Career Advice Q&A

Advice from alumni who’ve been there

Navigating a law career can raise lots of questions—how to climb the ranks, how to transition to a different field, even how to return to work after an extended leave. This monthly feature offers advice from Northwestern Law alumslegal recruiters, career coaches, and managing partners—who have the expertise to weigh in on all your pressing concerns. 

Do you have a career question for one of our experts? Email your questions to law-communications@law.northwestern.edu


Q: I’d like to start looking for a new job, and while I’m confident in my abilities as a lawyer, I’m not sure how to market myself. What are some things I should be doing to sell myself during my job search? 

“Networking! And I know your response: ‘I hate networking.’ But a necessary element of marketing yourself for a new job is to know as much as possible about the job, to know the needs of the firm or company, and to know how to communicate that your skills fill that void. If possible, tailor each application (both resume and cover letter) to the specific firm or agency. Don't speak in generalities. Give examples of challenges, goals, successes and, if applicable, failures. Be sure to show what you learned from those failures. If you’re leaving a job on your own volition and seeking new opportunities, explain why. Employers want to know what you are looking for that is different or similar to what you are doing now, and where they fit in that transition.” —Carin Riekes Parcel (JD ’03), Managing Director, Canopy Advisory Group 

“In a market that is saturated with attorneys, you want to make sure you stand out. (In a good way!) Make sure your LinkedIn is updated and includes a photo, boost your resume to be thoughtful and comprehensive rather than something you worked on for just a couple of hours, tailor that resume for each position you apply to and do the same for the accompanying cover letter, and practice your interviewing until it comes naturally. You must be confident during the job search process, but it’s a fine line between confident and cocky. A great way to make sure your brand is on-point for what you want is to find someone who made a job leap that appeals to you, and ask them if you can meet for coffee and hear more about what they did to secure that job. Most people are happy to share their success story and can be a great resource as you look to make a move.”  —Liz Hudson (JD ’04), Founder and Managing Principal, Alignment Recruiting 

It is important to make an honest assessment of your marketability. Reach out to a recruiter, even if you don’t plan to work with one. Are firms or in-house law departments looking for people like me? Don’t make assumptions – find out. If you have passion and a commitment to excellence, you are marketable. Understanding your marketability will help you tailor your search. Why am I looking for a new job? Is it due to my colleagues, or the work itself? Is it the platform? Am I open to relocation? If you use a recruiter, ask how they plan to position you. Don’t settle.” —  Saul Gamoran (JD ’84), President, Gamoran Legal Consulting

“The best marketing material is a strong resume and a thorough deal sheet or representative transactions schedule. Make sure your resume is polished, professional and comprehensive. Note all relevant skills and strengths and make sure to highlight any managerial/administrative roles within the firm. Younger associates may run transaction teams and oversee junior lawyers and paralegals. Your next employer wants to see your growth within your role and within the firm. Demonstrate ways that you take initiative and go above and beyond. Once your submission materials are in order, the next piece of marketing takes place during the interviews. Work with a friend or recruiter to walk through a mock interview in order to prepare yourself as best as possible. Think of a number of different interview questions and prepare targeted answers to each question. One last piece of advice is to be realistic in your expectations for your next role and only apply to positions that you believe you are a strong fit for and for which you will be able to exhibit the confidence needed during the interview. True, one can wing it in certain scenarios and push beyond the job description, but you need to demonstrate to the interviewing team that you fill all of the needed buckets. Then you can wow them and take on additional responsibility once you have the job.” —Alanna Darling (JD ’00), Partner, Massari & Darling LLC 

 The first step is to be crystal clear about why you are leaving and what you want. Employers want to hire people that are changing jobs because their current workplace isn't giving them what they want — not just because they're unhappy with a particular circumstance. As you refine your resume and practice your interview questions, be sure you're focusing on the results you provided for your clients. The attorneys interviewing you will know your standard job duties, but what will help you stand out is showing them how you delivered. You also need to know what makes you stand out from others applying for the same job. Ask yourself how you're different from other attorneys in your practice area. The goal is not to look like everyone else, it's to set yourself apart, so do some focused self-reflection and poll those who know you best to find out what makes you different, and focus on that in your job search materials.” —Leila Hock (JD ’07), Career Coach and Founder, Alignment Coaching 

“When you do a job search, you have to understand what people are looking for. If you look at someone’s resume and their approach isn’t any different than when they were in law school, that’s an indication they aren’t thinking about their audience. If I’m General Counsel for a company and I need an associate counsel in corporate, what am I looking for? How do you, as an applicant, present that in a way that is accessible?  You have to define the narrative. A lot of resumes just give you a list, and if you don’t define the narrative someone will do that for you in the most random ways. They’ll think, ‘She was in her job only a year and I don’t like that,’ for example. They will pick things they have biases against that might not have anything to do with how well you could do the job. If you write, ‘Prepared to take on a major role based on experience in corporate governance,’ and I’m the GC looking for an associate counsel in corporate, now I’m thinking ‘that’s exactly what I need.’ You’ve defined the lens with which I will see the resume. You’d be amazed how many resumes we see that look like the applicant is just out of high school. I’m glad you worked at Dairy Queen as a teenager, but is that relevant? Not enough people think about aligning the role with their experience.” —Sang Kim (JD ’95), Managing Partner – Northern California, DLA Piper

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Q: I’m interested in transitioning from my associate job at a firm to an in-house position. Any tips for making that transition, and how to stand out from other candidates looking to make the same change? 

“My biggest piece of advice is that you should not rush this transition. Lawyers leave law firm practice for the idealized ‘in-house life’ and they are not prepared for the lack of mentoring or growth. As an in-house lawyer, you become an ‘everything lawyer’ and advise regarding all legal needs and not simply previous law firm expertise.  That said, the best way to get an in-house role is to develop a strong relationship with a client that is in a growth mode and may need someone with your skill set in the very near future. This relationship allows the client to get to know your character and your skills and they will know that you’ll be a fit before you even commence employment with the company. If there are clients that interest you, make a point to get to know their industries well and to provide additional guidance that will demonstrate your potential in-house value to that company. If you want a chance to go work for a client that you already work for at your current firm, exhibit a great attitude. Great things happen when you don't expect them to—consider your daily legal advice as a very long interview process, so each interaction matters.” —Alanna Darling (JD ’00), Partner, Massari & Darling LLC 

“In-house skills are extremely different from law firm skills. Before you make the jump, do research by asking those in-house — even clients if you feel comfortable enough with them —what their transition was like and how in-house is different than private practice. This will help you develop the vocabulary you'll need to show in-house legal departments and clients you understand their world.  While pedigree and experience matters in-house, if you can show during the interview process that you understand that the challenges and expectations of in-house attorneys are different, companies will be more inclined to hire you over others with a similar pedigree. You can even attend a few CLE's geared toward in-house attorneys to try to understand their roles better and expand your network of people that might hire you.” —Leila Hock (JD ’07), Career Coach and Founder, Alignment Coaching 

“If you develop a good professional network, these transitions will happen more naturally. Find someone who transitioned in-house and ask questions: How did you do it? What was difficult about it? What was surprising? What are the myths about in-house life? Do people actually work less? What do you mean when you say ‘I’m more of a business advisor?’ Now that you are in house, what law firms do you appreciate more? All of this is important because it’s the knowledge that will make you stand out in the interview process. When an interviewer asks: ‘What makes you want to move in-house?’ You can say, ‘Oh well I’ve been asking people about this and I’ve learned that being in-house you are really a business advisor, and that’s what I want to be.’ That is a really thoughtful answer and one that only someone who has done his research can give.Sang Kim (JD ’95), Managing Partner – Northern California, DLA Piper 

“Depending on practice area, transactional attorneys can make a switch to in-house positions around their third year of practice (litigators are typically closer to 8 years). The best way to make that move is to go to a client. Not only does a client know your abilities, but you know more about them than you do a company you’ve never worked with, and that can prevent future job dissatisfaction. Also, your current firm is likely to support a move to one of its clients because it makes the client happy and bodes well for a continued relationship with the firm. In this case, you’ll want to get as much client contact as possible. By responding in a timely manner to their inquiries, providing top-notch work product, and suggesting work-arounds when confronting an issue, you’ll show them that you are valuable to their team. Keep in mind, you don’t want to look like you’re going behind your current employer’s back, so it’s best to look into the firm history to see if they’ve sent associates to clients before and ask a senior attorney with whom you have a good relationship whether they support such a career move.” —Liz Hudson (JD ’04), Founder and Managing Principal, Alignment Recruiting 

“Networking is a key ingredient in any career ‘shift.’ It's often helpful to get in touch with others who have made that transition. As far as standing out, researching the company or industry and asking questions about what they need or expect will show that you are motivated to help their company. In-house attorneys have to delicately balance law and business while dealing with many individuals who don't understand the role of law in business, so conveying that you can address that balance, be a true partner in the relationship, and communicate effectively will help you stand out as a stellar candidate for the job.” —Carin Riekes Parcel (JD ’03), Managing Director, Canopy Advisory Group 

“The first question to address is why do you want to make this transition? Gone are the days when in-house attorneys don’t have to work very hard, so make no mistake about the level of commitment it takes. Also, it’s very important if you go in-house that you go at the right level. If you’ve only practiced for a year or two, it’s unlikely you’ll get a position in-house that will give you much authority. This is especially true if you are going to a large company – here in Seattle we have companies like Amazon and Microsoft, and they have a lot of lawyers. You don’t want to get cubby-holed into a position where you can’t spread your wings, so make sure you have enough substantive knowledge. If you are looking to move in-house and also move up to eventually become general counsel or another high-level in-house position, I recommend that you not go until you have a minimum of four years’ experience at a law firm. You should be able to handle a matter on your own without help. If you’re a corporate attorney, this means you can handle a transaction on your own from open to close. The real value you have as in-house counsel is the ability to evaluate what outside counsel is doing, so you want to have enough experience to evaluate their strategy. Make sure that you’ve become an exceptional lawyer before you pull the trigger. Once you go in-house, you will not get the same training you receive at a firm.” —Saul Gamoran (JD ’84), President, Gamoran Legal Consulting

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Q: I left the workforce for a few years to raise my children. I’m interested in returning to legal work now that my kids are older but I worry that I’m behind the curve. Any advice for getting back in the game? Do I need to take steps backwards? 

“Many firms and companies are targeting experienced legal professionals who are returning to the workforce after an extended leave. Law firms and large corporations have begun to team up with organizations, such as OnRamp Fellowship, to help find opportunities for lawyers in your same situation.  As you are preparing to get back into practice, take the time to refresh in your particular area of expertise. Depending on practice area, there may be significant changes that you will be expected to be versed in and familiar with out of the gate. If by ‘steps backward,’ you are referring to class year or title, then yes, you are likely to be designated to a lower class year and will need to work to establish the seniority that you had prior to leaving the firm. The steps backward will likely correlate with, and may even exceed, your time away from the profession. Be prepared to check your ego at the door and to demonstrate that your skills are still there and that you will be back at full speed in no time. That being said, do not appear apologetic for time spent with your children and be confident in your enhanced professional skills and your ability to hit the ground running. Once you are close to finding a position, make sure to negotiate your role so that you are meeting the firm's expectations and still feel like you are attending to the needs of your family. Too often, returning 

associates negotiate a part-time schedule and they end up working full time (but not the crazy 70-80 hour work weeks) and are paid far less than the hours contributed. If flexibility is needed in order to get kids from school or daycare, negotiate for later arrivals and early departure, but reassure your partners that you will work during the evening and early morning hours and that they will get productive work out of you and your flexible schedule.”  —Alanna Darling (JD ’00), Partner, Massari & Darling LLC 

“First, define what your goals are. I want to work 30 hours a week and go home is very different than I want to become a major business generator and be in leadership roles, and you would approach the two very differently. So much is circumstantial to a particular time, firm, culture, and life situation, and lawyers don’t spend enough time picking the brains of peers to gather information. If you think long-term, and you say my goal is a practice in X, that will help you figure out what the right steps are. First and foremost, you want to be busy. If your charge rate to the client is lower, more people will want to work with you, so taking a step ‘backwards’ might give you access to a marketplace of work you wouldn’t otherwise have and an opportunity to hone your skills. If you don’t, you could be cost-prohibitive with skills that are rusty. So I don’t think there is a backwards step, and if there is, don’t think of it as a penalty.” —Sang Kim (JD ’95), Managing Partner – Northern California, DLA Piper

“This is becoming increasingly common in the legal world, so you are not alone! The best place to start is by taking a good look at your resume and updating it to reflect your current status and skills. There is typically no need to take a step ‘backwards,’ but you can’t expect to come in at your law school graduation class year; rather, expect to come in at whatever year you left off. If you were within a year or two of making partner, you may want to consider a class year cut to make sure you give yourself ample time to catch up with your peers who will also be competing for partnership. After your resume is in good shape, start networking (you don’t want to do this prior to having a top-notch resume to send as a follow-up). Go to past co-workers, law school colleagues, clients, etc. and let them know that you’re back and looking for a compelling opportunity. Attend networking events, alumni events, and legal volunteer opportunities and be sure to ask for business cards of the people you meet so that you can follow-up. This is your opportunity to craft your own story, so be thoughtful and engaged.” —Liz Hudson (JD ’04), Founder and Managing Principal, Alignment Recruiting 

“A lot of people who want to return to the workplace after a leave seem to lack self-confidence. They aren’t worried that they wouldn’t do a good job, but they worry that no company would want them. These are people who worked for three to five years, left for five to ten, and are thinking who would hire me now? Don’t forget that you are valuable. You have experience, you have great people skills – anyone who has raised children has patience. There is a market for you. The attitude you should have is where can I add value? Reach out to people you know, get together with them, and don’t leave without asking them to refer or introduce you to someone else. It may be a contract position at a law firm, it may be a bar association group, but you want to integrate yourself back into the community by talking to people. There are opportunities for people who have been away – a firm may not need someone full time, and often people returning from a long leave only want 20 hours a week, so this is a great prospect. Even if you’re looking for full-time, it could be a good idea to take the part-time work. That way you can get back in the swing of things. Make yourself indispensable and they might be so impressed that it turns into a full-time offer.” —Saul Gamoran (JD ’84), President, Gamoran Legal Consulting 

“Confidence is key in any return to career. Don't fake it. Don't assume you are competent to jump right in, but prepare yourself so you are competent to step right in. Start reading, take CLE classes, and start networking with fellow attorneys. All of these steps will increase your confidence. Believe that you are the person for the job and make yourself the best candidate. Ask people what has changed in your practice area and get up to date on any major advances or shifts. Be honest about your time off — you don't need to make excuses for it — but use it to your advantage. Explain to those looking to hire you how your time off has benefited you and your practice, as well as your motivation and desire to continue with your career. A candidate motivated to come back, work hard and learn is a more valuable asset than someone complacent in their career.” —Carin Riekes Parcel (JD ’03), Managing Director, Canopy Advisory Group 

“The truth is, you may have to take a step back, but it will serve your long-term efforts — and your sanity — well. In today's world, a lot can change in a few years. Not only in regards to the technical aspects of the law, but also with technology and how people communicate. If you try to jump in right where you left off, you may feel overwhelmed with all the other changes that have occurred and end up burnt out or regretting your decision to jump back in. There are plenty of educational resources for attorneys that want to get back in the game. See if you can take an online course or some CLEs to refresh your knowledge and vocabulary. This will also help you expand your legal network, which may have dropped off a bit, and let people know you are serious about getting back in. Finally, draw on your network. Even if it's been a while - reach out to others from prior positions, from law school, from clients. Let them know you're getting back in the game, what you are looking for, and ask what they'd recommend. End every conversation by asking the person who else you should meet. Networking is everything in the job market, especially if you're not a traditional candidate.” —Leila Hock (JD ’07), Career Coach and Founder, Alignment Coaching 

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