At the beginning of 2010, the time had come for me to transition my career at a big firm to one that seemed a better match for my skills and interests, and would be more sustainable as a parent of two young kids. Nine months later I started my current position at the Securities & Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement in the New York Regional Office. While a lot of details about my job search are probably too specific to my situation to be helpful to others, I’ve been able to abstract some of the more universally applicable steps I took.
1) Define Your Boundaries. Job searching is daunting no matter when or why you’re doing it. Defining your boundaries with a deep understanding of your market helps make the task more approachable. For me, setting the limits of what was achievable involved a searching inventory of my skills, education, and needs, and comparing the results against the market. It is an obvious thing, but if you’ve been practicing for a while, the market likely has changed significantly since the last time you considered a career move, and not refreshing your understanding of the new market can lead to frustration. And your life circumstances may have changed such that different opportunities are available to you. Taking a deep dive into how you might fit into today’s market will make each step in your search more targeted, impactful and efficient. You will also have more insight into your employers’ challenges, which, in the process, can make your interviews more successful.
2) Set Realistic Goals. Even (perhaps especially) in a down market, you will have to make hard choices, and you need a framework that will help you move forward. Again, it seems obvious but a lot of folks don’t do this, and they suffer. I found it useful to have multiple goals for multiple possible scenarios within my boundaries: if I had to reduce my compensation by 50%, or accept a more rigorous work schedule than ideal, or take a position with few opportunities for advancement, what would I hope to achieve in exchange? Setting goals also helped me understand where it might be worth trying to push beyond my boundaries.
3) Maximize Your Resources. When it comes to finding and applying for open positions, you’ll need to be hungry but strategic. (Think protein, not carbs!) I started with the obvious – colleagues, career advisors, alumni circles, industry groups, local bar associations, company websites, job search aggregators (I found indeed.com to be pretty comprehensive and a good place for leads) – and followed those leads. Google is your friend, but not necessarily better than your actual, real-life friends! I was surprised at how often an honest conversation about my job search, even with potential “rivals” led to new and useful information. But don’t waste your resources; after a few false starts, I realized I needed to be more strategic about how I deployed my most powerful contacts.
4) Understand Timing. I know you aren’t going to hesitate if you see an opportunity you like. But you should also try to get a sense of when jobs might become available, and how long the application process might take from submission to offer. If, for example, you are generally aware that big companies in your target industry start hiring counsel at the end of their fiscal year, you will be better prepared during the hiring period and, outside of it, more likely to understand that you need to be looking at other opportunities.
5) Check your Ego at the Door. This is not to say that you should forget about all the things that make you a great candidate for any particular job, or that you should go begging…It’s just important to get comfortable that, in a down market, you might be more “needy” than you’re used to in certain contexts. Approaching these situations with humility doesn’t just ease the pain, it also gives your counterparty the confidence that you’re educated and aware. This is true whether you’re growing your network outside your comfort zone or interviewing with a potential manager who may have fewer years in the workforce than you. (And it’s probably a good idea to keep it up when you start the new job, too!)
Best of luck to everyone in the new year!
Maggie Spillane (2001)