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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 10, 2016
Question

“What are your 5 and 10 year career goals?” Here is the best way to answer this tough interview question…

answer
Julie Q. Brush

It’s an answer that does not come easy. Either because articulating it is challenging or you simply don’t know the answer. But if you want to get ahead in today’s profession, your buttons need to be up from top to bottom. That includes being prepared for and answering…clearly, confidently and effectively, the most commonly asked interview questions. And the “where do you see yourself in 5 and 10 years” can be one of them.

An interviewer’s motives for asking this particular question vary and include the desire to learn the following:

  • Whether you will be bored in this role
  • Whether you will be a flight risk
  • Whether you’ll be a malcontent
  • Whether you will want the interviewer’s job
  • Whether this manager and this position can offer you what you are seeking
  • How articulate you are
  • How thoughtful you are about your career
  • If you can think on your toes

Understanding the potential drivers for the question will be helpful as you contemplate your response.

So, where to start?

The first thing you need to do is to determine where you’d actually like to be career-wise in five/ten years. Most professionals have no idea – or only a vague sense of how and where they see their future selves. But for purposes of this exercise, you’ll need to get granular. Before you start sweating, take solace in knowing that nothing is set in stone – and careers travel down a long and winding road. As life changes, so may your goals. So don’t put excessive pressure on yourself to predict the future with pinpoint precision.

But to get a better sense of it, ask yourself…and answer the following questions:

  • What is the first answer that instinctively comes to mind when I ask myself: “Where do I want to be in 5 and 10 years?” Perhaps you don’t know. Perhaps you’re sure you know. But after you answer the additional questions to follow, revisit this question and determine whether your new answer is different.
  • What is my current substantive skill set? Where do I have experience? Where am I lacking in experience?
  • What areas of my practice do I want to develop: Securities? Privacy? Board of Directors exposure? IP portfolio management? Litigation? International? Managing a large team?
  • What is my current title and what is the upward title hierarchy from where I am now?
  • Am I knowledgeable about the current employment market? For example, what’s the norm in candidate mobility? What skills are required for a particular job? Am I familiar with market compensation and titles? Based on this information, what seems like a reasonable and doable trajectory in 5 and 10 years?
  • If I am clear about my goals, what is the skill set and experience required to achieve them? Which of these do I currently possess…and lack?
  • At what stage is my personal life and how do I see it unfolding in the next 5-10 years?
  • What is my current financial situation (debt, assets)? What are my financial goals?

After working through this list of questions, you’ll develop more clarity on your professional wants for the future. And that’s a great thing – whether you’re interviewing or not. Knowing this information will also help facilitate that career roadmap you are going to create next. 🙂

Now that you are more “aware”, the final step is to determine the most effective way of communicating your goals in an interview setting. Given an interviewer’s possible motives for asking this question (reference above), you will need to phrase your answers honestly…but carefully. So message preparation is key. Below are some basic tips for creating a good 5/10-year goal message.

  1. Be honest.
  2. Keep things fairly general. Don’t go into the weeds.
  3. Be succinct.
  4. Use good judgment on how you are communicating your ambitions.
  5. Express the skills/experience you’d like to develop and include how your understanding of this role appeals to you in this context.
  6. Articulate one or more things that are professionally important to you.

Below are a few examples:

“I don’t have a specific title or role selected for my 5/10 year plan. What’s important to me is continuing to learn new things, get better at what I know and progress in my career at a reasonable pace. Working with sophisticated professionals is also crucial – as I feel like I’m at my best when working with other high quality people. This opportunity is appealing to me because of the complex nature of the deals as well as the diverse responsibilities, which will enable me to broaden my skill set. The company’s reputation and culture are also great and that is appealing to me as well. So I see this opportunity as one that can help me more forward in a positive way.”

“Someday I would like to be General Counsel of a mid-sized public company. But that is a goal much farther down the road in years. Shorter term, I would like to work in an organization that is growing and scaling. And one where I can diversify my skill set and perhaps gain some management experience. I’m currently a sixth year, so I know that that won’t happen overnight, but the position with Company A is appealing to me in that the company is growing and this is a utility role in the legal department. So I’ll have the opportunity to gain exposure to different legal matters.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a partner in a big law firm since I was a young kid. I love writing, and creating an argument is something that interests me. I provide great service to my current clients and have great relationships with them. When the time is appropriate, I look forward incorporating business development into my practice. Firm X has a terrific emerging growth practice and I’m really attracted to the clients, practice and what I think I could build here long term.”

Knowing where you want to be…and who you want to be professionally 5 to 10 years from now isn’t an easy task, let alone trying to articulate it effectively in an interview. But in today’s cutthroat legal market, candidates must be prepared to answer such questions. While the order may seem intimidating, it need not be. By getting clear on your future and investing the time to organize your thoughts and create the right message, you can ace this answer and move forward to create the future you have envisioned.

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