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Economic Revival Will Jump-Start 2004 Job Growth

by Linda Green Pierce

Lawyers giving careful thought to career growth and possible job change are thankfully pushing 2003 out the door and ushering in a 2004 economy that may finally be on their side.

National forecasts are for a hiring boom that may begin as early as the first quarter of this year. Companies in the U. S., which were hamstrung for allocation of any resources for staff growth, are loosening up budgets to add headcount. Law firms, which were either letting go of associates or severely holding the line on recruiting, are thin in legal talent in many practice areas.

Renewed hiring from law firms and company legal departments is just underway and should accelerate as the year progresses, according to Linda Green Pierce, President of lawyer placement specialty firm Northwest Legal Search, Inc., in Portland, Oregon.

“As the economy picks up, the talent available inside law firms to perform the additional legal work is going to be overtaxed. In some cases, partners will be forced to perform associate-level work, which is never a good economic situation or best use of resources. Law firms, particularly, because of the associate downsizing in the last two years and lack of ongoing recruiting efforts, will find themselves in a talent shortage. This won’t be nearly as difficult as in the early to mid-1990s, but certainly employers will feel the pinch. Legal departments in companies have been telling us for a year that they could use help immediately, but additional headcount was virtually impossible to come by. Now that company financial numbers and stock prices are looking better, permission to add headcount and hire will appear. There is pent-up need,” predicts Green Pierce.

Many attorneys have stayed in positions of limited growth, development or learning. Green Pierce goes on: “With the economy starting to improve, this will be a time when attorneys will finally move, either to a different law firm or to a corporate legal department”, says Green Pierce. “In the last year, well-established professionals have stayed in their positions for fear that if they went out into the market and it didn’t work out, they’d have no safe harbor of return. Some of that fear has eroded. The overall employment number of those out of work or seeking jobs has remained steady in the last few months, the economy has improved and our lawyer candidates and clients are feeling more confident.”

With that in mind, Green Pierce offers the following information to attorneys, whether they’re actively looking or have been in a long-time career situation.

Assess your current situation. Determine where you are, where you want to go and what may be needed to accomplish your ideal move. Don’t shy away from a lateral move. It may be the right move for your long-term growth. In the case of a law firm, this may mean moving to a firm that has a deeper strength in your practice area or is marketing and branding strongly thus becoming the market-dominant provider. Such a move may allow you to grow in both clients and income within a year of the move.

Give relocation serious consideration. In the Northwest in particular, there are fewer in-house opportunities and people are loathe to move geographically. Many sit for years in a stagnant position and cap themselves out rather than consider a geographic relocation. Seriously look at a relocation, even if you consider it for only a 3 or 4 year stretch in order to gain ground in expertise, title or compensation.

Get out there. Step up your meeting attendance in professional, alumni and industry groups. Ask recruiters what’s happening in your practice area. Network with friendly colleagues. Schedule lunch with a former mentor or current one in whom you can confide. Attend a national CLE and interact with the attendees. Be a curious person.

Dust off that resume. Reword, revamp, revise it. If you haven’t updated your resume for a long time, you will want to eliminate some things that are no longer as important as they were when looking for that first job. The most current experience on your resume should get the longer description. Clubs and activities in law school don’t necessarily translate to the lawyer you are today. Make sure everything on your resume today is reflective of who you are today and where you want to go in the future.

Prepare to interview. If you have the opportunity to attend training or public speaking seminars, do so with a mind to the future presentations you will make to sell yourself. Ask a spouse, friend or trusted individual to mock interview with you. Write out the things you might want to say. Rehearse that script over and over and rewrite anything which you find is awkward. Practice to yourself; practice in front of a mirror. Anticipate and prepare, especially, for difficult questions. It used to be that lawyers laid off from positions were very uncommon and the “why” was a juicy bit of news in an interview. Today being laid off from a law firm or company carries little stigma, but your confidential presentation of the “why” is still important in an interview. Layoffs have been a fact of law and corporate life and there’s nothing wrong with having been laid off. But it’s important to present an accurate and positive picture of what happened. And never trash an employer, no matter how you feel you might have been mistreated or how poorly the prior employer might have handled your situation.

Retool and train. In this past flat economy and with more time on their hands, a number of our lawyer candidates have returned to school to get an LLM or an MBA. Many more have used the CLE budget at their firms or their own funds in order to change their practice focus or enhance the breadth of their practice knowledge. Don’t overlook opportunities to “network for knowledge” within your existing law firm or company legal department. If you are not as busy yet as you could be while you’re awaiting the economy’s change, your supervisor might also have some extra time and be willing to spend it nurturing you. Schedule a lunch or coffee to upgrade your skills and practice area or market knowledge from a new mentor.

Thankfully, the economy and job prospects in 2004 are at last headed in a positive direction. Adding your positive momentum is key!