Straight Talk About Skills, the Job Market, and Career Success
Although they took different paths to get to Kroger, all three UC Law alumni were able to point to certain characteristics that are valuable for those practicing corporate law. They also provided suggestions about ways students and attorneys can make themselves stand out from among other job applicants and find success even in a difficult job market.
One benefit that students can obtain while still in law school is continuing to cultivate their abilities to think critically and analyze situations quickly. Hilary Vollmer '99 stated that her law school experience has helped her in her practice because she learned, from being put on the spot in classes, how to analyze a situation and give a confident answer quickly. She explained that, especially in an in-house environment where professionals from various aspects for the company come to you to bounce ideas off of you, it is extremely beneficial to be able to analyze a situation and give a competent answer at that moment. The way law school teaches students to solve problems is similarly beneficial, as is the general analytical process students hone throughout their law school experiences. Similarly, Paul Heldman '77 emphasized that all corporate attorneys must possess fundamental legal skills, especially in the areas of writing and speaking, and these skills can be cultivated in law school.
In addition to the skills and experiences they can gain from law school, other qualities can help attorneys set themselves apart from other applicants as well, particularly for in-house positions. “Legal talent is necessary, obviously, but to really stand out you need something more than that. There’s a quality or ability to deal with people that corporate lawyers must possess,” said Heldman. “You have to have a certain amount of interpersonal skills in order to help business people understand the legal issues related to their situations, and help them recognize that you, as their lawyer, can help them shape the strategy to solve that problem.” Vollmer agreed. “You have to have people skills, and be able to get along with people. You have to want to be part of the team.” Vollmer also emphasized that it is important to have a sincere interest in the entire business of the company you work for, rather than merely the legal aspects.
Trust is Critical
Both Heldman and Vollmer emphasized the importance of building that type of trust between the in-house counsel and the business people with whom they work. “When you engender that trust with them, they recognize that you are part of their team, and that they can go to you for guidance,” said Heldman. Vollmer expanded on that idea, saying that it “makes everyone’s job easier” when you build trust with the client and they consider you a part of their team. “When they’re comfortable with you, and see you as a part of that team,” she explained, “they come to you early and often, which prevents mistakes down the road.” Although it is crucial to work as part of the team, said Vollmer, in-house counsel still must maintain a certain level of independence, and finding the balance between those roles is important. “The most gratifying parts of my job, though,” she said, “are when I really feel like the client department has embraced me as part of the team. Not only are people in the department comfortable coming to me for help, but they also include me in the broader aspects of their business, such as annual meetings, rather than only approaching me with specific problems.”
The ability to communicate well with others, and tailor your communications to your audience, goes hand-in-hand with that ability to work as part of that team. “You have to be able to explain things differently to all of the different parts of your team,” said Vollmer. “You may have to explain a very technical law to IT personnel to explain why a program needs to be modified in a certain way, and then explain to clients in other departments how that program works. The way you communicate those things to different client departments needs to be adapted to your audience in order to be as effective as possible.”
Work Experience Provides Perspective
In addition to these qualities and personality traits, past experience is crucial, particularly for the role of in-house counsel. Both Vollmer and Heldman underscored the importance of having work experience in a firm setting before working in-house. “Kroger tends to hire people with four to five years of experience,” Heldman explained. “Attorneys can’t expect to come into an in-house position and learn the fundamentals of legal practice, such as solving real-life problems or gaining trial experience. You don’t learn these things in law school either; so attorneys need time to learn those things, and private practice is the ideal setting in which to do so, because large firms are specifically structured to provide those kinds of training.” Vollmer said almost the exact same thing; she emphasized the importance of learning how to produce good legal work, because in an in-house role you will not have the same kind of supervision that a firm setting provides.
Managing the Job Market
Heldman provided useful insight into surviving today’s difficult job market. “It is tough right now,” he admitted, “but that does not mean getting a job is impossible. Kroger, for example, was fortunate to have been able to create and fill two new positions recently. So there are available positions in some places. Of course, the competition for those positions may be more intense than in the past, but attorneys who make connections and distinguish themselves can still find success.” Heldman stated that mass mailings of resumes are generally not the most productive way to go about looking for a job, although it may have its place. “You’re better off trying to get more personal interaction, and networking, and doing whatever it takes to get in front of people and make connections. Even if you only discuss the difficulties of finding a job right now, there are still benefits to those interactions. In the first place, you will be more comfortable in situations involving meeting new people. Additionally, you might strike up a relationship with various practitioners, which may develop into something more in terms of a job opportunity in the future.”
Both Heldman and Vollmer also emphasized that, in the current economic climate, it is important to embrace whatever employment opportunities come your way. “Working in a particular position may not be your dream job,” said Vollmer, “but every job provides opportunities you may not be able to get in other settings, and you should take advantage of what you can learn from those experiences.” Similarly Heldman said, “any experience practicing law is a good experience; each is informative and valuable in its own way.” The overall suggestions for students were to take whatever work you can get, make the most out of the opportunities that job presents, and continue making individual connections for the future.
Each lawyer also talked about specific qualities that they possessed which made them successful in their own careers. Heldman explained that it can be very beneficial to have developed some expertise in one specific area, particularly through having past experience practicing in that area. Vollmer would certainly agree with that idea, since her choice to specialize in technology played an important role in her move to Kroger.
Acknowledge Personal Skills
Lynn Marmer '86 attributes her success to her optimism, her ability to seek and learn from great mentors, and her willingness to ask for and learn from feedback. “Sometimes it is painful,” she says, “but if you learn from it, you are a better professional.” Her advice to students is twofold. First, get involved in the community. This will help you make contacts and connections that can open doors for you both professionally and personally. Second, “your work is your signature, so make it your best—every time.”
For Vollmer, part of what has made her successful is that she enjoys both learning and teaching. “The fact that I have an interest in learning what clients do, along with how and why, helps me grow professionally. Similarly, I enjoy situations in which I can help develop another aspect of a client’s professional career.” She commented that this is particularly helpful because she works with a large variety of people. Both she and they want to understand each other’s work, and her willingness to both learn and teach helps make everyone feel comfortable. Another important trait Vollmer points to is not being afraid to suggest the unpopular option. “Sometimes the unpopular course of action is in the company’s best interest. Part of the in-house counsel’s role is to point that out. Trust again becomes important, however. If you’ve built that trust with your client, they don’t have an issue with you voicing the unpopular option, because they know that that is part of the in-house counsel’s role.”
By Lindsay Mather '11