Positioning yourself for the next step

(Left to right) Aurora Donnelly, wearing a brown and gold boucle skirt suit from St. John paired with a Fendi handbag, and Tiffany Farber, wearing a tan Theory pantsuit with a cowl neck blouse with small print, talk after being dressed by Neiman Marcus. - Ben Speckmann
(Left to right) Aurora Donnelly, wearing a brown and gold boucle skirt suit from St. John paired with a Fendi handbag, and Tiffany Farber, wearing a tan Theory pantsuit with a cowl neck blouse with small print, talk after being dressed by Neiman Marcus. —Photo by Ben Speckmann
April 2010

There is no question that the economic downturn has taken its toll on the legal industry, leading to everything from the closure of law firms to massive layoffs.

As the economy slowly recovers, some legal recruiters say things are finally starting to look up for those searching for jobs. This is especially true for lawyers who are dedicated to the job search, willing to be flexible, and can demonstrate concrete ways in which they will be an asset to the firm or company looking to hire. Many lawyers going through a career transition do everything they can to set themselves apart from the pack - whether it be improving their wardrobes or starting a blog.

For those tired of pounding the pavement, one popular choice is going solo. Chicago Lawyer spoke with two attorneys with different backgrounds and levels of experience who found their answers to the job crunch by starting their own practices. They are among the many out there who are reinventing themselves and coming up with winning strategies in their time of need.

From Chicago to Florida and back again

For attorney Aurora Ramos Donnelly, her job search journey dates back to 2005 when she closed her civil law practice in Waukegan to join her husband, Eric, who got a job offer as a commercial real estate review appraiser at Bayview Financial in Coral Gables, Fla.

"So many couples have dual careers these days," Donnelly said. "When he was offered the job I had to think hard about whether I wanted to close up my practice, which was only about a year and a half old, and follow him. But it was a great opportunity for him so I decided to relocate."

Interestingly enough, not long after they arrived Donnelly went to work for Bayview Financial, handling 1031 exchanges, and later becoming a transaction manager, where she remained until January 2008.

"Both of us working for the same company probably wasn't the best idea, since we were laid off within five months of each other when the real estate market imploded."

Donnelly and her husband decided to head back to the Chicago area, which they consider home and where they are licensed. "We found out the job market here was better than in Florida, but still not great."

However, her husband was able to find work quickly.

"I contacted one of the guys I used to work for and he asked me to come back as soon as possible, so I took the job," Eric Donnelly said. "I was busy right away at a small, privately owned appraisal shop in Cook County."

His wife wasn't so lucky.

"When I first got back I found myself in a dilemma of whether to reopen my practice or work for someone else," she said. "I never envisioned myself as a big firm lawyer, so I tried to find jobs that I thought would be interesting and would give me the opportunity to learn. I always look for opportunities to grow."

Donnelly applied for various jobs, mostly at small firms, but in the end she chose to go it alone, starting Multilingual Attorney Services, where she combines her legal skills with her knowledge of several languages.

"I serve as of counsel, advising law firms and companies on cases involving foreign firms and companies and helping prepare for litigation," said the Chicago-Kent College of Law graduate, who is fluent in Spanish and French and has a good grasp of Italian and Portuguese. "With the economy becoming so globalized, I think there is a big benefit for companies and law firms which use attorneys that are bilingual and bicultural. The firm can use me to relate to foreign clients, and I can read and interpret documents in their original language."

Right now, Donnelly is working out of her home part time and using free office space owned by an attorney she used to work with.

"The key word now is adaptation," Donnelly said, "using your skills in different ways or perhaps working in a slightly different area of law than you are used to, and maybe being willing to take a salary cut for now."

"She wanted autonomy," Eric Donnelly said. "She has a lot of experience and a diverse background since her father was with the United Nations and she lived in various countries growing up."

From non-profits to solo practitioner

Tiffany Farber's story begins in May 2009, when she was laid off by the Center for Disability and Elder Law in Chicago.

"I have always gravitated towards non-profits," said the 28-year-old Indiana University School of Law graduate.

The Northbrook native began her career as an intern at Prairie State Legal Services in Waukegan.

"I have always been an idealist," she said. "When I became an attorney I felt that I was charged with a duty to help people. My brother has a disability, and he inspired me to advocate on behalf of those with disabilities."

Unfortunately for Farber, many non-profits were hit hard by the downturn, losing funding and being forced to lay off workers, including lawyers.

"I had been doing some pretty heavy searching and networking," Farber said, "but then the opportunity came along to take on a few cases. So I got malpractice insurance, etc., and started working out of an extra office at my dad's company."

Farber's father is also an attorney and owner of Guaranty National Title Co. in downtown Chicago. Sharing office space is a good arrangement for Farber since it allows her to be rent-free while she builds her general practice.

"Right now it is a small practice, and I am still not sure where it will take me," she said. "I still have an ear to the ground for opportunities for full-time employment."

As for the type of work she might consider, she said she remains open to a few possibilities.

"I would like to continue to work with non-profits, but I would also consider working at a law school or university in career services," she said. "I really enjoy working with people, whether it is as a lawyer or a counselor. I would like to help guide people in the right direction, giving them advice on resumes and the job search or whatever else the job might entail."

In February, Farber underwent a different kind of transition - getting engaged to attorney Wil Nagel, whom she met at a friend's birthday party about a year and a half ago.

"I told myself I would never date another lawyer after having been to law school and practicing," Nagel said. "She made me want to go against my one firm rule. She has the biggest and kindest heart of anyone I've ever met. She can walk into a place, [see] a complete stranger and leave with a minimum of one friend. People are her passion and she wants to be involved in their lives and help them and I love her for it."

Nagel, who grew up in Addison, Ill., said they have not set a wedding date but are looking at September 2011. "For now we are enjoying being engaged," he said.

"It hasn't even been a year since I was let go and I feel like I've grown about five years both professionally and personally," she said. "When you lose a job it's really tempting to get down in the dumps. I tried to see it as a new opportunity and figure out how to make the best of it.

"For me that meant taking cases on my own. It is scary. The answers will be different for everyone, but if you can do some soul-searching and be willing to put yourself out there and try new things, you'll grow as an attorney and a person."

Blogging about it

While their lives and careers are very different, Donnelly and Farber have two things in common.

Both participate in the Law Bulletin Publishing Co.'s Attorneys in Transition group, and both write for its blog, www.attorneysin transition.com.

Donnelly has been doing so since the summer of 2009.

"It has been fun," said Donnelly, who earlier in her career did marketing and consulting work.

"My main objective with the blog is to get people revitalized so they will say, 'Yes, there is work out there, I just have to persist and make the most of my skills and abilities,'" Donnelly said. "There is so much career advice available. I try to put a personal spin on it and provide information attorneys can use right now about things that are happening in the legal market. And, of course, since it is a blog, I can't resist putting in my own opinions at times!

"I think the first step is to decide if you want to remain in the law or do something else," she said. "If you choose to stay, look at the practice areas you enjoy the most and are good at and then try to pin down the areas where the jobs are and see where the two circles intersect. For example, if you are a real estate attorney, look for work in foreclosures or loan modifications. It takes self-examination and work on the lawyer's part to figure out where he or she might fit in. In my case, I think my linguistic and legal skills combined with businesses becoming more global is the answer, but we'll see," Donnelly said.

For Farber, writing for the blog lets her use the writing skills she gained as a journalism major at Indiana University. While she has been contributing only for a few months, she said she has "gained some loyal readers."

"I was on the Law Bulletin Web site looking for jobs and saw the Attorneys in Transition program and decided to sign up for it."

Farber attended a few seminars and then asked about writing for the blog. "I wanted to share my experiences with others who were in the same position. I have even taken it one step further by starting a networking group.

"I like hearing everyone's stories and offering advice. Everyone is trying to do the best they can right now, and it can be frustrating. To say that you are in transition [as the blog's name suggests] makes you feel better mentally. It's more positive than saying, 'I don't have a job right now,' and attitude is key. I'm very lucky. I've been able to work out of my dad's company. I've heard stories of people trying to do the same thing, and I hope hearing about my experiences helps them."

The job outlook

Gary D'Alessio, president of Chicago Legal Search, said between layoffs and the lack of hiring, 2009 was by far the worst year he has seen during his 25 years as a legal recruiter.

"Thousands of lawyers were laid off; it was simply unheard of," he said. "This year, however, there is increased optimism on the hiring front at law firms, partly due to the economy getting better and partly because, after so many cuts, many firms need to hire."

D'Alessio said the first quarter has brought with it a slight uptick in hiring, especially at the associate level.

"Chicago has had a phenomenal increase in offices among firms that did not have a Midwest or Chicago presence. It affords lawyers more lateral opportunities," he said.

Billie Watkins, Chicago branch manager at Robert Half Legal, also sees a positive hiring outlook. "We're seeing increased hiring at small and midsize firms," she said. "The increase in litigation at some corporations is driving the demand for attorneys with insurance defense, labor and employment, foreclosure, medical malpractice and even personal-injury experience.

"On the corporate side, hiring has been steady, with an increased demand for those with contract, IP and significant regulatory and compliance experience."

For those looking for a new job, D'Alessio and Watkins said networking is key.

D'Alessio said attorneys should look to friends and former colleagues first, while also contacting their law school's career counseling offices.

"Access a list of alumni practicing in the Chicago area and contact them," he said. "There are also a slew of recruiters in Chicago and a myriad of Web sites that post jobs, some Chicago-specific, and many hard-copy resources like Sullivan's Law Directory, which each year lists every attorney in the state."

He said attorneys should consider temporary or contract work, since such positions let you network with other attorneys and can often be on-the-job auditions for full-time positions.

D'Alessio said, first and foremost, job seekers must be focused, know what they are looking for and be sure to articulate it in the cover letter, and resume, and during the interview.

"The cover letter and resume are the first writing samples the employer will see, so they need to communicate why you are interested specifically in this employer and what relevant experience and marketable skills you have," he said. "Find something that makes you stand out from the other candidates.

"If you do get in the door, your goal should be to make it to the next level, i.e., a second interview or getting an offer. Be interactive during the interview and speak in a conversational tone," he said. "Make sure you relay the same consistent theme to everyone you meet. Think about and write down three to five selling points. Make sure you have thoroughly done your due diligence and know all there is to know about the firm and/or company. Don't just check the Web site. Try talking to attorneys who are working or used to work at the firm and/or company for extremely useful 'inside' information prior to your interview."

Watkins said it's important to treat the search as a full-time job, adding that, in addition to networking with colleagues, doing volunteer work might be a good way to develop new marketable skills, or even land a new job.

She said it is important to prepare for all networking and job-related opportunities.

"Develop a 30-second summary of yourself that conveys your background and experience as well as what you have accomplished, and practice it so that it sounds natural.

"When sending out cover letters, talk about how you will have a positive impact on the business in a clear and concise way. Stay away from marketing soft skills, like multi-tasking," she said. "In this environment employers don't have the flexibility to hire the wrong person so they want to know what you will do for their company. During the interview, be sure to connect with the person who is interviewing you and demonstrate with examples what you will do for their business."

Going it alone

The tight job market has more attorneys choosing to go it alone, as Donnelly and Farber are doing.

Michelle Mohr Vodenik, director and public interest/diversity adviser in the career services office of Chicago-Kent College of Law, said some students, as well as those who recently graduated but have been unable to land positions, are opting to do just that.

She said the demand is so great that last year the law school started a new class called "Opening and Managing a Law Office," taught by adjunct professor and legal technologist Bob Moss.

The course provides a road map of how to set up shop and keep the business running. Moss taught the class in the fall semester of 2009. He also offers the same material in a three-day seminar at the Chicago Bar Association and has programs planned at other state bar associations. Because of the need, he is in discussions with a publisher to write a full manual on the subject.

"Attendees include both new graduates as well as those who have been around for 15 years and have been forced out and want to learn how to do what they never did before," Moss said. "It's a lot more complicated than you might think. You have to write a business plan, get several types of insurance, figure out what technologies to buy, decide whether to rent an office or work from home, learn how to market yourself, etc."

Vodenik said: "I would recommend that new graduates think very carefully about all the steps involved in opening a practice. I would say it would be important to have experience marketing yourself and working in a legal setting before setting up a solo practice."

She said not only are students asking for information on setting up a practice, but she has seen an increase in calls from attorneys who want to teach or offer seminars on career advisement topics.

If you do go it alone, Moss said, don't treat it as a temporary measure, make a commitment. "If you do it halfway hoping for a way out, you won't succeed."

Looking the part

In this competitive economic environment, it is even more important to look the part for which you are applying.

Donnelly and Farber received some help from the experts at Neiman Marcus. On March 31, the two met with a personal shopper who dressed them in suits that they can wear when networking, meeting with clients or going to a job interview.

In anticipation of their arrival, public relations manager Tina Koegel worked with merchandise manager Melissa Lowenkron to pull some selections.

Their visit began with an appointment with makeup artists from Chanel and Laura Mercier.

"We had the artists create a natural look for each woman, enhancing their best features, using neutral colors with a light lip color," Koegel said.

"We selected looks that would be suitable for networking events that reflected more of their personal style. Aurora was outfitted with a brown and gold boucle skirt suit from St. John. We paired it with a Fendi handbag, the same style carried by actress Glenn Close, who plays an attorney in the show 'Damages.'

"Tiffany wore a tan Theory pantsuit with a cowl neck blouse with a small print," Koegel said.

Since Donnelly and Farber are attorneys, Koegel said a black or dark gray suit, preferably with a skirt, would probably be most appropriate for a formal interview.

"It should be constructed with quality fabric and the skirt should fall at the knee or just above it. Tailoring is very important. You should always have your clothing altered to properly fit your body."

While skirts are recommended, she said everyone's figure is different, so if pants are more flattering, a woman should opt for a pantsuit. She said the shoes should be a mid-heel pump, with nude pantyhose during the summer and dark hose in the winter. Open-toed shoes are out.

"The suits can be paired with a button-down blouse or simple shell in a good quality cotton or a satin fabrication," Koegel said. "Long sleeves are probably the best option, as it offers a more professional look should you have to remove your jacket. Jewelry should be minimal and not overpowering."

While certain styles may cost more, Koegel said the investment is worth it in the long run.

"When you present yourself at an interview, the key is to have a polished look from head to toe. Every detail counts, since first impressions are lasting impressions. Elegant, understated and conservative are important elements to keep in mind when preparing yourself for a winning interview."

So what did our attorneys think of the trip?

"I have always felt strongly that looking the part of a successful professional is a significant factor in creating a positive first impression," Donnelly said. "Adding classical, well-fitting quality pieces to your wardrobe pays off in building a career look that enhances your credibility as a professional. Once you know you look neat and up-to-date, you can concentrate on doing the best job possible for your clients."

"I had a really great time," Farber said. "It was fun for me to get dressed up and learn tips from the personal shopper. The shopper explained that fit is really the key when it comes to dressing professionally. She put me in a suit that looked great on me. It fit perfectly and the color and material were very nice. I could definitely see myself in court or at a client meeting in that suit."

On May 6 the Law Bulletin is again teaming up with Neiman Marcus to put on a fashion show titled "From the Runway to the Courtroom."

"It will be a fun environment where people can come out and relax and network while looking at the different trends," said Lindsay Macfarland, Law Bulletin product development coordinator. "It's so important to feel confident about yourself, especially when looking for a job, so you exude it, and the way you dress is a big part of that."