Q. I'm relatively satisfied with my current position, but there seem to be few opportunities for advancement in my department, and I've heard that a corporate merger or acquisition may be on the horizon. How can I prepare myself? I'm not even sure I know what I'd want to do if I moved on.
A. Whether in-house attorneys envision immediately moving to a new company, transitioning to a law firm environment or simply planning a future move, one tool that can help them plot a course to greater job satisfaction is the career "audit." A career audit is not just an inventory of successes and failures; it is a process that encourages a complete and thorough analysis of skills, interests, goals, methods and motivations.
Take stock. As with any auditing process, specific data must be gathered and organized before any useful analysis can begin. The career audit should start with an assessment of your professional and personal assets and liabilities. Itemize all of your skills — "soft" skills as well as technical ones — and weight them for relative importance.
Know thyself. Matching skills and strengths to professional opportunities alone cannot assure that a position is the proper fit. It is just as important to recognize personal preferences that can substantially enhance or impair the ability to perform and thrive in specific work environments. Most professionals can adapt to a wide variety of work settings but few people can make major adjustments to their personality without significantly diminishing the quality of their work and their private life.
Create a yardstick. In order to determine whether there are better opportunities elsewhere, make a full and fair appraisal of your current employment. Fully explore the potential for growth in the current position, too, either in the same office or in another branch or division. It is best to undertake such an appraisal during a calm period so that momentary irritants or holiday bonuses don't distort the process.
Q: My legal staff are hard-working and dedicated, but there are times when I feel I could inspire them to even higher levels of accomplishment. How can I become a better, more effective leader?
A: Today, corporate legal departments are trying to keep providing high-quality legal services with fewer resources. As a result, they are increasingly dependent on leaders who can help their legal teams operate more effectively. The following basic techniques can help you motivate your staff:
Provide strategic direction. Clearly define to your team how their individual efforts support the firm's broader objectives. In other words, make sure each team member clearly understands his or her responsibilities and their relationship to achieving the firm's goals. Also explain how their contributions will be weighed when you are conducting in performance evaluations.
Encourage open communication. Communication is a two-way street. Just as you provide direction and guidance to your staff, ask them to give you timely status reports and feedback about problems or challenges they experience.
Be a good listener. Good leaders recognize that when employees believe their concerns and opinions are heard, they are more likely to perform their best. You may want to conduct periodic manager/staff briefings in which information about cases, firm goals and other issues are shared and employees are given the opportunity to offer their ideas and suggestions for improving procedures or streamlining workflow.
Be flexible. Try to be flexible in your approach to challenging situations and be open to new methods of resolving them. Effective leaders are also able to acknowledge their own mistakes and make necessary changes to correct them.
Q. Should I continue my legal education beyond the state-mandated CLE requirements? I want to keep advancing professionally and make sure my skills are still marketable.
A. After surviving law school and passing the bar exam, many attorneys understandably feel that they have endured enough lectures for a lifetime. But once in actual practice, reality quickly reveals how much more there is to learn about law and business. State CLE requirements are not expected to satisfy all the training needs of any particular attorney or employer, and it's up to the individual lawyer to determine just what direction his or her educational efforts should take. Here are some thoughts: Seek guidance as to whether your choices are realistic. College catalogues, program brochures, and online course descriptions can provide a good overview of the amount of work, scheduling options, tuition and fees involved in a course of study.
Investigate higher education. Some universities offer intense summer programs for professionals seeking to deepen their expertise. Taking only a few weeks to complete, these programs can provide an intense learning environment, complete with practical workshops, videotaped critiques, and individualized assessments. Online or distance-learning programs from reputable institutions also have been growing in number, variety and quality.
Ask your colleagues. The general counsel is usually a reliable source for information about which areas of study or additional skills would be seen as advantageous for advancement in his or her organization. The important thing to remember is that these preferences vary widely among corporations, and the focus should be on skills that are transferable should the job situation change. Conferring with colleagues in other corporate law departments may provide helpful insights as to which knowledge areas are most portable.