Tuesday, January 28, 2014

6 Jobs, 17 Bosses & Over 700 Emails: Thoughts on Career Searching

The following posting is made with permission from the State Bar of Wisconsin who originally printed it as an article with the same name included in Young Lawyer Division News, State Bar of Wisconsin, January 2014, Vol. No. 17, Issue No. 1:

One of the primary reasons I ran for a position on the board of the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Wisconsin was that I knew it would provide me with opportunities to help young attorneys struggling in this economy.  Since I graduated from law school in 2005, I have had six legal jobs, seventeen different bosses, and I have sent over 700 emails regarding possible employment.  Before you immediately assume that I am an opportunist jumping to continually greener pastures: two jobs were temporary, two firms split up, and the sole owner of my last firm died from brain cancer six months after I left his firm.  Nevertheless, I consider myself lucky because I know that many others have had and are having a much tougher time.  With the recent release of the Challenges Facing New Lawyers Task Force Report and Recommendation, it seems like an opportune time to offer some thoughts on career searching. 

I should start by saying that this article is not being offered as advice.  I don’t pretend to be an expert in career counseling, and I am not delusional enough to think that everyone else should want to follow my career path… “Oh, I thought you did something wrong and were being banned to Siberia” was the quip one Green Bay colleague made, after learning that I was from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and that that is why I accepted a position at Kendricks Bordeau in Marquette.  However, I have always found that listening to others and what worked for them was a good way to help me work through some of my own difficult decisions with respect to career choices.  So maybe my story can do the same for others.  

I can be a little more forthright than I would have dared to in the past because I was recently promoted to shareholder and have no plans to go anywhere.  Quite simply, I love my job, and my colleagues tolerate me.  With that, here are some things that I think I have learned:

I started by asking for too much money.  Early in my career when I interviewed for jobs and the money discussion came up, I usually asked for way too much money.  Several factors contributed to this mistake.

First, like many, I have a large law school debt, so I thought (1) I needed more money and (2) I deserved to be paid “like a lawyer” because I am paying to be a lawyer.  After being out of law school for almost nine years, I realize that I can live on less than I thought even with the loans.  Not everyone has large loans.  It is not any employer’s fault that I have these loans or their responsibility to pay me more than the market will bear.  If other attorneys with equal qualifications are willing to take a job for less money, then they will likely get the job.  If other attorneys with greater qualifications are willing to take the job for less money, then they will almost certainly get the job.

Second, I went to school in the Washington DC area, and the salary figures I was hearing from my friends getting jobs in that area or in other major cities did not apply to the legal market in the Detroit area, or later the Fox River Valley, where I was seeking employment.  I should have been trying to get a more realistic idea of what young attorneys were making in the markets where I was seeking employment. 

Lastly, and most importantly, I was asking for too much money because all the career advice that I was reading online was saying things to the effect of, “be careful not to ask for too little.”  I thought if I asked for too little it would show how little I knew.  It’s actually quite the opposite.  Asking for a reasonable salary shows that you understand the market you are entering, which is huge if the employer is looking for a future partner rather than simply an employee.  One of the more senior shareholders in my firm still gets ribbed for asking if there was a signing bonus when he got hired as a young lawyer.    

I learned to focus on mentorship.  The Challenges Facing New Lawyers Task Force Report and Recommendations raises ideas like forming a state bar sponsored law firm and a legal residence program so that young lawyers can get the experience, training, and mentorship they need.  I mentioned this to a colleague and his response was, “that’s what associates are.”  I completely agree that is what it should be like to be an associate, but, sadly, that is not always the case. 

One thing I feel I did correctly several times in my career was to approach a job transition as an opportunity to get better opportunities for mentorship rather than a better salary.  I did this twice by leaving one job for another that paid me the exact same salary.  Both times I told the employer what my wage was at my current job and said that I did not need to make more money to switch jobs because I believed the job I was applying for was better because of the things I would learn in that position and from that employer.  The last time I took this approach I not only did not ask for a raise to leave my job, I offered to take a 1/3 pay cut.  Going from a more urban area to a more rural market also influenced the size of this pay cut, but I viewed it as making up in mentorship far more than I was giving up in salary.

I have never regretted these decisions as each time I did in fact gain valuable mentors.  You know the saying, “if you give a person a fish they eat for a day.  If you teach a person to fish, they eat for a lifetime.”  Well, that is exactly why you need a mentor.  What I gave up in salary today by chasing mentorship, I believe I will gain in salary tomorrow because I gained more marketable skills than I would have if I simply went after salary.

One of the great things about being an attorney is that, with the right experiences, you can learn how to be dependent on no one.  I would probably never open my own firm because I enjoy working with other attorneys and bouncing ideas off of them.  However, gaining the skills necessary to open your own firm if necessary provides a certain security and freedom even if you never intend to do that.  Great mentors not only teach you how to work in your chosen practice areas, but they also teach you how to run a law practice.         

I underestimated the work available in rural areas.  I have never been adverse to rural employment; however, I thought that I could not afford to work in a rural setting.  I thought the pay would be too low.  The pay is lower—mostly—but the cost of living is usually lower too.  I say the pay is mostly lower because not all firms in a larger area pay alike.  The spectrum of salaries in large cities is wide.  If you are going to be on the low end of the spectrum in a larger city, you might find a more appealing job in a smaller city with the same or greater pay.

The competition for jobs in rural areas is usually not as great as it is in the city.  Having lived back in the UP for almost two years now, I have heard a few different times about attorneys complaining about not being able to find young attorneys willing to live in certain parts of the UP.  I imagine that certain parts of Wisconsin have the same problem.

More important than the pay or location though is the experience that can be gained in a more rural setting.  Some would consider Green Bay a small town.  Having lived in Washington DC and Detroit areas, I certainly did.  However, my last and longest job in Green Bay was of the big city variety. 

For almost four years (at two firms), I specialized in CERCLA litigation.  Our firm had one client who gave us something like 99% of our business in the form of two lawsuits concerning the PCB cleanup of the Lower Fox River, which is the largest environmental cleanup of its kind in the United States and is projected to cost over a billion dollars.  While this was a great learning experience in high stakes civil litigation, if I planned to make a career beyond that particular dispute, then I needed to learn how to handle smaller matters.  I was the rare small town civil litigator with tons of federal court experience, but hardly any state court experience.  I had handled many depositions, drafted lengthy briefs, and responded to plenty of discovery, but I had very limited experience with client intake.  I had no portable book of business.  I did not just specialize in litigation; it was all I did.  Further, I was not, as I call myself now, a juggler.  If my client asked me to focus all my time and effort on one project, the client knew its other project was on the back burner and there basically were no other clients to worry about.  The point is that I was highly specialized.

By going to a more general practice in a more rural setting I have gained immensely more transferrable skills.  I still focus on litigation, but I have done more transactional and real estate work then I would have likely done had I stayed in Green Bay.  Further, the litigation I take in is much more diverse.  I have cases with millions of dollars at stake, and I have cases in the District Court.  I have had several trials in the probate court.  I have an appellate matter. I have had numerous federal cases, and I even take some misdemeanor criminal matters.  Moreover, my previous experience compliments my current litigation practice more than I would have thought because it helps clients build trust in me.

Marquette has a population of only around 20,000 people, which makes it the most populated city in all of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  My firm is the largest in the UP, which means we have 10 attorneys.  Hearing those things you might assume, as a colleague used to joke, that, “I would need to specialize in bar fight law to make a career there.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We draw clients who have matters all over the UP, and because the UP is a playground for people from all across the United States, our clients come from all over the United States.  I, personally, have clients from California, Oregon, Kansas City, Chicago, Las Vegas, Florida, and Washington.  I have matters all across the UP and a couple matters in Lower Michigan.  My firm currently represents the City of Marquette, the County of Marquette, the Board of Light & Power, numerous school districts, a major university, and some of the biggest private employers in the UP.  Even if the dollar amounts at issue tend to be lower than the amounts at issue in similar matters in major cities, our clients face the same legal issues as the clients of Big Law firms.  The point of all of this is that, as for breadth of experience, I sort of feel like I found a diamond in the rough; however, at the same time, I realize there are firms similar to mine all around the country. 

Moreover, the small town life comes with perks you are not likely to find in a bigger city.  On most nights, I leave work before 6 pm… my wife still gets mad at me if I show up later than that and have not called first.  On most weekends, I don’t work.  Now I am not saying that I never have to work late or on weekends, but it is also not the norm.  It probably will be the norm someday when my kids are old but that will be my choice as opposed to just part of the job.               

I should have gotten more involved sooner.  Do something to distinguish yourself.  My first experience in post law school extracurricular activity—okay that might not make sense, but you know what I mean—was with the Brown County Young Lawyers Association.  I took the position of President of the YLA for a while, which basically meant I picked the bar where the YLA would meet, paid the tab and sought reimbursement from the county bar.  I would say, “I’m the President of the YLA.” My colleague would say, “I’m the President of my backyard.”  While we joked, I now view the experience as very valuable because of the relationships I formed with other attorneys in the Green Bay area through the YLA.

The YLA eventually led to me being more involved with the Brown County Bar Association and the Honorable Robert J. Parins Inn of Court.  So much so that I felt I could have ended up on the executive counsel of either of those organizations if I had simply said, “I’ll do it,” when leadership recruitment was being discussed around me.  I did not speak up and I regret that now.  I did, however, finally take a suggestion that was posed to me by another YLA member: “why don’t you get involved with the YLD?”

Getting involved in the YLD led to me attending a CLE on blogging and meeting more lawyers who blog, which led to me starting my own blog, www.ThatsMyArgument.com.  My experience on the YLD Board and with blogging led to me being asked to be an author for the next edition of The Law of Damages, a widely used publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®.  All of these experiences beefed up my resume for my recent election to the Council of the Litigation Section of the State Bar of Michigan and my appointment to the board of the YMCA of Marquette County (Michigan).  Non-paid work leads to more non-paid work, but I highly recommend it. 

If you would have told me two years ago that in two years you will be on the Board of the YLD, will have your own blog, will be on the Council of the Michigan Litigation Section, will be on the Board of the Marquette YMCA, and will be a shareholder at Kendricks Bordeau—a firm that I had been pursing since the beginning of law school—I would have thought you were nuts.  If I believed you, I would have been completely overwhelmed.  Take your time, and focus on one thing at a time.  There is a definite snowball effect and it will come together.   

So that’s my story and what I think I have learned from my many years as a struggling young attorney.  I hope someone finds it useful, and I encourage you to tell your story.  Please contact me or another board member of the YLD to do so.

© January 2014 Brandon J. Evans