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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

January 19, 2019
Question

Can I take 6-12 months off in between jobs or will it hurt my career? How do I strategically manage my time off?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Lawyers are notorious worker bees. Focused, intense, heads down and laboring away until Mission Accomplished. It’s a temperament that can take its toll after some time in a challenging position and often results in severe burnout.

Many years ago, there was very little “give” for time off between jobs – as employers often viewed such gaps negatively. So, lawyers swung from wine to vine when it came to employment transitions. Today the legal market is quite different. Fueled by more career options for lawyers, changing values, shifting leverage…and the overall evolution of the profession, lawyer mobility is at an all-time high. This has forced employers to adapt to the changing times with regard to what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to a lawyer’s employment history. So, there is more room now for variety and alternative career choices – whether it is the type of job selected or time taken to do other things.

This is welcome news for many in the legal profession. And what this news means is that if you want to take 6 – 12 months off to decompress, travel, sit on the beach, spend time with family…or do whatever, you will have the opportunity to do so without killing your career. Of course, in an interview you will need to be prepared to explain why you pressed pause, but it won’t be a problem if you’ve done your homework and deliver an effective message. I know many of you are wondering: “So what would be an effective message in this context”? Below is a slight digression with an example:

Employer:“I noticed a gap on your resume from 2017 – 2018. What did you do during this time? Were you not able to find another position?”

Candidate (You):

“My position at XYZ Company/Law Firm was terrific, but also very demanding so I worked very hard and didn’t take many breaks. After four years, I decided it was time to take some time away before jumping into another position immediately. So, I left XYZ Company/Law Firm in 2017 to travel and spend more time with family. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I made it a priority. During that time, I did not proactively seek another position and only re-engaged once I was truly ready. The time off was fantastic and I feel recharged and ready for my next role.”

Now that you know you can take the time off without career repercussions – and can address the gap in an interview, how should you strategically manage your hiatus?

Before discussing your interim game plan, it’s important to understand that finding a new job takes time – and securing an offer could take anywhere between three months (if you are lucky) to one year. In some instances, it could take longer if you are not proactive or strategic about your job search. If you are covering all of your bases, the average period of time is roughly five to six months. So, these data points should factor into your interim plan. Below is the strategy to follow during your time on the sidelines:

Determine How Much Time Do You Want To Take Off.

To set the framework for your upcoming activities, try to ballpark how much time you plan to take off. Your answer doesn’t need to have pinpoint precision, but you should have a general sense of when you want to re-engage more fervently.

Decompress For The First 4 – 12 Weeks.

As you leave your job, you’ll be operating at a certain stress level and will still be engaged in quasi-addictive behaviors (does constantly checking your email ring a bell?). So, in order to rid these carryover dynamics, completelyunplug and disengage from work related reading materials, website and activities for 4 – 12 weeks. You are going to need that time to re-center and clear your head. During this period, get some sleep, work out, spend time outdoors, spend time with friends, ride your bike…engage in activities that are interesting and fun. By doing so, you’ll gain new perspective on your time away from work and will have a much clearer head when it comes time to plug back in.

Set A Date To Re-Engage.

Setting a concrete date to re-engage after you have gone through your initial decompression period is critical if you are going to make the most of your time off. Once you have set it, forget about everything work related until its time. Doing this will psychologically “give you permission” not think or worry about your search because you’ve set the re-engagement timer and will focus your efforts at that time. There doesn’t have to be a single date either. You can set several dates to help ease back in to the search preparation and hunting process. The deadline may change or not, but if you don’t set it now, you could drift and start feeling aimless and overwhelmed as the weeks go by.

Create Your Checklist.

Once you are ready to start preparing for your upcoming job search, create a checklist of the necessary tasks to complete in order to be fully prepared. These will be items that will need your attention once you’ve hit your date to re-engage. Below is a sample list to consider:

  • Update your resume. I know it’s a pain, but it’s got to be done…and it’s got to be good before you start a full-blown search. Not only should it be updated to include your most recent position, it should be well formatted and effectively tell your professional story. If you need guidance, ask colleagues, friends and/or a good recruiter for help.
  • Reconnect with your network. You’ve been dark for 4 – 12 weeks getting re-centered. So, you’ll naturally feel a bit disconnected. It’s time to check back in with your peeps. Let them know what you’re up to and what your plan is. Email, lunch, drinks…whatever forum you prefer. Ask for others to keep you in mind for new opportunities that arise in the upcoming months. A good network is a great resource so make sure yours is in the loop and ready to help when the time comes.
  • Meet New People. Even if your network is noteworthy, successful professionals constantly enhance their people of influence. So, make a list of whom you’d like to know (CEOs, CFOs, VCs, law firm partners, PE partners, recruiters etc.) and start building. Leverage your current network for introductions.
  • Know Who You Are. If you want to ace your interviews, you will need to know exactly who you are and what you bring to the table. Identify what you do well and what you don’t, your likes and dislikes and the value you bring to an employer. Write it down and use it as a working document. This exercise is a lot harder than you think and takes time. So, getting started during your hiatus is key.
  • Know What You Want. I can’t tell you how many lawyers I meet who are unclear about what kind of role/company/law firm/culture etc. would make them happy. If you enter your job search without a clear picture in mind, you will be reactive and will let the job choose you rather than the other way around. When this happens, the results are almost always suboptimal.
  • Know What To Say. Once you’re clear about who you are and what you want, you will need to express it clearly, concisely and persuasively. Create your messaging and practice until perfect.
  • Finger on the Pulse. Knowing the current state of affairs in the job market and overall legal profession will be helpful when you’re ready to start your search. Start plugging in to the goings on around you and know the trends. The information will be valuable when you are ready to search more seriously.

A Timeline to Execute Your Checklist.

The notion of all of this may feel a bit overwhelming – as there is a lot to do while you are taking time off. In order to wrap your arms around it all, prioritize your tasks and set goals: Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly – whatever is most comfortable for you. Your goals may shift, which is fine. But this approach will mitigate stress, give you a sense of control and enable you to be more productive.

Ready, Set, Go!

You’ve taken some rest, set your date, created your checklist and crystalized your timeline. Now it’s time to execute. So take a deep breath and start. There’s no need to feel pressure at this point, anything and everything can be revised as the need arises.

As you conclude this chapter of your career and transition to a new, taking 6 – 12 months to recharge and re-center is an acceptable choice in today’s legal profession and one that won’t hurt your career. So, capitalize on this opportunity…and enjoy! But in the interim, build the strong foundation for your job search so when it’s time to hit the pavement, you will be prepared. And your days of smelling the roses will be memorable ones indeed.

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