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Kaplan College Paralegal Studies

August 2014

Back to Basics

As a professional, a lawyer has a lot invested in his or her career. There is the significant cost of a law school education, often lingering for years in the form of student loans. More importantly, there is the personal objective of achieving certain goals, a commitment often tested during the not always so predictable path of a life in the law. Career goals are paramount, as they are what drive us and they are the beacons by which we set our career navigation. But, important as they are, do not let your career goals get in the way of your next career move. What do I mean by that?

To state it somewhat bluntly, a prospective employer doesn't care about your career objectives. They want to know if your skills, experience and ability will advance their objectives. If that sounds simplistic, it is an often missed point. I see many resumes and cover letters that express general career goals. Mostly, they say little more than "I want to be a successful lawyer in some field." That's useless information from the employer's perspective. They want a sense that your career objective is to work for them and make them successful. Yes, they want you to be a successful lawyer but that is because they want you to be successful for them.

When you choose to answer an ad or send a blind inquiry to an employer you have, I assume, done so because you believe employment with that entity would advance your career goals, whether that be to gain more responsibility, a different practice area, a new geography or more money. Having made that decision, every communication, from the cover letter to the resume to the interview is an exercise in selling yourself to that employer as an asset in the pursuit of their objectives. It is no longer a matter of what you want; it's a matter of proving your fit with their structure. If along the way in the process you decide they are not, after all, a good fit with your objectives, then you politely drop out. Until then, it is their goals you concentrate on.

Similarly, headhunters don't care about your career objective, even if many will tell you they do. Do not make the mistake of approaching a headhunter for career advice. They are not psychologists or trained counselors. Apart from the fact that they are strictly paid on a contingency basis, which explains most of their motivation, they are very much an extension of the employer they represent and hence they represent that employer's objectives. They can be very useful in some circumstances, but be absolutely clear that they are providing you no more insight than which of the employers they work with would possibly benefit from your employment and hence pay them a fee. Anything else is background noise and has little authority.

Even your law school career services office is not a whole-hearted advocate of your career goals, though they do some actual counseling. Because a law school's placement rate is a key statistic to the school and its dean in pursuit of their enrollment and reputational goals, the career services office is not well served to work on everyone's wish-list. I have had more than one career services dean tell me that they are often obliged to be quite frank about students' unrealistic expectations. It's not that they don't want you to get that Biglaw job; it's that, if they don't think you will make the cut, they won't spend much time working in that direction. They need you to be employed. That doesn't mean that your career services office is not useful. I frankly think that law school career services folks are the most underappreciated workers in the law jobs field, but their process is more likely to be a realistic assessment of where they think you are employable rather than their being an advocate to your every aspiration.

Okay, so who does care about your career goals? Well, you do, as do family and friends and some, but not all, of your colleagues. In framing and assessing those goals, you should draw on an inner circle of people who care about you and who have no other agenda in the advice they impart than to see you attain your definition of success. Yes, your law school is a tool for getting a job and headhunters are a tool for getting a job and an employer is the way you get to your career goal or at least a step further down that road. But they are not, and should not be, a part of the goal-setting itself. Once you have set that goal, the rest is a process of proving to yourself, but especially to others, that you are capable of performing in that role.

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