredible writer. He developed a passion for writing because his father was an immigrant and always felt discriminated against and held back because of his accent and language ability. Many people develop an interest in the practice of law and a specific practice setting because of things that happened to them or their parents in the past, or role models they may have known when they were young and others who inspire them.
The father of one attorney I know was in jail for several weeks. He lost all of his money due to committing trademark infringement and then ignoring a court order after losing a trial against him. The father had a significant legal judgment against him for some $15,000,000 that forced him to "live off the grid." He lost his house, business, cars, and everything, and his daughter had been devastated. She was determined to help her family recover, excelled in college and law school, and became a trademark attorney at one of the top law firms in the Country. She ultimately succeeded in getting the judgment cleared for her father and helping her family recover.
You need to figure out how to develop a passion for something. You need to develop a passion for law, the practice setting you are in, and your practice area. Without this, nothing of significance will happen to you. Your efforts will be scattered, and you will never get to where you want to go.
People can pick up on our energy – even when we are not around them, and they are far away. Energy and enthusiasm are contagious. The most successful and happiest people have the most highly developed energy, and it comes about by their belief and focuses on something.
One woman I hired to work for me as a recruiter years ago was an attorney who lived right next door to a woman who worked for a competing legal recruiting firm. The woman I hired did not go to a top law school and did not have the sort of qualifications of the people I usually hire—or that the other recruitment firm hired at the time either. For one, she had never worked in a law firm. She noticed that her neighbor seemed very happy at the job and was doing well financially. When she applied to work with the woman and asked her about the job, she received the cold shoulder and then was told she was unqualified. She was angry and vowed to herself that she would prove the woman wrong.
She called me on the phone and started leaving messages that she wanted to work for me. She then flew herself out to interview with me on a Saturday morning. When I showed up at the office 15 minutes early, she was already there. She wanted the job, asked the right questions, and sold me on hiring her. When she started, she did exceptionally well at the position – and in her second year was the top-performing person on our firm. It all came from wanting something and believing in it.
When you want something, the universe opens up to you, and people pick up on it. Partner, associates, and others who truly want something communicate this, and the world picks up on it.
2. You Need a Definite Purpose—a Definite Chief Aim
Your definite chief aim is a clearly defined sense of purpose. When you have this, it guides your subconscious mind and powerfully guides your thinking. It helps you believe that positive things will happen instead of negative.
Hill's discussion of a definite chief aim focuses on money, but you can make it about anything you want. An example of a definite chief aim is in what Bruce Lee wrote after reading Think and Grow Rich. Lee wanted to become the highest-paid Asian actor and in January of 1969 wrote:
"I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental superstar in the United States. In return, I will give the most exciting performances and render the best quality in the actor's capacity. Starting 1970, I will achieve world fame, and from then onward, till the end of 1980, I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness."
Hill believes that if you want something, you need to commit it to writing. For instance, Lee wanted to make money, and based his definite chief aim on these three questions:
- How much money do you want to acquire? (This is your explicit aim.)
- How much time do you want to pass before you have it? (This is the period you want to achieve it in.)
- What service or plan do you have to acquire it? (This is what you are going to do—the more specific, the better.)
For example, your goal might be to be the most sought out and famous class action attorney in the United States. It would be fantastic if this were your definite chief aim, but very few attorneys have this aim, even those who have been practicing for decades. You need a purpose, though, and a desire to do something specific. It does not have to be about money.
You could ask these three questions:
- What do I want to become?
- How much time do you want to pass before you have it? (This is the period you want to achieve it in.)
- What service or plan do you have to acquire it? (This is what you are going to do—the more specific, the better.)
After asking and answering these three questions, create your chief aim document.
"I, NAME, will be the most sought out and famous class action defense attorney in the United States. In return, I will brand myself as the best class action attorney publicly in the Country, committing to this practice area, bringing in the most significant cases, align myself with people who will support all my goals, and win all my cases. I will begin to take the actions needed to be known far and wide and be sought out by clients and achieve this within five years."
You then should sign and date this and read it each morning and again before you go to bed daily. Visualize this and be filled with enthusiasm as you do so.
The truth about this method of setting goals with an aim is that it works. Everyone I know that has ever followed this method has gotten what they wanted. You can too.
3. What Action Will You Take to Reach that Purpose?
This is the third part of the formula and covered above. If you are going to be a famous class action defense attorney, you need to take specific actions to do this. What are you going to do to reach your goal? Who will benefit from what you are doing? How will they benefit? What is your plan? In the example above, people will benefit because you will be winning all of your cases.
Mary Lou Retton became the first American gymnast in 1984 to win the all-around gold medal in the Olympics. A reporter asked her: "How does it feel to win the first perfect 10 for the US Olympic team?"
She answered: "Like it always felt."
"But no one has ever done it before!" the reporter said.
She replied simply: "I've done it thousands of times in my mind."
If you want to achieve anything of significance in your career or get somewhere, you need to know where you are going. You are not going to get anywhere until you do. You will not get anywhere near as far as you can in your job search, either. Employers want to hire people who are committed to a direction, and they pick up on it. You will also develop a sense of commitment to your work when you know where you want to go. Most people lack commitment, which allows them to get sidetracked by others and not end up where they would otherwise be
- You Need to Have Desire to Achieve Your Goals
- Be the Person You Are Capable of Being
- Understand Your Ultimate Goal
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays
You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts
You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives
Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.