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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 18, 2017

Can a lame job stint compromise an entire career?

Julie Q. Brush

The Question: I was laid off from my in house job and then did a short stint at a personal injury firm to make ends meet. I’m back on the market and worried the move will weaken my resume and hurt my career. How do I minimize the damage?

Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want or like in order to achieve a greater goal. And “making ends meet” is a hefty requirement that seems to sit a little heavier on the shoulders of the unemployed professional. The fact that you joined a bad personal injury firm to pay your bills is not the end of the world, nor is it the end of your career. It can be a blip on the screen if you handle it properly.

From a pure market perspective, the move does weaken your resume because it is so far removed from your employment history as a commercial in house lawyer. So heads will be scratched and questions will be raised by those considering you for their team. But there are things you can do to minimize potential negative fallout. The two primary area of focus are (1) Your resume/social media profile, and (2) Your narrative for the move in an interview. Let’s look at both a bit closer.

Resume/Social Media

First and foremost, you must include this employment on your resume. I know it will be tempting to close your eyes, pretend it doesn’t count and leave it off your resume, BUT DON’T. Doing so would be dishonest and if discovered (and you can bet your bottom dollar it will be), your candidacy will be toast (“what else is s/he hiding?”).

Now that you have received my stern warning and advice, what’s the best way to represent this stint on your CV? Keep it short and sweet without long diatribes about how many slip and fall cases you have won. The employment entry should include the following:

  1. Name of the firm.
  2. Firm Location.
  3. Dates worked. Include months if you were employed less than a year.
  4. Brief description of your duties. Stay away from tagging the firm as a personal injury firm in the description. You can discuss if/when someone asks. Articulate skills you used that align with what the current job you are applying for is seeking. A few samples phrases you can use: “Analyzed documents, counseled clients, wrote memoranda, researched legal issues”.

In addition, I’m a fan of providing brief explanations for moves directly on the resume. Why? Because individuals reading your resume will ask those questions in their heads (“I wonder why he left Company X?”) – and if you don’t tell them, they may make false assumptions that may hurt your candidacy. A one-line explanation provides you the opportunity to control your message and avoid false assumptions that may knock you out of contention. Here are a few examples:

  • Left company as part of reduction in force (reason you left your in house role)
  • Firm financials necessitated departure, seeking to move back in house. (reason left PI firm)

Your LinkedIn profile should also include your law firm stint and resemble your resume to some degree. Your profile need not be detailed, but it needs to be accurate. If you want to minimize your PI law firm employment, simply include the firm name and dates employed. Finally, if you have good to excellent law school credentials, consider placing your education at the top of your resume – and let that make the first impression as opposed to something that looks a bit random.

Interview Narrative

Every employer and recruiter on the planet is going to want to know why you joined a personal injury law firm after years as an in house transaction lawyer. How you answer this question will be critical to the viability of your candidacy and ability to minimize any damage that might result from the move. In the event you receive an interview, below are examples to explain your situation when asked:

Employer: Why would you take a position in a law firm doing PI work?

You: “This move does seem like a left turn from my prior role at Company X. But at the time I left Company X, I had financial responsibilities that didn’t allow me to take time off. The offer from Firm B came quickly so I took it. While it wasn’t the right place for me, I learned a lot and had the opportunity to see the law from a different vantage point. With this said, I’d like to return to my expertise in house and think that this role would be a great fit.”

Employer: Tell me about the move to Firm B. You don’t seem sure about what you’d like to do.

You: “When I left Company X, I could not have a gap in employment because I had to continue to earn an income for my family. The opportunity with Firm B arose, and it provided the financial cushion that I needed. So the move was more about necessity than the desire to transition to a personal injury practice. I thought the firm would provide a different experience, but I found that personal injury law was not for me. While there are aspects of the role I enjoyed, I am looking forward to the transition back to my commercial transactions practice.”

Rarely does a career move in a straight line. As our lives evolve, the road can take some interesting twists and turns. For you, this latest twist, while not ideal, need not damage your career. But in order to get back on track, you’ll need to be prepared and transparent as you field questions and skepticism. You’ll also need to examine more closely the How and the Why of your last employment choice. And create a strategy to prevent a similar situation in the future – because two of such moves will present far greater career challenges. But for now, control what you can by strengthening your narrative and refining your resume/LinkedIn profile…and work toward landing a job that brings you back to the straight open highway.

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