Career Audit

Covering the Gaps

Time Away From Your Law Practice Is OK, But Be Ready to Explain Lessons Learned

Posted Jul 28, 2005 11:40 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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If you’ve just spent the last year or two staying at home with your children, operating a winery or teaching in Ecuador, you’re not alone.

Many attorneys don’t follow a career path that leads straight from law school to a law firm to retirement. And that’s fine with many employers, even if jumping off a traditional job track leaves gaps in your resumé.

But when you’re ready to jump back on, be equally ready to explain those gaps to prospective employers.

The key, experts say, is to view time away from law as an opportunity to develop other interests—even if that time-out was the result of a layoff.

“The first thing is not to think of time away from practicing law as a negative,” says Chicago lawyer Stephanie A. Scharf, president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. “People don’t fall off the face of the earth when they stop practicing law for a while. They go on to do other things.”

Highlight the nonlegal experience you have gained in the meantime, Scharf says. For example, she mentions a woman who organized a community charity drive and had to manage peers, sponsorships and financial details. “All of which should be described as skills she acquired when she was not practicing law but can be useful in the practice of law,” Scharf says.

Even picking up and moving to another part of the country can work to the job applicant’s advantage, says Portland, Ore., lawyer Walter W. Karnstein, chair of the Practice Management Core Group of the ABA Law Practice Management Section. Find an appealing volunteer position or work temporarily as a contract attorney, he says. Then, when looking for a permanent legal job, market the new skills and present the career change as part of a long-desired opportunity to move to the new locale, Karnstein says.

Being let go doesn’t deprive lawyers of any chance to refocus their practices, either, he notes. “If you’re coming to a job from not having a job, a change of direction may provide a nice explanation,” Karnstein says. “Maybe that is a good reason to change areas of practice or change locales.”

Spinning a Firing

Especially if you were asked to leave a prior job, “you need to think about who there is out there who can present the situation in an objective way for you,” says Carol Kanarek, a New York City lawyer who works as a career counselor for attorneys. “Even if you left under bad terms, there is usually somebody who can say something good about you,” she says. “Think about somebody who has also left that place who could put that situation in context for you.”

In addition, put a positive spin on your departure on the resumé, Kanarek says. “Maybe, in parentheses, say at the end, ‘corporate department disbanded’ or ‘major client merged.’ ”

To some wary firms, an extended absence might indicate that an attorney won’t be aware of recent developments in the law, Karnstein says. His firm, however, likes to hire seasoned laterals, so applicants should emphasize their skills and experience and how those assets would enhance the work they would be doing at the firm, he says. Experience isn’t the only qualification that gap-laden applicants should think about. Firms will consider a successful applicant who appears likely to stay for the long-term and who is pleasant to work with, he adds.

“We have a number of people who have changed careers midstream or changed firms who are just great people,” Karnstein says.

And if a potential employer is interested, but not certain about extending an offer, an applicant can go the extra mile by offering a tryout, Kanarek says.

“Say, ‘Look, I’m willing to work on a temporary or contract basis,’ ” she says. “If you’re currently unemployed, be flexible and offer somebody a sample before they buy the whole sandwich. ... I find that works surprisingly well.”

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