THE RIGHT FIT
of the most important lessons to be learned this summer are
about yourself and the type of job situation that will ultimately
be the most satisfying.
By Alexandra Duran
New York Law Journal
June 2, 2003
What do you think of when you hear the word "work?"
Is it just a way to make a living? Is it an extended family, or
a daily community of peers? Perhaps for you it's a place of intellectual
challenge and stimulation, a chance for camaraderie or a method
of earning the means you need for what is really important. It can
be a place where you unleash your imagination, laugh, make friends
with colleagues, and earn excellent references that last a lifetime.
In this tight job market the best thing that could happen to you
is to get an offer from your summer employer so that the much-feared
job search can be avoided. But no matter what happens at the summer's
end, most of the important lessons to be learned right now are not
just about the practice's substantive law. They are insights about
yourself, and the type of law you would like to practice and the
kind of lawyer you would like to become.
Most of us get caught up in the details and tasks of the job at
hand and lose sight of these larger issues. It's critical that you
begin to understand just what you expect from work. An exercise
to help you discover some of these answers is to force-rank your
10 top work-related values. When done thoughtfully, this can be
extremely difficult and enormously revealing. Don't give in to the
temptation to create ties by ranking more than one value as your
most important, but challenge yourself to think about what you would
give away -- and what you never would.
What Makes a "Good Fit?"
We all recognize bad fits. They are not only uncomfortable and stressful,
they are impossible to ignore or deny. In contrast, a good fit seems
so natural that it doesn't always get the credit it deserves.
How do you recognize a good fit when you see one? By recognizing
four key elements: the practice's personal and environmental factors,
the substance of the work itself, and the career path ahead.
As you're thinking this through, no idea should be hastily discarded.
Assume there will be only positive outcomes and that whatever you
wish for might be possible -- even if it seems unlikely today.
This summer position, no matter who you work with or what the situation
is, provides a unique and valuable opportunity. This is your chance
to figure out what variables, when combined, create the kind of
work and career path that best fit your skills, interests, talents,
Close your eyes, take a deep breath and envision yourself five years
from now. What type of law are you practicing, or are you? What
kind of work are you doing? How large is your organization and how
do you spend your day? Are you in private practice or the public
domain? Have you relocated to another city, or perhaps another jurisdiction
Once you have envisioned yourself being successful at whatever it
is that will uplift your spirit and satisfy your needs, begin to
walk backwards. List what needs to be done to get there, breaking
it down into smaller steps and accomplishments so that you can begin
the journey toward your goal. Be methodical and overly detailed
so that you can examine some of the options and choices that may
need to be made. Remember that it's a plan to set you on your way
and like the best plans, it is only a map, not a contract.
This is a process, so don't try to rush it or be impatient, just
confident and committed to the moment. Take your time, think it
through and examine your assumptions. Pay attention to your feelings,
your intuition, and your intellect as you figure out what types
of work, organization, and level of ambition suits you.
The environmental aspects of work may determine whether a particular
work situation suits you or not. Basically, these include everything
other than the substantive law itself: the firm's location; your
office's location; your officemate and other colleagues; the facilities
and resources; your specific department's culture; the formal and
informal support systems -- even the firm's artwork. These all contribute
toward our comfort level and help determine whether this firm is
a good fit.
Too often, we accept a work situation that is not ideal by saying:
"I can handle this, it's not so bad!" But these are tangible
things that can sour a work situation regardless of how well everything
else is going. If you are an optimistic, happy individual who thrives
in a buoyant, friendly atmosphere, working in a firm whose culture
requires silence in the hallways may feel stifling to you. If you
need, or prefer, to be home by 7 p.m. each evening, an organization
that frowns on leaving before 8 p.m. may create frustration and
tension on both ends. If you learn best and are more productive
in a collegial, supportive environment, one that requires independent
work with little feedback may feel uncomfortable and isolating.
Learn to be an observer from the moment you enter the work place.
Are the work spaces well-appointed and large enough, with adequate
privacy? Do you prefer an office or are you more at home in a cubicle?
What are the organization's standards in terms of cleanliness, space
allocation, equipment, and resources? What is your own tolerance
for shared space, noise levels, and outdated technology?
Whatever your preference, it is important to understand what feels
natural, seamless and therefore most effective for you. Too often,
we fit ourselves into the situation rather than defining how we
might succeed with ease. Once you determine the essential variables,
put them at or near the top of your force-ranked value list as you
select future work situations. Periodically re-examine your work-related
values, because as we change, so do they.
The Substantive Work
What do you think about? What types of articles do you read in the
newspaper? What comes easily to you? What do you enjoy talking about?
What areas of practice seem so logical and simple to you that you
think everyone should be able to get it?
Whatever it is, go with it. Read about it, talk about it, find a
mentor who specializes in it, and enjoy being a beginner in your
new field of practice! If nothing at this current workplace intrigues
you, don't despair. Try other practice areas; speak to other people,
test market your ideas until you find one that makes you want to
If you enjoy fact-intensive issues about people and their relationships,
there are several practice areas that may satisfy you more than
others, e.g., labor and employment law, matrimonial, or
family law. If you prefer issues with less fluidity and more definition,
you may thrive in a statutory, regulatory practice, such as tax,
insurance, corporate, or criminal. If you're drawn to science, patent
law may capture your imagination.
If you discover a strong interest in real estate issues, and your
current firm doesn't cover that practice area, then concentrate
on things that impact real estate. This will be of enormous value
to you later, and might include areas such as tax, valuation, and
business deals that involve real estate assets or environmental
It is wise to sample as many areas of practice as it takes to determine
whether one speaks to you. After all the years of education, and
probably much debt, you owe it to yourself to exhaust the possibilities.
If nothing really grabs you, then be grateful you have figured it
out early on in your professional life. Begin investigating other
career paths inside and outside of the law that will be more joyful
for you. Take into account your considerable transferable skills
as you determine what might be a good fit for you going forward.
One caveat: do not choose a practice area simply because you like
the individuals currently practicing in that group. In these transient
times, people come and go and you may find yourself alone in a practice
area that doesn't really interest you.
The Career Path to Walk
In selecting your career path, it is imperative that you keep your
options open, even within a practice area. If you select a niche
within the practice, make sure it is unique enough so that you can
become an expert. That will enable you to earn sufficient compensation
to meet your own expectations and be sought after by others who
recognize your expertise. If the niche is too narrow though, you
may have intellectual interest, but appeal to a very limited market,
finding yourself struggling to make the living you want. In other
words, choose something that has longevity and potential beyond
your own personal interest.
If you wish to eventually move in-house, some practice areas lend
themselves more easily to this transition than others, such as corporate,
regulatory, or labor and employment law. Litigators often have a
more difficult, though not impossible, time going in-house to companies
without full-blown legal departments. Of course, they are much in
need in companies that litigate their own matters and may oversee
litigation conducted by outside counsel.
Please note: resist selecting litigation merely because it is not
corporate governance, securities or tax. Too often, law students
select litigation because it seems like the best fit for someone
with a liberal arts background. However, being an advocate and an
adversary requires not only the right skills but also the right
The key is to ask yourself questions -- some easy, some far more
difficult. The answers to them will help you not just this summer,
but in the years ahead.
Remember that it takes just as much time and effort to establish
a poor career as it does a great one! Your best professional option
is one that supports your personal values, interests, and talents
-- your joy, the meaning, and the purpose of your life! How will
you know? Keep asking, and when it's comfortable and easy, you know
you've found your fit.
Duran, a former general counsel of Fashion Institute of Technology
who first began practicing law with a large New York firm as a summer
associate, is founder and principal of Career Transitioning and coaches
attorneys in advancing their careers.
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