Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 33
- It is common for law students, attorneys, and others to get job offers—and take jobs—that make them unhappy.
- It is common for law students and attorneys not to get offers after trying for a long time.
- Consequently, many give up on the practice of law entirely or take jobs that are tangentially-related to the practice of law.
- Address these common mistakes and you will dramatically improve your odds of being hired.
It is common for law students, attorneys, and others to get job offers—and take jobs—that make them unhappy. It is common for law students and attorneys not to get offers after trying for a long time. Consequently, many give up on the practice of law entirely or take jobs that are tangentially-related to the practice of law.
I am sick and tired of people making mistakes with their legal careers. I hate seeing people not reaching their full potential, being unhappy, making employers miserable, and not fixing these issues with their careers and lives.
- Why You Should Quit Practicing Law
- 15 Reasons You Should Not Quit The Practice Of Law
- Why Attorneys Need to be Exploited to Succeed
Have I Done Everything I Can to Get Job Offers?
As a preliminary matter, if you are not getting the job offers you want, you are likely doing something wrong, or have done something wrong.
Many attorneys feel angry or upset when employers offer them a job they believe is beneath their skillset or pays less than they think they should be making. Others get upset when they are not getting job offers at all. They may have applied to lots of positions and are not getting a lot of traction. If you are not getting the jobs you are capable of, there are typically several reasons for this that you can fix:
a) You are not applying to enough places or in enough markets.
The biggest crisis in legal job search—and it is a crisis—is that most people are drastically under-marketed in their searches. Consequently, they do not find the right employers and have unsatisfying legal careers—or do not find positions at all.
Most people just assume they have done everything right. This is simply not the case. You need to make sure that you have exposed yourself to every possible opportunity. If you are under-marketing yourself, you will never know if you are getting the best offers you can.
Many attorneys are very controlling in their searches and apply to only a few places or believe they must study every employer before applying exhaustively. This is crazy. Most law firms consist of all sorts of practice groups and possible people you would be working for—you cannot read an online review of the firm and know what working there entails.
I regularly work with attorneys that may have been looking for a job for months to years, using a legal recruiter that only sends them to a few big firms that have openings. These recruiters do not know the market and tend to be aware of opportunities only at large law firms. Consequently, these attorneys stay unhappily employed longer and move to firms no different from those they came from. These attorneys are paralyzed.
When I represent someone, I do everything I can to make them look at more firms and markets and get as exposed to as many jobs and opportunities as possible. Each day across the United States, numerous candidates of ours get interviews with law firms that do not have openings. Most placements we make are in firms that do not have public opportunities. I look at large firms, small firms, and many legal markets.
Currently, I am working with a tax attorney in New York City, working for an accounting firm. The market is dead for tax attorneys in New York City. Even if there were tax openings, it is difficult to transition from a tax firm to a law firm without any experience—and this attorney had five years of experience. A traditional recruiter would not work with him because most recruiters do not have a lot of tax openings. My candidate is interviewing with a law firm in Nebraska this week that needs someone just like him. He has no problem with Nebraska and wants to get out of New York and to a market where he can raise a family.
There will always be firms in most markets that are interested in someone with your background. If this attorney wanted to, he could probably get a position with a small law firm doing tax in New York if we really penetrated the market and looked closely. There are opportunities everywhere. These firms may not have contacted recruiters or put openings out (publicly or otherwise), but they will hire the right person if the right person appears. The reason is simple: If a law firm has the work, they can make (lots of) money by billing out your work for more than they pay you. It is like this with all kinds of employers.
Most law firms have "gaps" they are not filling—work they are not accepting or doing—because they do not have attorneys to do it. As legal placement professionals, our job is to find these firms so they and you can make money. We use our contacts, research, and history with each firm to identify potential opportunities for you. If you seek an in-house, government, or other position, you need to cover the market.
It is axiomatic that you are going to get better results when exposed to more opportunities. When you are looking for a position, you should use LawCrossing.com (to research positions), apply to as many employers as you possibly can, and look at as many markets as you can.
LawCrossing.com is a job opening research service that charges a monthly fee to use. Narrow-minded attorneys and law students will say, "I would never pay to look for a job" because they do not value research into openings and the market.
Anything you can do to increase your reach and the number of employers you are applying to will increase your odds of getting hired. You need to do massive amounts of research and other work to find positions. You should network and applying to firms and companies without openings, and not allow rejection to affect you. You need to be as proactive as you possibly can.
Everyone wants someone to reach out to them and realize their value—this does not always happen, though. You need to work hard to find opportunities. Usually, you will not get where you want to go unless you do everything you can to find the right position. If you are not getting the right results, you need to work harder to find the right position.
You also need to be geographically flexible. Limiting your interest to one market, or not applying to more markets, can often hold you back a great deal. The more markets you look at, the more success you will have in your search.
The number one mistake people make when looking for a position is under-marketing themselves.
- Is Your Networking Working
- Top 10 Reasons Attorneys Should Look at Multiple Markets in Their Job
- How Attorneys and Law Students Can Use Networking to Find Legal Positions
b) You are trying to get the wrong type of legal job.
Your background is what it is. There are many rules and other limitations you are going to be up against.
If you are a law student, your grades and where you are in law school are essential. This will control the sorts of employers that are interested in you. It is difficult to get into the best law firms if you do not go to a top law school or do very well in a lesser law school. This does not mean large law firms are closed off to you forever, but they will be until you get experience and develop a marketable track record.
If you are a corporate attorney, getting hired as a litigator is going to be challenging. You cannot reasonably expect most law firms to hire you if you do not have the right experience. I have seen people first in their class from top law schools try to switch practice areas by leaving their firms to find law firms that will allow them to change practice areas. They get chilly receptions in the market.
If you are working in a company, working in the public interest, or for the government, it is going to be challenging to get hired by major law firms. Law firms want to hire people from law firms, and they can. Anything in your background that shows a lack of commitment to a law firm practice setting will hurt you.
If you are with a major law firm and very senior with no business, it is going to be challenging to get hired by another major law firm. Law firms are typically most interested in senior attorneys with business.
If you are applying to work in an extremely competitive market that you are not from, it will be more challenging to get a position than if you are from there. There are lots of people working in competitive markets. For example, law firms in New York City do not have a lot of incentive to hire people from Kentucky. They have plenty of talented people there.
If you are applying to the wrong sorts of jobs, you will have to apply to more places before someone “bites” than if you are not.
I see people all the time who have drawn a line in the sand about the sort of work they will or will not do. Some people will only take jobs that pay a certain amount of money; others require reduced hours, remote work, or other limitations.
If you are applying to the wrong sorts of jobs and do not fix this, it will always hold you back.
C) Your resume and cover letter need a lot of work.
Your resume and cover letter will typically determine what happens to you, who interviews you, and who makes you an offer. Your resume needs to focus squarely on the sort of position you are seeking and speak to what the employer wants. If you do not speak to what the employer wants, this will harm you.
The other day I reviewed the resume of a law student who wants to work in a law firm. For over a decade before law school, this law student had a distinguished military career with countless honors and other activities that took up over five pages of his resume and spoke to all sorts of leadership activities he was proud of. If I were a country preparing to go to war, I know this is someone I would want leading me! Nevertheless, very few law firms will be interested in someone whose resume says very little—next to nothing—about how they can help the employer.
It is impressive to know how to drive five types of tanks and operate a variety of weapons, but it has nothing to do with the job. This attorney was not getting jobs because he did not look ready to do legal work, or be led, by people inside of law firms. He seemed utterly uninterested in ideas—rigid, as if he belonged in the military, not practicing law. Your resume needs to look the part. If someone hires him, they will pay him less than he could make with a good resume.
Your resume may make you look unstable, undecided, and not committed to legal work. You need to focus your resume and speak to whatever job you are seeking. It is not about you; it is about the employer and what they need.
- What Law Firms Want to See in Your Cover Letter
- What Should I Put on My Attorney Resume?
- Should a Resume Be Only One Page Long?
- How Attorneys and Law Students Can Craft the Perfect Cover Letter
- I’ve Reviewed the Resumes of Over 500,000 Attorneys and Law Students: Here is What I Have Learned About How to Construct a Legal Resume
d) Your interview skills need improvement.
People make all sorts of errors in interviews. There are attorneys and law students who ace every interview they go into, and there are those who bomb almost every interview and never seem to get positions. Some are in between.
The best interviewees connect with employers and speak to what the employer needs. They make the interviews about the employer and not about themselves. They appear willing and able to work. They come across as people who want to work. Employers see them as people who will support them.
If you do not get offers for most of the jobs you interview for, you are likely doing something wrong in your interviews and need to fix this. You should get interview coaching and read all you can and fix this. Bad interviewing can hold you back.
- Top 23 Law Firm Interview Tips for Attorneys and Law Students: How to Excel in Law Firm Interviews
- 21 Major Job Interview Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs
- The Importance of Interview Preparation — No Matter How Confident You Feel about Your Interviewing Skills
- The Five Reasons Law Firms and Legal Employers Do Not Hire You After an Interview
Should I Take a Job Offer I am Not Happy With?
a) Reasons to Take Job Offers You Are Not Happy With:
There are many obvious reasons to take job offers you are unhappy with, such as needing the money or having a family to support.
A gap of unemployment on your resume is usually harmful—whether during your law school summers when you get out of law school or the rest of your career until you retire. While there are exceptions (such as having a child and a few other things that make unemployment gaps acceptable), most employers do not like to see this.
Attorneys with employment gaps on their resume also communicate a lack of commitment to legal practice. If you have employment gaps, it shows that you did not do whatever you could to find a position and could not effectively “represent yourself” when you needed to. If an attorney cannot represent themselves to solve a problem (getting hired), how can they be expected to solve others’ problems effectively?
If you have a gap of unemployment on your resume, law firms and other employers will often assume there is something wrong with you. They will wonder why others are not hiring you and will not take a chance. While there are countless exceptions, many attorneys with gaps on their resume made problems in their past employers. The longer you have a gap in your resume, the more it will hurt you.
Legal employers want to believe that you need to work. If you need to work, this gives them control over you. For example, when you buy a house, have a family and a mortgage, employers like it—they know you will do whatever you can to support this. The unwritten rule for attorneys is that once you start working as an attorney, you are expected never to stop working.
There is a saying in real estate that “the first offer you get is the best offer you get” when selling a house. I am not sure this is true, but in my experience it is. I once purchased a home for $300,000 less than it received an offer for when it first went on the market—it sat there for almost a year in a good market. The longer the house was on the market, the more people found things wrong with it when they looked at it:
It was right next to a bus stop, and the buses were loud and billowed dark smoke in the backyard (true).
It was right across the street from a large hotel. During the weekends, people clogged the road in front of the house with cars (true).
You could hear the chatter of the hotel staff at the bus stop when their shifts got out.
It had bizarre, tasteless paintings on the living room and dining room ceilings of naked people that the former owner (a 25-year old cocaine-addicted heiress) had painted in the 1980s at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, that the new owner would have to live with.
The kitchen and many other rooms desperately needed remodeling.
The long list of issues and problems with the house became more evident to each successive person who looked at it the longer the house sat on the market. People started asking themselves, “what’s wrong with this thing?” and finding more and more issues. It is like this the longer you are on the market as well. Your presumed value goes down, and people become more and more nervous about pulling the trigger and hiring you—they will question what is wrong with you to not be hired for such a long time.
One of the reasons it is so important to work hard to find a job is to avoid the gap in your resume.
b) Reasons to Not Take Job Offers You Are Unhappy With:
When you take an offer you are not happy with, you may become toxic to the employer. You typically always have one foot out the door. You do not work as hard as you might otherwise and feel angry that you are not doing what you want, or getting paid what you want. You will poison the people around you, set yourself up for bad references, and have an overall bad experience if you do not approach it in the right way.
In my legal placement business, I always used to come across graduates of top American law schools—such as Harvard, Berkeley, or Columbia that could not get positions after graduation. In all cases, they were smart but had aspects that made them unattractive to the sorts of firms that employed their peers. In the twenty years I have been doing this, I have hired several of these people to give them legal experience.
None of these people were happy. In almost all cases, they were resentful I was not paying as much as major law firms were paying. In one example, after he protested, I paid a recent graduate as much as a major law firm would, and he was still unhappy because I am not a major law firm. These people did not want to do the job, were unhappy, and did the job poorly. They undermined the people around them; they did not commit to the work in a spirited way, and it was a mistake. I have done this on numerous occasions.
I have also made some huge mistakes hiring legal recruiters.
In one instance, I made an offer to a person who had been a recruiter at a competing firm and had worked at one of the five most prestigious law firms in the United States for a decade. I made the recruiter an offer, and then he did not accept the offer for several weeks. I then decided to call him and retract the offer. The day I was going to do this, he beat me to the punch and sent an email accepting the offer. I had no idea why he had delayed for so long.
When he started working for me, he did not commit and was not good at his job. He complained a lot and undermined the business. He needed constant guidance and seemed out for his own good more than the company and his candidates. He was a toxic presence. About six months after starting, he took a position with a law school as their director of career services. This is what he wanted to do all along and never wanted to be in the legal placement business. He delayed his offer with me because he was waiting for an offer from them.
Another person I know of who has never committed has been an attorney with a major New York-based law firm for over a decade. They had then taken a job as the recruitment director for that significant law firm and were laid off during a recession. They approached me for a position but did not accept the legal placement position for several weeks. When they did accept the position, they delayed some time before taking the job, and when they did, they seemed very unwilling to learn. Some months later, the job with their firm opened up again, and they rushed right back to it. They had never wanted to work on the outside.
These hiring mistakes went both ways—people took positions they should not have, and I made hiring decisions I should not have. This never works out well for either side. If you do not want a job and are not going to commit to it, there is a lot of danger in taking the role – you will hurt yourself and the employer in the process.
You could be having issues because of the location you are working in, the economy, the law school you attended, your grades, how aggressively you have looked for a position, seniority, and more.
There are also all sorts of jobs that attorneys, law students, and others can get that are not that difficult to find.
You can work as a contract attorney, work for a low-paid public interest or nonprofit organization, work for a low-paying personal injury and insurance defense firm, work in an awkward government position, do consumer-facing work for solo practitioners, or work in a very undesirable geographic location. If you want to stay employed as an attorney and get experience, there are always people who will hire you. Incredibly, I still see positions advertised seeking attorneys to do work for just above minimum wage. There are countless jobs you can find if you are willing to do them.
There are all sorts of legal positions in the marketplace that will seduce you, even though they are beneath your skill-set, lead to nowhere, and you will leave the first chance you get.
Attorneys who take positions they are not happy with always leave. They almost always harm the employer in the process, and also themselves. They take the job for the wrong reasons and, consequently, leave.
Another saying is that "you should never rehire anyone" that I once heard a well-known billionaire say. It was one of his "cardinal rules" by which he governed his businesses. I have made mistakes by not following this rule, and it has always bitten me hard.
On one occasion, my human resources director quit because he was unhappy. He then emailed me and called me about coming back. I rehired him, and he stayed for six months. During those six months, he was miserable and went around sharing his unhappiness with everyone, creating a very negative environment. He stopped doing his job well, came in late, and was not dedicated. He then quit and went around sharing his displeasure with ten employers in less than five years before finding a setting he was more comfortable and happier with.
On another occasion, a recruiter of mine quit because she was unhappy. She then called me and begged to come back, and I brought her back. Six months later, she left and took one of my best employees to a competing firm. Then she recruited another employee from another office to join her, and that employee stole data and went to the competing firm with it. A lawsuit ensued, and the competing firm got in trouble, the employees of mine got in trouble, and two of the people are no longer even in the business – one went to work in a law school in career services.
I have concluded that taking jobs you do not want rarely ends well. If you do this, you are likely to be unhappy and make others miserable. You will likely not commit. You will create problems. Unless you can sell yourself on the opportunity and make the best of it, you are most likely hurting yourself.
It is like this with jobs and relationships. You should not be seriously romantically involved with someone when you know it will end because you are not committed—that is not fair to you or the other person. You should not marry someone you do not love, or who is not going to give you what you want. You should not stay in relationships with people that are never going to provide you with what you need. This does not help anyone, and it will not help you.
Another reason to not take a job offer you are unhappy with is that it will communicate to future employers a direction in your career that is incompatible with where you want to go.
If you want to work in a law firm, you may not want to work in-house.
If you want to be a plaintiff-side litigator, you are better off not taking a defense job.
If you want a permanent job in the future, you will be better off not taking a contract job.
It is essential that the decisions you make with your career and jobs you take show upward mobility towards your ultimate objective or otherwise support where you want to go. You need a vision for where you want to go. You need to know where you want to be in your career and life and have a commitment to this.
- Are You Unhappy as a Lawyer? You May Be Buying into the Wrong Narrative
- What You Really Need to Know Before Accepting An Offer
- Be Committed to What You Do
Many people spend their lives and careers dabbling—and there are many ways of dabbling. You may not commit to a job, a practice area, a practice setting, a market, a person, an identity, or a career. Dabbling and not knowing what you want is a significant error that people make, which is most pronounced when it comes to choosing the practice setting where you are going to work. When you get offers you do not want or do not get offers at all, you are likely guilty of dabbling.
The number one cause of failure for attorneys is that they dabble and do not commit. If you stop dabbling, start committing, and become focused on something, you will eventually get the jobs you want. The cream always does rise to the top.
If you are not getting the job offers you want, the fault most often lies in you. You need to fix what you can and realize that being focused on the future, being committed, knowing what you want, and doing what it takes to get you there will make you succeed.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.