By Catherine Deane
In my previous blog post on DipLawMatic Dialogues, entitled Transition to Law Firm From Academia, I talked about my experiences as a new law firm librarian. In the wake of that post, I made a lot of new librarian friends, many of whom asked me some follow up questions, to the tune of “how do I do that too?” I don’t have a one size fits all answer for how to transition to a law firm job, but these are the things that helped me to make the transition. Warning! There are no fish in this post, only lessons about how to fish.
During my time in the deep South, I raised holy Hell in law librarian circles, because I could see what you can all see now, that racism, sexism, and homophobia are all rampant in the South, and those of us who live(d) there carry the consequences in our bodies. In other words, it makes us physically ill. For my part, I gained 50 lbs, walked with a cane because of the intense pain in both feet–a side effect of the medication that I had to take to survive there. My intelligence and ability to feel my feelings were dulled by anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, but this was part of a short term strategy to survive. To share with you authentically, I have to admit that I was a mess, and every day was a gauntlet to be run. I ran out of spoons by roughly 10:00am and struggled through the rest of the day. I developed some serious coping mechanisms.
- Having a best friend at the office (Mary Miles Prince, yes, you. Stop blushing.)
- Listening to Buddhist dharma talks by Pema Chödrön in the car, and using Byron Katie’s The Work, to help me Jedi mind trick myself into being able to survive the constant barrage of racist micro-aggressions.
- Snuggling with my dogs (in spite of a serious allergy to dogs.)
- Happy Hour (not the best coping mechanism, but it was what was available and what I was capable of at the time).
- Solidarity (I made friends with body positive femme queers, Black lesbians and slightly racist–in a clueless kind of way–artistic hippies.)
I looked for jobs several times a day, every day. I applied for many jobs, but often lost steam part way through because I could see that even though living in NOT THE SOUTH was technically better for me than living in the South, fleeing to a job that was not a great fit for me would create more problems that it would solve.
So I waited.
I was offered the perfect job (on paper), but the pay would have me eating ramen and spending all of my free time clipping coupons and commuting to and from work. I wouldn’t be healthier or happier because I wouldn’t be able to afford the circus classes that I wanted to take and I wouldn’t have money to go to any shows or to travel back to see my family for the holidays.
I almost got the perfect job, but I would have to deal with a harsh winter when my body was still in so much pain that the cold would make it impossible to walk and the job location made it impossible to drive in. So I withdrew my candidacy.
Each time, I asked myself, how can you give up this opportunity to escape, but I knew that I should walk towards what I wanted rather than walking away from what I feared and despised. I had anxiety dreams every night and every morning I woke up in a body that was in unbearable levels of pain, and still I endured.
Courage is being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway. I was able to be patient because I was courageous. Of course I was afraid that I was aging out of the most prolific job openings and that my outspokenness with regard to the rampant racism that I could see around me would close so many doors that I would be stuck in Nashville forever. In the end, none of this mattered. Two amazing opportunities came up for me at the same time and I had a chance to evaluate them both side by side. One was for a Bay Area job, working closely with people who I know, respect, and believe that I would have gotten along well with in the workplace. The other was at Shearman & Sterling LLP.
Against the advice of my father, who adores me and is a brilliant business man, I chose the law firm position, in large part because of the location and the hours (I work 5.5 hours a day), although I’m sure that’s not what I said in the interview. I would have said something about wanting to do more practical work, which was true but was maybe reason number seven coming well after living in a place full of extreme liberal social justice warriors, circus freaks, queers, yogis, Buddhists, and polyamorous people. Now that I have been here for almost a year, I can see that taking this law firm job was a good decision for me. If you want to know how anxious I was, see my previous post.
It also took courage to send in a resume for a job that I didn’t feel fully qualified for.
A little help from my friends
One challenging thing that people have asked about is, “How did I modify my academic law librarian resume to apply for law firm librarian positions?” That’s an excellent question because these are two totally different jobs, with some overlapping skill sets.
How I did this starts with what I do at conferences. AALL, SLA, ASIL, IALL, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same to me, I talk to people. I’m interested in getting to know them, so I talk to them. When I was a wee lass, I had no social skills. I blamed it on having spent more time with books than with people. But just like I learned everything else, I aggressively pursued learning how to talk to people, all kinds of people: People who I agree with and people who I vehemently disagree with, people who I’d like to take to dinner, and people who I’d like to push off a cliff. I learned this by practicing and by being aware of how my tactics impacted my communication goals. It was hard on my ego, but it was worth it.
After several years of going to conferences, I had a lot of conference friends, people who I had deep conversations with over beverages, about how cute the waiter was, or about why all of the Black law librarians sit together at the SEAALL meetings. In politics, this is apparently called surfacing, but to me, it’s just being an empathetic and authentic human in all of my interactions.
Many friends gave me the low down on why their jobs, although picture perfect on paper, were in actuality, a nightmare and this allowed me to steer clear of those jobs, no matter how enticing they seemed at the time. It also gave me a laundry list of questions to ask to ensure that other jobs that seemed great didn’t have those same pitfalls. In hushed voices, looking over their shoulders, librarians shared with me what made their jobs awful, because friends don’t let friends…take terrible jobs, at least not without a warning.
I now know a lot of law librarians and vendors of all kinds and when I needed to transition to the law firm, you can bet that I asked the law firm librarians who were my friends for advice on my resume. Some even gave me copies of their winning resumes.
I know I said no fish, but here are a few fish. Here’s how I adapted my resume and cover letter.
- Law firms are mostly interested in whether or not you can do research in databases, so I emphasized my experience with Westlaw, Lexis, and other legal databases.
- I spent about a year doing legal document review at a law firm, so I used that to show that I had some familiarity with the law firm environment.
- The cover letter is where you can draw similarities between your experience and the experiences of law firm librarians so that you can show that your experience is equivalent.
- I provided research services to faculty who were doing real world work, so I highlighted that in my cover letter.
I’ll never really know if I could have gotten this job without a recruiter, but I will say that I applied for many a law firm job, and it wasn’t until a recruiter noticed me, and I listened and did exactly what the recruiter told me to do that I successfully got an offer from a law firm. I just have a strong suspicion that having the recruiter introduce me to the firm and help me to understand the lay of the land was the final piece of the puzzle for me in being able to prove that my skills were transferable.
I’m eleven months in and still feeling very lucky and grateful to have landed this job. If you see me at the 2018 AALL annual meeting, please feel free to stop me. I’d love to connect with you and I’m happy to authentically share my experiences with you. Just ask.