I recently met with a group of attorneys from the Southern California American Corporate Counsel Division and discussed what they need to do to manage their own careers and career trajectories. Following is an overview of that discussion and some pointers about how to shape a lawyer's career path.
As children, we are always asked one of the pinnacle childhood questions, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Making the decision to "be a lawyer" and go to law school provides a response and a strong career foundation for many lawyers, at least initially.
For many attorneys beginning their careers, the legal career trajectory can seem very certain. For example, most of my law school classmates either clerked or went to an AmLaw 100 firm to begin our careers, upon graduation. After the requisite number of years, many classmates moved to mid-size firms, worked for the government or secured some of the few in-house positions. Some of us got married, had kids, got a dog, bought a house and settled into practice of the law. During those first 10 years, many of us stopped asking ourselves about what we wanted to be when we grew up – we had already achieved our career goal: Attorney. Done.
However, as we continue into our careers, we still should be asking ourselves that pinnacle question, although somewhat altered. Now it should be, "What type of attorney do you want to be when you grow up?" Do you want to be a partner at a large firm, or maybe a partner of your own firm? Do you want to be an in-house attorney? Do you want to work for the government? Only once you answer those questions can you determine your own career path and where you want to eventually end up career-wise.
Of course, there are factors that need to be considered: training, expertise and law school background, to name a few. If you decide you want to be a criminal attorney, for example, but have practiced tax law for 10 years, you must determine how to create opportunities to expose yourself to the area of law where you want to be to effect that change. You also need to formulate a clear business plan that delineates the steps that you will need to take to achieve your goals.
Regardless of your stage in life and career, it is always important to look towards the future to determine what you want your career to be in five or 10 years. As a former practicing attorney at a Big Law firm for almost 10 years who has made the transition to recruiting, I am very familiar with how one's career trajectory is sometimes not so clear at the outset. It is only once that you take the initial steps to explore making a change, that the possibility of options available to you will become known.
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Joanna Herman is a Managing Director in the In-House Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa. She brings significant contacts and experience in the Southern California legal market to her practice, helping build and strengthen in-house legal departments. Joanna's experience includes searches conducted in the pharmaceutical, financial services, aerospace, retail and transportation industries.