Ask Atticus: An Advice Column for Young Lawyers
Article Date: Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Written By: Ted Lewis Johnson
I have been inundated lately with news that the legal job market is hard. Though I am happy in my current job and there is no immediate problem, times are tough and I am worried about positioning myself to survive a job loss and/or move to the next step. What are some steps I can take to put myself in the best position to insulate myself against the current uncertainty?
Restless in Raleigh
First of all kudos on having a stable job, in the current job market that is an accomplishment to be proud of. However, I understand your worry and paradoxically, your worries and those of the unemployed are only slightly different. Not knowing your area of practice, I would first point you to the Bar Association’s Center for Practice Management, which provides resources for those looking to grow in their practice. The Center can be found on the web at cpm.ncbar.org and provides a wealth of information for thinking through your practice. That reference source, in fact, points to the first insight that I would hope would be helpful.
1. Be entrepreneurial about your practice. You are, after all, a professional engaged in a personal services business, and you have already taken the first step in thinking through the conditions in which you are doing business and looking ahead. Congratulations! Now it’s time to take the next step. Look toward your practice and yourself as proper objects of management, and think about what you’re doing. A good place to start for all things management is with Peter Drucker, the father of the study of modern management, who wrote an article called Managing Oneself that offers a great place to start in thinking about just the issues you address. Seminal for me has been the idea of having a “second half of your life.” Life is not all about work and a good bit of the time we won’t be able to have total control of work. Giving back in some way, and finding other places to fit in and be productive is a significant part of staying sane. The article is available at http://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself/ar/1, a free read requires registration, but that gets you three free reads in the Harvard Business Review per month, not a bad bit of homework for the process of thinking about your career as a business.
Note: Being entrepreneurial is not being a mercenary. You owe it to the stable job you have to do as good a job as you can at that while looking out ahead. Diligence is, after all, part of our calling.
2. Reach out. You are reading the North Carolina Bar Association’s YLD newsletter, so you are already committed to connecting with your professional community, but do you have a plan? When I talk to friends who are starting companies or running them, one of the core lessons that they have given me is that it is massively important to be aware of the interesting things that are going on around you, to get to know the people that are doing them, and to help those interesting things happen inasmuch as you can. The advantage of reaching out to people who are doing what you think are interesting things is that your interest is already there, and that will come across.
It is important here to be open and intentional. There are a lot of people who will want the time that you are aiming at getting a piece of, that is to say, the time of interesting people. This is a good place to insert that you are not always going to be successful in reaching out. Busy people are not always open to connecting, so you have to be prepared for some rejection. Shake it off; life is to be lived and you will either come to meet it or be afraid. You are a lawyer, and you have got a sense of self-preservation; let it kick in now. Rule Number One is that you get to survive and surviving as a lawyer means dealing with, reaching out to and relating to people. If you are not entirely comfortable while reaching out, that is okay. Not doing it, however, is probably not. Enough of the lecture – how does one do it?
There are a vast supply of resources on networking out there, including the ABA’s A Lawyer’s Guide to Networking, but a good place to get started is to join a bar association committee, volunteer to do some work both on a committee and in the community, or email a colleague you respect and ask for some advice. Show up now--today.
3. Be prepared for the Black Swans. In the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the black swan serves as a metaphor for an event that lies outside the realm of regular experience, carries extreme impact and is the type of event for which we, as human beings, concoct explanations after the fact. Important to our discussion here, exposure to good black swans, or getting on the right side of those unexpected events is one of the keys to finding success in uncertain times. What does this mean for you, Restless? It means staying engaged, but also deciding where you want to go and being aware and deliberate about opportunity. That is to say, if you find yourself sitting across from a potential client, potential opportunity or knowledgeable colleague, you will have educated yourself and be aware enough to take advantage of the opportunity, whether it means starting a conversation about their kids or pitching for business. Being prepared means constantly improving yourself, in fact, making self-improvement a habit. Lawyering is, in one sense, merely training for constant reeducation. You are prepared to do the learning, now it is time to make it a priority. Uncertainty should not only be a source of anxiety, but a source of motivation and opportunity.
4. Take an accounting. To paraphrase an old saw, what we measure we improve. Being prepared for uncertainty means knowing where you are in the first place. If you are worried about change, get prepared for it. Having a monetary reserve will give you some room to breathe. There are several methods for getting a handle on your finances, but if you’re nervous, a little research will turn up accounting methods in the strictest sense, to help get you started.
Leaving aside accounting in the monetary sense, I also mean you should take account of what you want your career to look like, what you need to know to get there, and who does good things that you are interested in. Set targets for how you are going to reach out, become involved, and continue your education in both legal practice and entrepreneurship. Now, most importantly, check up on yourself from time to time. How are you doing at growing in your practice, reaching out to those you would like to know, and what else can you do to facilitate where you would like to be? Set goals, start now, and set a time to check back in.
Now reading this, Restless, I know that some ideas have occurred to you. Write down three you can do today and go do them--now. There is not only no time like to present, but, as far as I can tell, no time but now in which anything ever gets done. That should be a good start. Anxiety in today’s legal climate is understandable, but it can serve as spur to do things we should have been doing when everything seemed more secure. Good luck, and have fun on the way! •
Ted Lewis Johnson is currently law clerk to the Honorable Martha Geer at the North Carolina Court of Appeals and maintains strong interests in litigation, alternative dispute resolution, the changing face of the legal profession, and international law.
Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.