Career Audit

For Your Information

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Back when he was a certified public accountant running his own accounting firm, Marvin W. Maydew often went to seasoned tax attorneys for pointers on legal matters.

That got him thinking about a ca­reer in law. But Maydew, now a tax and estate planning attorney in Topeka, Kan., didn’t stop there. He followed up with the lawyers, asked questions and sat down for chats.

In short, Maydew arranged some classic informational interviews.

“I relied on [the tax attorneys] a lot,” he says. “You might ask, ‘How did I approach them?’ I tried to be, oh, you might say, a good friend—although we weren’t social friends at all. But when­ever I went to see them, which was not often, may be once a year, I would make sure they had time to see me, and I would make sure I didn’t overstay my time, and I’d try to make it interesting and even educational for them.”

Informational interviews aren’t just for career-changers, experts say. Lawyers looking to switch practices and improve their outlooks should employ this often-overlooked technique.

“It’s absolutely necessary to do, particularly if you’re looking at an area of law practice that you’re not that familiar with,” says Nevada City, Calif., attorney Hindi Greenberg, who counsels attorneys through her consulting busi­ness, Lawyers in Transition.

“Rather than jumping from the frying pan into the fire, you want to gather information,” Greenberg says. “Talk to people who are already doing that kind of work who can give you some insights into the benefits and detriments and how to best position yourself so you can present yourself appropriately.”

Often thought of as a tool for students or recent graduates seeking information about potential careers, the informational interview can be just as helpful to lawyers who have been practicing for years, says Dianne Y. Sundby, a Los Angeles psychologist who provides career counseling to lawyers.

Of course, lawyers who are already practicing should be discreet about whom they talk to, she points out, since they don’t want to broadcast their discontent to their employer. Through trusted friends, however, an attorney can usually find appropriate lawyers to interview, she says, and the information gained can be very useful.

One attorney who came to her for help, for instance, “was really quite disgruntled with everything” after several years in litigation, Sundby says. “He decided, because of his loans and getting married and everything, he should stick it out.”

But after talking to several seasoned litigators, “he saw light at the end of the tunnel,” Sundby says. A member of his high school debate team, the attorney realized he was likely to enjoy litigation once he advanced and had a chance to be creative as a trial lawyer. “He did have to talk to a few people to learn that,” she says, “because the initial jobs he had were anything but that.”

Don’t Expect an Offer

Richard Bolles, author of the well-known general career guide What Color is Your Parachute? is widely credited with popularizing the concept of the informational in­terview. The sessions are described as informational because, by definition, they are not expected to result in job offers from the people or organizations providing information.

What they are expected to offer is insight from experienced attorneys to help determine whether a particular practice area would be a good fit and, if so, how to qualify for a job in the field.

Experts agree the easiest way to arrange an informational interview is through acquaintances—friends, family members, professors, neighbors, even strangers you’ve chatted with at professional conferences or the local supermarket.

A good place to start, even for those who graduated years ago, is their law school’s career office, Greenberg suggests. Most maintain lists of alumni willing to talk about their careers, and can provide names of alumni in specific geographic locations and practice areas.

If this isn’t possible, however, introduce yourself. Many lawyers feel that they have benefited in the past from ad­vice offered by seasoned practitioners and are happy to return the favor by advising others, Greenberg says.

Charles Routh, an international lawyer in Seattle who teaches as an adjunct instructor, is often asked for such help by students and lawyers he meets at bar activities.

When making the first call, “I think the best way is to say that they’re really trying to find out what the climate is for whatever area they’re interested in, in the local area, and if I have any suggestions about how they might go about getting into that field,” Routh says. But an e-mail or letter may be more appropriate if the contact is a complete stranger. Attaching a resumé could make the missive look like a job application. But bring one along to the interview, once it is arranged, and ask the practitioner for suggestions about how it can be improved.

If there’s no response to the letter or e-mail, follow up with a phone call to ask for an appointment to talk.

What do you talk about?

The interview should be used to ask for information not readily available online or in career guides. For example, ask the attorney why she decided to go into the practice area and how she got started. What does she like and dislike about the job? How is the field likely to develop in the future?

“The last question always is, ‘Are there some other people that I should talk to?’ ” Greenberg says. And, if so, “May I use your name when I call?”

An appropriate time limit might be 20 minutes, unless the lawyer granting the interview extends the session or invites the interviewer to lunch.

One mistake some lawyers make is trying too hard to sell themselves, the experts say. That puts the focus on the wrong person: The subject of the conversation should be the senior lawyer’s experience in practice.

Unfortunately, informational interviews come most easily to those who naturally tend to network and therefore need them the least, Sundby says. “I think the more outgoing you are, the more you might take to doing this kind of thing.”

Introverted attorneys, she suggests, might try practicing on their friends if the thought of contacting strangers for information makes them break into a cold sweat. “The role-play gives you a little more confidence,” Sundby says.

Following up after the interview is key to making the most of the opportunity. Send a thank-you note—preferably handwritten. Plus, further follow-up at appropriate intervals may help establish a continuing connection. This can be a good opportunity to let the original contact know that you have followed up with another suggested contact and how helpful it was.

As a result of such continuing contact, “I’ve had people I’ve later ended up mentoring who started out just wanting to find out about my practice and how they might get into my field,” Routh says.

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