September 3, 2020

Lawyers and the Mystery of the Missing Case

Cecilia Ziniti is GC at Lambda, the start-up that trains people to be software developers and data scientists, but doesn’t charge them until they are hired.  

Cecilia is barely mid-career, but what she has already accomplished is impressive.  She worked her way from a prestigious law firm to product counsel at Amazon working on one of the hottest consumer facing products in the world and then onto to GC positions at two start-ups.

Given her rapid progress through multiple “change-your-stripes” transitions, she often gets asked for advice.  One suggestion she makes is to get a coach.  

Fortunately for me, she often gives them my name.  As such, I have accumulated a fair amount of experience helping lawyers become more effective in their current positions and make career transitions when they are ready.

Lawyers are generally known for being unusually smart, skilled with language, and able to present a compelling argument.  Given that, I was surprised to discover how bad most lawyers’ resumes are, meaning how poorly they describe their accomplishments and capabilities.  I have also been surprised at how lawyers often struggle to answer routine interview questions.  

In short, far too often lawyers are doing a lousy job of making a case…for themselves.

I am not sure what the root cause is here.  It could be that they have not looked for jobs very often and are out of practice.  Or that they are so busy working on their clients’ stories that they have not focused on telling their own.  

I also wonder if a faulty mental model might be getting in the way.  The mental model might be something like: if I go to a decent school, graduate high in the class, and then get some interesting experience, surely people are going to want to hire me.  That is not wrong, but those factors are likely less important for making successful transitions in the corporate world.

Broadly speaking, lawyers making career moves are trying to 1) get out of a law firm into corporate law, 2) get from a narrow slice of corporate law to a GC position in a smaller company,  3) get a bigger corporate job with more scope, or 4) land something outside the practice of law.  

To make the case for why you’re the right person for the job, you need to be able to clearly answer these two questions:  Can you solve problems like the ones we have?  And will you be accretive to the teams you will be on?  

Your resume has to make it clear that you are a problem solver.  Moreover, when describing the Gordian Knots you have cut through, you have to put it in terms of the results your solutions produced, results that a business can “eat:”  Revenue, Cost Reduction, Cost Avoidance, Productivity, Customer Satisfaction, Employee Satisfaction, etc.  I often suggest to my legal clients that they position themselves as a “business-first lawyer,” by, in part, demonstrating a deep awareness of the connection between legal work and business outcomes.

I often suggest to my legal clients that they position themselves as a “business-first lawyer”…

Not only do you need to show that you can drive results that affect financial performance, but you also have to convince the people on the interview team that you will be low drama, enjoyable to work with, and bring needed knowledge and skills.  In other words, you will be accretive to the product, functional, and legal teams you’ll be on.  

Being successful, especially on this accretive-to-the-team piece, has everything to do with how you tell your story.  You are conveying subtle and not so subtle signals about the kind of person you will be to work with that are only partly related to the content of your answers.  

During interview practice sessions, I have seen lawyers, not just stumble, but completely blow it on “lob” questions like, “Tell me about yourself.”  They ramble on for a few minutes until they run out of things to say or need to inhale, failing to read the interviewer and oblivious to their own lack of focus.  In real life, the interview might continue perfunctorily, but the candidate has already been written off as not having the chops to handle interactions with senior leaders.

With knowledge and practice, issues like these are, of course, fixable.  But progress starts with a clear understanding of the case you need to make for yourself and a ruthlessly honest assessment of how well you are making it.

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