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Deciding on a Career

Lifestyle | Job Exercise | Networking/Contacts | Legal Career Alternatives | Links

Think about Lifestyle

There is nothing that says that the job you take now is one that you will have to stick with forever and, in fact, most people change their career focus several times in their lives. That said, the decisions you make now will affect your future job marketability. Skills such as public speaking, strong writing and familiarity with computers provide a general skill set and will carry across sectors and positions. Knowledge of environmental law or the federal regulatory process, for example, is the specific skill set that will make you more marketable.

Now is the time to do some thinking about your long-term goals and what skills you want to cultivate in order to make yourself more valuable to an employer and the sacrifices you are willing and able to make to accomplish those goals. It is also the time to think about what you value and find interesting enough to devote a substantial part of your life to. What work is going to make getting up in the morning a pleasure, as opposed to a chore? What sacrifices are you willing to make to get there? It is one thing to dream of big paycheck and say that you want to work your way up the ladder in a large, private law firm; it may be a different story when you learn that you will be required to work at least 60 hours per week and weekends for the first 5 years of your career before you gain any standing in the firm.

Some things to consider:

  • Talents and abilities that you have and would like to use in a job setting
  • Skills that you would like to develop or improve
  • Activities and tasks that you would like to avoid in a job setting
  • Salary, location, and travel
  • Family responsibilities
  • Kinds of people and environments that you prefer
  • Long-term career and educational goals
  • Long-standing as well as brand-new interests and hobbies
  • Past experiences and what you have learned from them. These could be ANY kind of experience including work, volunteer, academic, athletic, artistic, and travel. Think broadly.

An Exercise

Do a survey of the want ads from at least two or three major newspapers. Clip out all the ads for positions you might want to have someday. Take it all the way up the line to VP and President, if that is your mission. Then, on three separate pieces of paper, accumulate the following information from these ads:

Page #1: List all of the job responsibilities, duties, tasks and functions.
Page #2: List all of the experience, skills and knowledge required.
Page #3: List all the keywords or industry buzzwords.

In analyzing the information, note where you are now in relation to where you want to be in the future. Take note of any and all gaps, present or future. Checkmark all the gaps that you can change before you enter the job market and lay out detailed plans for making those changes. If there are buzzwords you are not familiar with, make sure you find out. Keep your gap analysis information for future reference and update it as your career progresses. Work on closing the gap as much as possible between your academic career and the career that you are seeking. The closer you are, the easier the decision will be. For you and the employer.

What Transferable Skills Do You Have? (.pdf)

Networking/Contacts

If there is a position or area that is of particular interest to you, go straight to the source and ask questions of the people who are doing that work. You can ask a professor or university staff member to recommend someone to you, contact a professional association whose members work in a certain field, try attending meetings or workshops where you will be able to meet people in the field, or ask family and friends for contacts. You can also try writing a letter to an organization in which you are interested and requesting an informational interview. Cold-calling organizations should be a last resort and may be more successful with smaller organizations. In a larger organization, chances are that you will end up speaking with human resources personnel who understand the general responsibilities of a position but are probably not as familiar with the specific day-to-day activities. Some questions you may want to ask a contact:

  • What are the rewards/challenges/frustrations of your work?
  • How is your time allocated among your different responsibilities?
  • How much autonomy do you have?
  • What would you change about your job if you could change something?
  • How much of your work is done individually, how much in a team?
  • How much of your day/week can you plan, how much of your work comes up unexpectedly?
  • In what ways does your job/profession impact your lifestyle?
  • How did you choose this profession?
  • Would you choose it again?
  • How did you get to your current position?
  • Is there anything you wish you had done differently to prepare yourself for your current position?
  • What was the best advice you received from someone in your field when you were just starting?
  • What qualities do you think that successful people in your field have?
  • What kinds of things do you do (or can one do) outside of work to enhance your work performance?
  • What training and/or degrees are required/recommended for advancement?
  • Which schools are most highly regarded for training in your field?
  • What changes do you foresee as being the most dramatic in your field in the next several years?
  • How is technology impacting on the nature of your work and how you do your work?
  • How do you think the prospects for entry-level workers have changed in your field since you entered?
  • What do you think are the most common misconceptions that people have about your line of work?
  • Do you have suggestions of trade journals or books that I should read, professional associations that I should be aware of, or events that I should attend?

Click here for more information about networking.

Legal Career Alternatives

It is important to keep an open mind when considering your career options. To watch television, one might think that all lawyers work either in high end law firms or as criminal prosecutors in big cities. In reality, the legal profession has a great deal of variation. "There are nearly 800,000 lawyers in the country, of whom 70% work in private law firm practice. While that is an impressive number, it also means that 30% do not work in private law firms. Nearly 24,000 are government prosecutors; 40,000 work for government agencies; 80,000 are in for-profit business; 16,000 work for non-profits; 8,000 are in academia; 23,000 are judges and 45,000 are inactive. ... Although large firm practice captures the attention of lawyers and laymen alike, nearly half of all lawyers in private practice are sole practitioners, and approximately two thirds are in firms of five or less lawyers." Mark L. Byers, Ph.D.and Ronald W. Fox, Esq., Through the Looking Glass - Your Options in the Law, FindLaw.com.

Check out this Career Options Exercise to see positions a lawyer might hold in the following types of organizations. It may give you an idea of where your interest lies.

  • Large law firm (50+ lawyers)
  • Medium law firm (6 - 49 lawyers)
  • Small law firm (1 - 5 lawyers)
  • Public Interest law firm (4 - 10 lawyers)
  • Legal Services/Legal Aid organization
  • Non-profit organization
  • Association
  • Bar association
  • Academia
  • Government prosecutor
  • Government agency
  • Large corporations (100+ employees)
  • Small corporations (<100 employees)

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