It’s an age-old question: What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Your situation bears a striking resemblance to this inquiry:
- You don’t have management experience, but want to get it.
- In order to get it, you need a job that offers it.
- A job that offers it requires prior management experience.
- But you don’t have management experience, and want to get it.
- In order to get it, you need a job that offers it.
- A job that offers it requires prior management experience….
And so on…
So what’s the most effective way for an individual contributor to tackle this quagmire? Advancing one’s career to a place of “never been there, never done that” involves hard work, an effective strategy, a persuasive argument…and a break. The good news is that reaching your goal to join the managerial ranks is achievable. You’ll maximize your chances if you follow the recommendations below.
Pursue management opportunities with your current employer.
This first logical path to build management experience is to pursue opportunities with your current employer. Even if you think a management role doesn’t exist, don’t assume that it doesn’t. Ask.
And take inventory of whether a promotion could be in the cards now or in the future. Meet with your own manager and discuss your career development goals. Stress that management experience is a priority for you and inquire whether there is an opportunity to manage others if you prove yourself.
If the answer is “yes” or “possibly”, create a specific action plan with milestones to serve as your path to management success (with buy-in from your boss) – and provide updates on your progress every quarter. If you perform accordingly, you will be well positioned when a management opportunity arises. If your boss’s answer is “no”…perhaps because you are in a very small legal department or your boss doesn’t want you to manage others, it will be time to contemplate a move. Either way, it’s important to be clear about your current options and be proactive to maximize internal opportunities.
Consider other legal professionals as potential managees.
Yes, a role managing attorneys is ideal, but being a good manager requires skills that can be developed through a broad range of experiences. So think beyond attorneys as you assess your options: paralegals, contract managers, legal secretaries, paid interns etc. By widening your net, you open yourself up to more opportunities to manage in your current…or future role. In addition, you can use these experiences in interviews to make the case that you have been in managerial dynamics and you possess the skills required to be a good manager.
Build management skills through other personal and professional endeavors.
There are many ways to build and hone management skills outside of your employment as an attorney. Non-profits, leadership positions in industry organizations and volunteering activities, political involvement etc. These are all activities that can help expose you to some of the dynamics of managing people and be useful in your legal career.
Consider another individual contributor role with management possibilities.
It is in their current roles that many lawyers receive their first opportunity to manage other professionals. So even if it’s not in the cards with your present employer, there are other employers that offer this career development path. If you have decided to start a job search, I recommend that you consider other individual contributor roles if they provide management opportunities down the road. The best way to determine this is to be transparent about your desire to manage other attorneys and ask whether this would be a realistic possibility given where this role is currently scoped. Then, assess whether the employer walks the talk. Have others in department have been promoted to include management responsibilities? By being open and direct, you’ll get a good sense of whether the opportunity is worth the risk…or more of the same.
Apply for managerial roles. Manage your expectations. Make your best argument.
As part of your search efforts, it’s wise to also apply for managerial roles – even if the description lists management experience as a requirement. Some employers will be rigid on the must-have, while others will have more flexibility. And if they like you and other aspects of your background, they may be more willing to cut you a break. If you’re invited to interview, be prepared to address the issue with a clear, concise and persuasive response. And never start a sentence with “I know I don’t have any management experience, but….” This opening line puts an exclamation point on your attorney management deficiency as well as an employer’s concern. A sample message is below:
“One appealing aspect of this role is the opportunity to manage another attorney, which I believe I’m well-suited for. To me, a good manager invests in his/her people by being engaged and committed to their success, providing guidance, but not holding the reigns too tightly. People have different personalities as well so it’s also important to understand what makes each person tick so everyone can work effectively. I’ve developed some diverse experience in this area, particularly in my role as President of the California Lawyers Organization and managing our group’s legal assistant.”
Striving to be a manager for the first time can be a frustrating experience, particularly when a Catch-22 dynamic appears to be at play. But there are options to increase your odds of success and break the gridlock of contradiction. So capitalize on suggestions above and you’ll be on your way to overcoming your career predicament in no time.