The Lateral Transition Dance
by Packard N. Brown
When Steve (not his real name) slammed the door to his office, he thought he was putting his career troubles behind him. Once again the senior partners rejected his bid for shareholder status, so this time he decided to move on. The closing of one door would lead to the opening of others—or so he thought.
He set out on his search with lots of energy, hope and a ton of advice from friends and colleagues. He bought the recommended 24-lb. resúmé paper—gray with light fleck. It looked sharp. He paid an "arm and a leg" for a service to doctor up his resúmé. It looked professional. He mailed more than 250 copies to various firms, recruiters and companies and waited for the phone to ring, only it didn’t—for six long months it didn’t. It looked hopeless. Finally, he landed a position (part-time) with a small boutique firm, somewhat dazed and bewildered that his search took so long.
Steve’s plight may sound familiar, as there are a bevy of attorneys trying to make a career move in today’s tight market. A resúmé and a cover letter do help to a point, but what fuels the "job search engine" is networking, i.e., making and cultivating contacts. While many professionals know they need to network, few know how to make it actually work. The secret to effective networking lies in knowing two steps: whom to target, and what to say.
The best networking always starts with correct targeting. Identify those firms or corporations that might appeal to you and might have a use for your skills. Greg Kanan, hiring partner at Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons, stresses this as an essential for anyone transitioning to a new firm.
"Find a firm that has a good reputation and study it," he says, "find out what they do best, what their specialties are. Discover what their particular needs might be and then approach them along those lines."
This means hitting their Web site and asking other colleagues what they know about the firm. Visit the libraries and search the available databases. Try InfoTrak, which holds thousands of articles about many industries, law included. Learn who the target firm’s key people are, who are the senior partners. Find out all you can about a firm or corporate department before knocking on their door.
The more astute job hunters realize networking also springs wide the discovery gates to openings; they know the majority of openings are never advertised and the best way to uncover them is through networking. Kimberly Coey, Recruitment Coordinator at Sherman & Howard, says:
"A lot of openings are not advertised. Internally, we may know of openings that are pending, but filling them may not be a priority at the time." Many lateral candidates fail to learn the truth that Coey knows all to well "many openings always exist and while not being officially ‘open’ there’s something brewing all the same."
A corollary to targeting firms is targeting contacts—you must know where and how to find contacts. "Where" is relatively easy—go where you’ll likely find other law professionals. The Colorado and Denver Bar Associations, for example, have 60 sections and committees waiting for additional volunteer service. Find one you like, attend the meetings and get involved—it’s a great way to make acquaintances. Attend CLE classes and make contact with those in attendance, instructors included. Getting involved allows others to know you first-hand, to learn your work ethic, to attain a favorable personal impression of you —all valuable when it comes to referring you to an opening.
Once you’ve targeted your firms and potential contacts, you have to prepare what to say—and what not to say. Let’s start with the latter. Asking someone outright for a job shuts down the conversation lane faster than a T-REX cone crew. Avoid starting your conversations with: "I’m in transition and am looking for an opening. Do you know of any?" or "Do you know anyone who’s hiring?" Stop and think about it. If the person you’re asking passed you onto a hiring officer who found your skills lacking, it might reflect poorly on her. Or he knows of a job, but he may want it. There are numerous reasons why these phrases cut the conversation short—just know you’ll fare better if you avoid them. Besides, if you hit it off well with a contact and they know of an opening, they’ll volunteer that information anyway.
When planning a transition you must prepare scripts that will serve you throughout your search. Why scripts? Because they can help you dodge the three most common verbal derailers used in interviews: "Ummm," "Wellllllll," and "Ahhhh." These utterings make you sound unprepared, disorganized and nonprofessional. Whether networking or interviewing, you always want to portray yourself as someone who is organized in his/her thought, as well as articulate and confident. If you answer a question with any of the above-mentioned utterances, you’ve put your climb into a stall before you start. The scripts provide you a solid response to such questions as "Why did you leave?" and "Tell me about yourself."
According to Greg Ramos, hiring partner at Sherman & Howard, the reason attorneys leave their firm is of keen interest to him. It’s a red flag. "If a relatively seasoned attorney with five to six years’ experience has left a firm before reaching partnership status, I want to know why. That’s a lot of investment in one’s career to that point and to leave that behind makes me question his or her motives." Explaining why you left your firm is important—you can’t leave it to a flippant, off-the-cuff remark. It should sound organized, sincere and not laced with hidden meanings. For example, mention your departure was by design, a move made according to a deliberate, definitive plan for your career: you’d advanced as far as you could in that firm, so it made sense to move on.
The statement, "tell me about yourself" is a potential trip-wire. The person asking may be genuinely interested, but only for a brief moment. With this question, your answer needs to cover your education, background, specific skills and areas of expertise and what you’re looking for—all within two to three minutes. Some call it their "commercial," because it’s tightly packed with the significant kernels of your promotional package.
Networking is not a rocket science, but it does demand deliberate application and follow-through. As you undertake your next lateral move, keep in mind that you’re not looking for a job, but looking for contacts. The "two-step" method of effective networking will keep you from being the "wall flower" at the next transition dance.
As a principle in a Leadership Consulting firm, Packston/Dash, Packard Brown advises small business leaders as they manage their careers and/or direct their business enterprises. He can be reached at (303)771-3885 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.