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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

April 17, 2016

I just joined Big Law from a great mid-sized firm and it’s not going well. There is no mentoring, it’s unfriendly and lacks energy. It’s a bad fit, but I’m going to stay at least one year. How do I survive?

Julie Q. Brush

It isn’t easy to make a flawless pick when choosing your next employer. Sometimes you win…and sometimes you lose. And when you lose, the magnitude of your professional predicament and remorse can feel pretty overwhelming.

From a career perspective, the move from a smaller firm with less brand recognition to an AmLaw powerhouse can make strategic sense – particularly for an ambitious associate. But despite the virtues of such a move, you are miserable – as the firm’s culture is misaligned with your own values. So remaining with this employer is not sustainable for long-term happiness…or success. If the job is barely bearable, leaving now would be an acceptable choice in today’s legal market (In a separate Lawyer Whisperer article, I’ve addressed why this would be so). But if you are resolved to gut it out for one full year, you must create a strategy to make the most of your remaining tenure at the firm.

Here’s how:

Go Get Your Own Mentoring.

Lawyers today like to learn and greatly value access to a good mentor. But many sit back and wait for a corporate or law firm infrastructure to hand it to them on a silver platter. And while an increasing number of employers will promise that silver platter, not all of them deliver. For those who don’t, mentor seeking employees have two options: (1) complain; or (2) do something about it. Given your situation, it’s clear your new firm offers little if anything in the way of mentoring so you’re going to have to be proactive to secure your gurus.

Where to start? Have an idea as to what you’d like to learn and how a mentor can help. In addition, mentoring comes in all shapes and sizes – and isn’t limited to a boss’s role. So think broadly as you begin your quest. Identify those in the firm whom you believe to be strong partners and those from whom you can learn. Introduce yourself and ask for suggestions/guidance about finding a good mentor…And inquire whether they themselves might be interested in mentoring you. Forward? Perhaps a little. But you ain’t gonna get what you need unless you ask.

If you hit an internal brick wall despite your best efforts, seek mentoring outside the firm. A few suggestions: (1) Legal organizations targeting law firms and in house lawyers; (2) legal organizations for women lawyers (if applicable); (3) legal orgs for diverse lawyers (if applicable); (4) ABA Young Lawyers Division; (5) business organizations for executives and entrepreneurs; (6) law school alum networks; (7) undergrad alum networks; and (8) your own professional network. When raising the request for mentoring in these forums, identify specifically what you are seeking including the time commitment. An amorphous message will fall on deaf ears.

Finally, be self-sufficient. To the extent there are things you want to learn, use the resources at your disposal to teach yourself. Granted, it won’t be feasible for everything, but there are scores of videos, podcasts, articles, seminars, on-line courses, certificates etc. that can satisfy your thirst for knowledge and bolster your background.

Take Charge of Making Connections/Friends.

Law firm lawyers are under a lot of pressure these days. So the energy at the office can feel intense and sometimes cold and unfriendly. It may not be so much that people aren’t nice or don’t like you, but rather they are focused on their own work, trying to develop business and/or pleasing partners. Heads down and focused. If you’re finding this in your new firm and seek to be more connected to your colleagues, the onus will fall on you to make it happen. So how can you do that? There are different options to consider – a few include the following: Join a firm committee: Many firms have committees that focus on different things like recruiting, associate workplace, diversity and pro bono. Some firms also allow associates to participate in summer associate planning and activities. Joining one of these groups is a great way to meet other people in the firm and work together. Another option is to mentor a younger associate. By doing so, you can create a dynamic where you get more involved with others and help someone else at the same time. Set the example and maybe more will follow. Organizing an after work happy hour is another way to dislodge associates from their computers. Send out an email and see who wants to join you for after work cocktails on Thursday or Friday night. Finally, something small and simple such as putting a bowl of good candy on your desk will invite people to walk in your office and say hi. I know that may sound a little goofy, but it works!

Maximize Your Substantive Experience.

You’re at a big firm with great work and great clients. And while the culture may not be so hot, you have an opportunity to hone your skills and gain high quality experience. So be laser focused and do everything you can to maximize your opportunities for great work. Raise your hand when your colleagues need help. Proactively offer to work on partner matters. If you’re assigned to one partner, let it be known that you’re available for more work and let him/her know the type of work that you’d love to work on. The experience you develop now will pay big dividends when you’re back on the market.

Stay Positive!

Even though you aren’t happy, being negative and acting sour will only make things worse…and hurt your reputation. You may not think this career stretch is that important, but every career stretch is important no matter how short. So be positive! The moment you walk into your office…smile. Say hello to your colleagues even if they are walking zombies – and have a positive disposition. Nobody wants to be around a downer and it certainly won’t help your objective in making connections. If you find being upbeat difficult, fake it until it becomes more natural – and take out your frustrations at the gym.

Create a Job Strategy and Execute.

If you know your exit will occur when the clock strikes one year, creating a job strategy for your next job and starting to execute will give you greater peace of mind while you are in your current job. Why? Because you will feel like you are doing something about your situation as opposed to feeling helpless and reactive. So during this time, build your network and learn more about the current employment market: who’s looking, what they are looking for, what background in marketable etc. In addition, assess what went wrong in selecting your current employer so you don’t make the same mistake twice. Start this entire process now so your current career predicament will be more tolerable and you will be properly teed up when you are ready to make your next move.

You’ve gone from a big warm hug to a cold shoulder. But it’s in your best interest to make the most of your remaining time at the firm. I know it won’t be easy, but there is still value you can gain that will help you in your career with lasting impact. So be optimistic: With the right attitude and equally good game plan not only will you “survive”, but you’ll become a better professional as a result.

Like this

K.C. Victor, Principal, Victor Legal Solutions

Have you considered at asking your old employer if they would take you back? However, ask only if it feels like your old firm could be a long-term home for you. Over the years, I have seen lawyers return several times. If you do return, you must stay there for years. Then, should you leave again, you can tell future employers your earlier move was a mistake on your part.

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