Career Advice from the Corporate Legal Professional Network

Fenwick & West recently hosted Corporate Legal Professional Network’s Annual Career Night “Trouble Shooting Your Legal Career”. We were lucky enough to be in the audience and wanted you to benefit from the information and advice shared that evening.

What’s different from 5, 10 years ago?

We’ve all heard that everyone’s being asked to do more with less, cut costs, be more efficient.

Ten years ago, you could rise through the ranks of an organization by being an expert in your own area of practice, whether it was corporate governance, litigation, or supporting sales teams with commercial contracts.

Today, the good news is that the legal function has “up-leveled” and is being invited to sit at the leadership table.

The bad news is that you’re now expected to be “all things to everyone” and knowing your area of the law is just considered table stakes.

Gone are the days that you could say “that’s a business decision” and expect someone else to make the decision. To be valuable, you need to show you understand the business needs, the industry, other areas of practice, and how all of this can be effectively combined to increase the company’s profits.

What practice areas are HOT?

Of course, there are areas of law that are more in demand than others – for instance privacy, compliance, and regulatory lawyers are all in demand due to the rise of disruptive companies in highly-regulated industries (think taxis, hospitality, mobile payments/fintech).

However, being an expert in an area of law and a particular industry isn’t enough. You need to show a track record of getting stuff done and show your willingness to constantly put in extra time outside of work to learn and stay relevant.

How do I get the next hot job? What’s important in hiring decisions these days?

Personality. Culture Match. Whatever you want to call it, EQ matters more than it used to.

Companies are administering personality tests to assess your communication and management style. They are reviewing your social media posts. So brush up on your personality and make sure your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn presence matches the persona you want to project.

All this being said, you still need to be authentic. Don’t dress like a 22 year-old hipster to fit in if you aren’t one. Companies still want their lawyers to be the “adults” in the room, but an enthusiastic adult. So come prepared, find out what’s important to the company, and be excited to connect with others over it.

One last piece of advice: Don’t complain about the hiring process, no matter what is involved. The process is longer and more involved than it used to be and complaining about it will quickly put you out of the running.

What about alternative ways of practicing law?

Our own Alex Smith was asked to chime in about alternative providers and why there seem to be so many more options compared to ten years ago. Alex suggested that this might be in response to work/life balance conversations becoming much more main stream, not just for women, but for everyone. (Thanks, Millennials!) Because of this shift, Alex noted that these alternatives are attracting lawyers besides the ones who weren’t able to get “real jobs” on their own.

There are all types of lawyers who enter this model now, from ones who want part-time (whether to parent or to have extra time to write the next great best-selling novel) to ones who are looking for a transition in their career (whether because they are trying to retool their practice area or enter new industries).

Therefore, alternative providers are finding that the pool of incredibly talented candidates has increased and clients are recognizing this shift in quality. Alex stated that the higher-quality talent combined with the opportunity for the client and lawyer to “date before getting married” has naturally led to this growth.

The panelists went on to answer the question that everyone’s afraid to ask: if I try out one of these alternatives, will it look good/bad on my resume?

As you might expect from a roomful of legal professionals, the answer was a resounding, “It depends.”

If you leverage your opportunities and tell an effective story about your career progression, anything can be good. Conversely, the best credentials in the world won’t land you a job if you can’t tell your story in a compelling way.

What if I want to do something other than practice law?

Lawyers have been fleeing to jobs outside of law for a long time. It used to be politics, then VP, Business Development, and today, we’re looking at anything from compliance officer positions to COO roles (particularly for those with some finance experience).

The newest of these roles is the “Chief of Staff” or “Chief Legal Officer” role. But take note, these roles require someone who is very good with data analytics and numbers, loves dealing with team management issues, and (typically) likes working in large organizations. This is not a role for everyone, and so far, has not proven to be a path to a GC role, but can be very rewarding for those who aspire to be a GC’s right-hand, trusted advisor.

What do you think has changed in the past 5-10 years? Post a comment on LinkedIn or tweet us @FLEXbyFenwick.