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Common Career Transition Mistakes

  • November 20, 2015
  • Trevor Branion and Chris Williams

As a legal recruitment company, Branion Williams is keenly aware of the Canadian legal job market. Ever since the economic downturn in the late Noughties, there has been a change in the legal landscape.

We now see two increasingly common phenomena: an abundance of qualified lawyers out of work for lengthy periods; and, employed lawyers frustrated with their career trajectories. 

The frustration for the employed lawyers often stems from a recognition that the route to partnership or a senior title (in-house) is becoming ever more unattainable or a realization that the writing is on the wall for them with their current employer.

In such circumstances, both the unemployed lawyer and the frustrated practitioner frequently act out of desperation and, therefore, make bad choices. Unfortunately, while the lawyer can only think of securing the next role, come hell or high water, this desperation and poor decision-making typically leads to less attractive career advancement opportunities.

Invariably, in many of the situations we have encountered, the practitioner would fare better by taking the time to reflect and analyze their needs. Adopting a strategic approach to the next career transition will secure a position that gives you what you actually require in order to progress and have job satisfaction.

We understand that it is easy for us to say that.  Despite the fact that it may take some time to find the right role for you, in the long-term, it will pay greater dividends.  Too often, lawyers come to us after having already acted out of desperation and made a bad career choice.  In most instances, this makes it more difficult for a recruiter to help that practitioner. 

Below are some examples of lawyers acting out of desperation. We also identify why such approaches can have negative consequences. 

The Serial Applicant

A classic example of “one size fits all”.  While we have seen this approach numerous times over the years, it seems to be on the rise.  In this scenario, a single candidate applies for multiple advertised positions, either simultaneously or over the course of a short period of time, when those positions are advertised by one recruiter (or sometimes even one employer).  In addition to often not being appropriate for any of the roles, such candidates will usually apply again and again for slightly different positions.  Typically, the candidate even uses the same résumé for all of the positions, rather than tailoring it to match each role and demonstrating why they should be considered. 

More often than not, the impetus for “serial applicants” is an underlying dissatisfaction with their current career direction or an uncertainty as to what direction it should take.  Commonly, when pressed, such candidates come to realize that they are actually hoping that they will eventually “land” on a good career path if they simply keep trying something else. 

The Serial Applicant approach is inherently flawed.  A client of ours, that engages in their own frequent recruitment drives, recently discussed their increasing frustration with serial applicants.  Their opinion, with which we agree, is that applying for so many roles shows a significant lack of thought.  Even if you are appropriate for one of the roles, applying for multiple and inappropriate roles demonstrates a lack of focus.  By applying for those inappropriate roles, you are diluting your credibility.  This obviously leads to an unfavourable opinion being formed about you by the recruiter or employer and they will quickly lose any confidence in you, particularly if you continue to send them your materials.

The Hail Mary

The Hail Mary shares many of the same traits as the Serial Applicant.  This scenario involves a candidate applying for just one position, but it is patently clear that they are not qualified. Applications of this nature typically begin with a phrase such as: “Despite your requirements…, I believe that I would be an excellent candidate.” In most cases, they are not.

Although they may be great lawyers, these candidates often lack substantive experience or they may be too junior or senior for the parameters of the advertised role.

To illustrate the Hail Mary approach, we can use a real life example.  Branion Williams recently ran a campaign for an international company looking for a mid-level corporate counsel position. The company gave us a specific set of substantive criteria for the candidates, which included between 3 to 7 years of industry-related experience gained at a comparable organization or leading law firm. We posted an advertisement for the role and received well over a hundred on-line applications. 

Of the many candidates who applied, only about 25% could have fit within our client’s set criteria.  Those that did not fit within the parameters were not appropriate for the role for a number of reasons.  In some instances, candidates were not even called to the Bar or were international lawyers unable to practice in the jurisdiction.  Additionally, some candidates were incredibly senior, whereas others were too junior.  A substantial number of candidates certainly did not practice in those areas identified by the client as being conducive to the requirements of the job.

Employers are often frustrated with applications from candidates clearly outside of the scope of the role.  It is also a waste of the candidates’ time.  If you are applying for a role, be certain that you meet the employer’s criteria. Law is a particularly risk averse profession. By not demonstrating your compatibility for the role, you simply will not be selected for an interview.

In the current legal environment, it is a buyer’s market.  When a single job posting is flooded with applicants, only those that are truly strong for the role stand a chance of proceeding to the next stage.  By sending in materials that patently exclude you from consideration, you are not doing yourself any favours.  Should a subsequent role arise with that employer or recruiter that actually fits your profile, then similar to the Serial Applicant, you will likely have already created a negative impression for that employer.

The Resume Flipper

Ah, the Resume Flipper. A Resume Flipper is a candidate who submits their resume and cover letter on-line, without having first taken the time to review them.  Often seen for relatively non-descriptive entry-level positions, it is even more disappointing to see instances of the Resume Flipper when the candidate would have otherwise been a strong contender for the actual role applied for.  As a practicing lawyer, attention to detail is critical. Unfortunately, in today’s electronic age, many communications have become faster, often at the expense of form and content.  As a result, we frequently see candidates work themselves out of contention due to inattention to the role itself.

If a position is worth applying for, it is worth the effort of making your application perfect.  With the competition in the market place, the only way to ensure consideration is to appear flawless and better than the majority of applicants.

Too often, we receive generic resumes and cover letters from candidates, commonly sent through in haste, without appreciation for the particular employer or opportunity. If we are advertising for a securities lawyer and you discuss your interest in real estate, we know you did not make the effort. Law, as a profession, is all about the details. If you are not able to pay attention to the details in your own application, do not be surprised when you are not considered for the role.

The Over Sell (aka the Fiddler)

If you put something on your resume, you should be prepared to back that statement up.  Law is a profession of utmost integrity.  Harking back to first-year law, beware of mere puffs, as the reader of your resume will likely take such statements as fact.  If you over-inflate your experience, such as implying that you had ran a multi-million dollar deal as a junior Call, the employer will test you on that assertion.  Similarly, even a statement in respect of your hobbies and interests which has been over-played can trip you up and undermine your credibility when the employer asks for more details.

We recall all too well the instance of the candidate who fiddled with his resume.  Listing “violin” as one of his hobbies, the candidate was caught out when on an interview, the partner had a violin in his office and asked him to play.

In a slightly more egregious example, one candidate applied for a role for which they appeared to be a fantastic fit.  Given their relatively junior Call, the employer also required the candidate’s law school transcripts and grades.  The candidate promptly provided them to us.  Unfortunately, the candidate had previously applied for a similar role the year before and had provided their transcripts at that time as well.  In reviewing the candidate before finally presenting all of their materials to the client, we noticed that the recent version of their transcripts showed a marked improvement from the transcripts they had previously provided. 

Simply put, given the ethical standards of our profession, overstating, misstating or providing outright false statements will quickly kill your chances for any given opportunity.

The Rolling Stone

One of the saddest trends we have seen as recruiters is the continual movement of some candidates from role to role to role (the “Rolling Stone”).  Typically, a candidate is so frustrated with their current role, that they don’t take the time to find the right career path for themselves.  Instead, unable to bear their current position any longer, they leave for a new role, which, without planning, invariably ends up being equally unsuitable.

If you are looking to leave your current employer, remember that the pain you are experiencing will likely end as you walk out that door. Do not be in so much of a rush that you do not plan your next step.

Take the time to consider what it is that you want to do.  Take the time to consider what would make you happy in the practice of law.  Take the time to research the appropriate steps you will need to take in order to achieve your goal.  This requires a significant degree of self-analysis and due diligence. 

In applying for a job that will help you accomplish your career trajectory, make sure that the role fits you rather than vice versa.  If it is not helping you further your career progression it is likely not the right job for you.  There are many jobs that you could do, but, the question is, do you actually want to do them?

While we are sensitive to the pressure that individuals face when circumstances are less than favourable, we consistently provide the same advice: remain true to yourself and know your motivation.

For the Serial Applicant, the Hail Mary, the Resume Flipper, the Over-Sell and the Rolling Stone, understanding your own motivations and having a degree of forethought will serve you best. 

When you know who you are, formulate a proper plan of career progression, identify the steps you need to take to reach your goals and then pursue that path.

About the authors

Trevor Branion and Chris WilliamsChris Williams and Trevor Branion are the principals of Branion Williams Recruiting in Toronto.

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