4 ways to manage your attention span

fours two

 You are the boss of your attention span.

You are the boss of your attention span. Yet how you manage when your world is pinging you to read texts, tweets, emails, and Instagrams is a measure of your professionalism. Whether your work is art or law or anything else, getting work done is how you are measured.

Here are four ways to take back control and make sure that you are working smart (or smartly) for yourself, and for your clients.

  1. Turn off the ping. Stand in a busy grocery store and listen to the pings and dings. Try to imagine doing serious, thoughtful work with that racket. Now go home and turn off the ping so that you can concentrate.
  2. Stop checking for tweets, texts, and emails for at least one hour at a time. Aim for larger blocks of time (all morning, all afternoon, or, gasp! all day. Pretend you’ve lost your phone.)
  3. Make yourself heard. Tell your frequent communicators that there will be times when you don’t text back right away (during work, during finals, during meetings). Unless you are on the Red-Button Nuclear Countdown list or your wife or partner is pregnant, everything else can wait.
  4. Don’t cheat or peek. When you need to take a break from whatever you’re doing, stand up and stretch.
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10 tips for managing the spring semester

“Spring” is an elastic term in Minnesota, covering a wide range of weather events. The Spring semester is similarly elastic. It goes fast, and requires focused attention. Touch base with your career office, and get started.

1ls framed1.  Review at your briefs. Compare your first case briefs with your last ones, and congratulate yourself on your progress. Are they longer?  Shorter?  More or less detailed? More on point? Note the changes and celebrate them.

2.  Think about summer. You have choices: paid or unpaid legal work, summer school, study abroad, judicial externship, faculty research assistant, or returning to previous employment. Although every option may not be available to you ($1500/week will go to a select few), the one that you want to avoid like the plague is doing nothing. A classic interview conversation killer is “What did you do last summer?”  When you reply “Nothing,”  the air leaves the room, and your chances with that employer have disappeared. You will need to tell a story in the fall.

3.  No job yet?  No surprise. Requiring 1Ls to focus on school before they transfer their energy to job searching is sound policy. Do not panic.  Many employers will wait to hire until you have first semester grades. Others will focus on your skills (research and writing) or your interest in their work. Because the legal market is based on real clients and their actual needs, jobs are posted throughout the spring semester — up to and right through the final exam period. Clients have no respect for your exam schedule, and they will insist on presenting problems to their lawyers who will need to post jobs.  It is on record that some of the best jobs are posted in April.

4.  Think about 2nd year coursework.  Your school will have programs presenting options and pathways. Think broadly about the skills that you will need, and think equally broadly about the kinds of courses that cross disciplines (Administrative Law, Conflicts of Law) that will fill in the gaps as you practice.

5.  Have a summ2ls frameder job? Don’t relax if you have secured summer employment. You need to keep your law school work in tip-top shape, and you need to begin to learn everything you can about your future employer’s work — all of the businesses and industries that it touches, and all of the hot topics that concern its clients. Employers are much more impressed by law clerks who show that they have learned about the clients’ businesses than by law clerks who can’t spell clients’ names.

6.  No job yet? Conversely, if you haven’t secured summer employment, don’t fret. Put the notion of being hired by a large firm behind you, and focus on the employers whose clients are presenting problems this very minute. The Little Secret of Hiring is that jobs are posted throughout the spring semester — up to and right through the final exam period. Many public sector employers hire in the spring when budgets are sorted out by their funders.

7.  Collect bar exam application info. Begin to collect the information that you will need to apply for the bar exam. Get a copy of an application so that you will know what you will need. Not knowing  where you will practice is no excuse for avoiding this task. Most bar exam applications extract similar information from 95% of their questions.

3ls framed

8.  Bar exam application. If you haven’t applied for a bar exam, get ready to do so pronto. If you don’t know where you will practice, apply to the exam with the smallest application fee, the largest number of your classmates taking it, or the jurisdiction where given what you know now, you are most likely to  work.

9.  Do not wait for the February bar. If you take it and don’t pass, you may not become an attorney until more than a full year after graduation. You will never care more about Torts than you will during the July following graduation.

10.  Relocation and a new bar exam. If you take and pass a bar and then relocate for a job, three things may happen:

  1. Having taken and passed one bar exam, when you take a second, you know that you will not die from the experience;
  2. Your employer may pay for bar review and the exam;
  3. You may need to take only part of the new state’s exam because of rules you can find in the ABA Section on Legal Education’s Guide to Admission to the Bar. This is updated annually.


Susan Gainen presents a suite of programs designed to help law (and other) student move from school to work: Alternative Careers, Professionalism, Job Search Outside of OCI, Job Search Skills are Business Development Skills, I’m a 3L and I need help, and 2nd Career Law Students.  Contact your career office to schedule one or more of these programs.

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Going to law school? Go with a good reason

Stop the presses. Law school enrollment is declining.

Law school enrollment has been on a steep decline for years, and anyone who thought that this would change anytime soon has been or remains delusional.

Thinking about going to law school? The outlook for top-tier-high-paid legal employment gets gloomier and gloomier, and no knowledgeable person should expect to earn $160,000 by some Divine Right of Law School Graduation. There are no Special Snowflakes.

But wait! The need for legal services is growing exponentially, and there will always be work for law-trained people.

  • the middle class (income too high for legal aid and public defense; need legal advice for small businesses, real estate transactions, wills and trusts, etc.)
  • young people (all aspects of juvenile justice, child protection, special education services, mental health services, child nutrition, child labor…)
  • Chronologically Enriched-but-not-rich people (income too high for legal aid and public defense, small business assistance, wills and trusts, age discrimination in employment and housing, elder abuse protection, elder law…)
  • poor people and the entities that serve them (legal aid, public defense, social services, housing assistance, benefits assistance and protection…)
  • immigrants (legal and non-legal)
  • small businesses (most small businesses cannot afford to pay $200+/hour for legal advice, yet they have issues including tax, employment, real estate, zoning, premises liability, environmental [talk to your dry cleaner], employee benefits…)

How to think about going to law school

Do you want to be a lawyer? During most of the years that I worked directly with law students and lawyers, at least 25% of each class had not yet decided to become lawyers by the time they entered law school. I learned to ask 1Ls: “When did you decide to come to law school? How did you make the decision? When, if it all, have you decided to become a lawyer.” Their answers made a difference.

Do you know what lawyers do? Research, please. Talk to actual lawyers about what they do all day beyond the basics of read, write, talk on the phone, and go to meetings. Do at least as much research for this career path as you would for the purchase of a used car: how long and wide? how many miles-per-gallon? safety record? accident and repair history? how many passengers? how much cargo space? gas-diesel-electric-hybrid? cost of insurance?

Do you know what you want to do? You don’t need mathematical and moral certainty that you will be practicing law in 30 years, but you should have a reality-based sense of how you want to arrange your early working life. Do you want to serve or otherwise interact with individuals? Rich? Poor? Do you want to work on arcane areas of public policy? Do you have the substantive body of knowledge that you would need for the work? (Tree-hugging in summer camp is not the entirety of the prereqs for environmental law.)

Is there something that you MUST do that can only be achieved by being a lawyer? Health care, for example, is a huge-and-growing field. If you don’t want to be a doctor, do you need to be a lawyer to do the work or make the change that you seek?

Can you afford to go to law school? No one except the super-rich can afford to pay cash for law school, so if you need  to go, you will have to borrow money. Find out what the median first salary is for the job that you want, and then explore the income for more experienced attorneys in that job description. Ask questions. Get answers from law school career services professionals and from the actual, real, live, living lawyers who hold those jobs. Make a budget. Plan to live like a student while you are in school. There is an old saying among career services professionals which may or may not be precise, but it remains an excellent guide: every $15 pizza costs $75 in repaid student loan money.

How can I think about this debt? If you must go to law school to achieve your dreams, then welcome your debt to the table. Get used to it. One of the wisest uber-debt-burdened lawyers I know considered the family school debt (a law degree and his wife’s Ph.D) as another child at the breakfast table. Always there. Always eating. Eventually leaving home,

The more information that you gather about what lawyers do and how they do it, and what you want to do and how you might achieve it, the better informed you will be when you decide whether or not to go to law school.

Good luck.

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Applicants: know the employer’s business and industry

framed strategy

Thank you, Alyson Stanfield, for your post How I Screwed Up My Pitch and What You Can Learn from my Colossal Error. Stanfield, author of Art Biz Insider and one of my favorite books, I’d rather be in the studio! is a longtime art-business coach who generously shares her wisdom and her blunders.

I'd rather be in the studio!

I’d rather be in the studio!

Her point, which I have been sharing for a long time, is that without showing that you know the employer’s business and industry AND what you can do to solve its problems, you are wasting everyone’s time.

In her post, Stanfield shows that by ignoring that rule, you can embarrass yourself, and cut off a potentially valuable path.

Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’

At one time or another, every applicant and business developer wants to believe that he or she is a “Special Snowflake,” and that the rules of job search, networking and business development do not apply.

Just like gravity, those rules apply to everyone.

More reading

Cover Letters: Critical tools for an alternative career search

Alternative Careers: transferable skills make the move

Employers need information to make good decisions


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Office policies — not all in the employee handbook

working smart framedMost employers won’t deliberately trick you, but there are hundreds of tiny office policies that aren’t in the employee handbook.

Office policies

Whether you are naming a document or requesting a check for a filing fee, your office has policies and procedures that you need to embrace. Should you decide to freelance document names, you will be cursed by the staff members who have to search for them after you’ve gone. When you have requested the wrong filing fee more than twice, you are just annoying.

Grammar and spelling

Wise advice from a seasoned lawyer to a summer clerk:  “The client may not understand all of the nuances of her problem right away, but she can spell and punctuate. Poor spelling and incorrect grammar that she can identify makes her skeptical of your legal work, and, perhaps, less likely to pay.” Relying on spelling and grammar checking programs is risky. Those programs are all too often wildly wrong.

If part of your critique has been about grammar and spelling or, as it is sometimes called, “style,” it is time to do some writing remediation.

Some employers have internal writing coaches or are willing to hire outside trainers. On your own? Pay attention to what your supervisors read (Wall Street Journal? NY Times?) and consider those publications as a source of style. Read from them out loud for 10 minutes a day. Read your work out loud before submitting it. Ask your supervisor for a recommendation for a grammar book.

Office Culture: Furniture and decoration

Look at your colleagues’ offices. Are they decorated with conservative, traditional furniture? Are walls covered with art chosen by individuals or is there an office-wide art policy?

Until you know what the norm is, leave your black velvet Elvis painting at home.

Office Culture: Dress

Two basic points: (1) Ask if there is a dress code, and (2) Always be courtroom ready if you want to be taken along to observe.

This may mean having a suit or a jacket hanging behind your door.

MEN  Cowboy boots and string ties may be the norm in some parts of the country, and there may still be offices in which men wear seersucker suits during the summer. Tread carefully before you deviate from traditional office attire or risk becoming a subject of unflattering discussions.

WOMEN  Oh. Where to start? No cleavage. No see-through garments of any kind. No skirts so short that people call them scarves behind your back. A trowel is not a tool that you should use to apply makeup. Some employers require that women (still) wear closed-toed shoes and hose. Some courts (still) frown on women in pants.

 Office Culture

Your music You should only need to be told to turn down the volume once. Just once.

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Smart and delusional job search strategies for 3Ls

3ls framed

Smart and delusional job search strategies for 3Ls

3L spring or fall semester job search strategies range from very smart to completely delusional.

Ideal: Organized, structured, systematic and not frantic combination of:

  • Self assessment,
  • Targeted networking based on
    a. well-developed or tentative selection of practice areas or career paths,
    b. geography,
    c. friends, family, and a constellation of established personal and professional contacts.
  •  Volunteer hours with work is tied to skill-building,
  •  Wise use of social networks, guided by Amanda Ellis’ 6Ps of the Big 3,
  •   Selective application for posted jobs, and
  •   Careful exploration of leads gathered through connections for upcoming openings.

Not so good #1: Ramen Noodles: Efficient and effective job search is much more like making barbecue than making ramen noodles.

“I want a job, any job” inspires activity as fruitless as throwing noodles against the wall to test for done-ness by seeing what sticks.

Frantic application for every possible job posting looks deceptively like forward motion, but it is so time-consuming that it supplants thoughtful assessment, careful research into options (substantive law, the nut-and-bolts reality of specific jobs, geographic locations, etc.), and all other activities known to produce results. (See Ideal, above)

Not-so-good #2:  Magical Thinking.

The far side of short-sighted defines applying for one job or jobs in just one category, regardless of the state of the underlying industry or ongoing hiring freezes.

Classic example: Consider the student who applied only to the Cook County Public Defender for the three years that he was in law school, which coincided neatly with the office’s three-year hiring freeze. Sadly for the career professionals who have to document and answer for the employment results of each student, there is no category for “delusional.”

Oh So Sad. Hiding under the bed and communing with dust bunnies, who are not hiring.

Overheard often: “It’s February. I’m not going to look until after I take the bar (or get bar results).”

There are some students for whom part of this strategy is correct:

1.      Students who have absolute moral certainty that they will not practice law (trust fund babies, committed stay-at-home parents, professionals in other fields adding “law” to their skills toolboxes),

2.      JAG applicants (who should have a Plan B because stuff happens. Not everyone passes the entry physical),

3.      Students who are the trailing spouse/partner of someone whose future is structurally up in the air (military spouses, medical students, Foreign Service, etc).

Search on hold? A waste of time

For everyone else, putting a job search on hold for seven (until after the bar) or ten or eleven months (after bar results) is an astonishing position and a colossal waste of time.

Don’t know what you want to do?

You can wait 11 eleven months to be struck by a flash of insight or spend some time exploring practice areas and specific jobs. Volunteer. Get a part-time job.

Don’t know where you want to practice?

You can wait 11 months to see if the construction industry returns to your hometown or to learn whether the town fathers and mothers attract the equivalent of a Silicon Valley to your local mall. Interesting questions, certainly, and ones that you should follow by reading your hometown paper on line or by reaching out to the denizens of City Hall to monitor their efforts. It is, however, unlikely that a thriving business will appear out of nowhere in time to help you decide which bar exam to take or for you to secure a job in October after graduation.

Don’t know where you want to take the bar, so you’ll take it in February?

Opting for the February bar because you are tired of studying is a frequent cry of retreat from students who for a variety of reasons can’t focus on next week, much less next fall. Get a grip because:


  1. Many jobs require that you have taken and passed a bar exam before you can be considered as a candidate. Assuming that you pass, you can’t begin a search until at least year after graduation.
  2.  You will never care more about Torts and Contracts than you will just after graduation.
  3.  Studying with your pals (either in your law school’s location or in a bar study site where you might have just a few classmates) is a comfort. When students around you are wailing about material that is new to them, you and your well-instructed pals can nod knowingly and silently thank your first year professors.
  4. Because the February bar is out of pattern, you will have to explain yourself for taking it. Your risk? “I donated a kidney” will make you a hero. “I just didn’t get around to it/I was tired of studying/I just needed a break” can brand you a slacker.

Know that you want to travel after taking the bar?

You can pack a backpack all over the world and then try to explain yourself when you look for a job, or you can make the most of your trip by exploring sites such as Meet! Plan! Go! which can guide you toward activities that can make your post-bar trip look like a series of smart professional activities.

Help is available.

Every law student in American has access to a career office staffed with professionals who are there to guide you through the easy stuff (resumes) and the really hard stuff (decided what you want to do, and devising strategies to help you achieve your goals).

One 20-minute visit is not enough.

If you believe that your career office is understaffed, take your concerns to the Dean who is uniquely situated to remedy the situation. Talk about student-to-professional ratios. Do the math. If you have 600 students and two professional staff, how many minutes can each student spend with a career adviser in one year?

Every minute of every day isn’t available for students because the career professionals must reach out to prospective and current employers, alumni, bar association and other professionals. They also organize and plan the programming that you should be attending, and they also work hard to stay current with the market for lawyers and for opportunities for alternative career paths.


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Ten Tips for Bar Review Season

bar exams framedTake a deep breath. This will all be over soon, and successfully, too, if you follow these ten tips for bar review season.

1.  Make a schedule that reflects your study habits. If you are an 8-hour-a-day study person, don’t ramp it up to 12. The last four will be a waste.

2.  Mark your study area territory. If possible, make it a protected space. If you have young children, find a public library with quiet space.

3.  Get your study tool box together. Whether you are working  from an on-line study system or from books, make sure that you have all of the tools that you need to move from topic to topic without having to worry about batteries or pencils.

4. Set out guidelines. If you are studying with a group, set out guidelines about the things that matter to you. Food? Drink? Timeliness? Each party’s responsibilities? Sharing? In what form? Bar study time is no time for study-group drama.

5.  Manage yourself. Eat right and get exercise. The Four Food Groups are not “sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine.” Exercise is more than getting out of your chair to meet the pizza delivery person.

6.  Manage your friends and family. Explain (over and over) that the Bar Exam is the huge mountain you must climb before becoming a lawyer. Sound both sad and disappointed that you won’t be able to take off two days to celebrate July 4. Promise (and keep your promise) to show up to family dinners and events after the exam. If you do not yet have a job, these people will be quivering with anxiety about your job search. Promise to keep them up-to-date after the Bar Exam.

7.  Manage your test days. Have you registered to type the bar exam? Do you have a place to stay that is near the test center? Have you made a trial run from where you will sleep to where you will take the test? If you are taking the bar exam in two states in three days, do you have a Transportation Plan B?

8.  Know what you know. The Bar Exam will not contain nuclear physics questions. Do not get rattled when you encounter issues that you have not studied or you have forgotten, or questions that could have more than one answer. Grads of 1984 are still confounded by a question that could have been about privacy or search and seizure, and by a question that required knowing The Rule in Shelley’s Case — not that the Rule was abrogated in all 50 states, but the substance of the Rule itself. Answer the questions in the context of the subjects that you have studied.

9.  Take professional advice. Review the advice from the Board of Law Examiners, which probably included some or all of the following:

  • Set out a time for answering each question beginning 12 o’clock. Beg, borrow, but do not steal a reliable wrist watch for this.
  • Read each question at least twice. Stop and think before you write or type.
  • Follow the directions, which might ask for a letter to a client, a memo to a partner, a pleading, or any other kind of legal document. Give the graders what they have asked for.
  • Assume that the bar exam graders know nothing and that you will get a point for everything that you write down. 
  • Do not freak out, loose your cool or get nasty in your bar exam writing. Bar exam graders will refer you to the Character and Fitness committee for review and for consequences which may include delaying or denying admission.
  • Leave your cell phone at home, If it rings in some jurisdictions, you and the phone will be removed instantly. You may then sign up for the next bar exam.

10. Stop talking to other test takers two weeks before the exam. They will remember things that you have never heard of or remember them in ways that you know are incorrect. Stay focused on what you know.

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Six signposts for finding a career path

framed strategyNot every signpost will be useful for you as you seek to find a career path.  
Don’t go looking for either signposts or a path on a map, unless you are willing to create that map. 

Unhelpful signposts: distractions


Purple Squirrel’s print is available at ETSY.

 1.  Job descriptions ranging from three-word phrases to six-pages of dense text requiring a graduate degree to parse. Somewhere in between you may find useful information that might help you create an intelligent application. Ask your networking contacts or whoever is working the HR desk to help you understand what the employer is looking for.

2.  Jobs requiring experience that you don’t have and qualifying training and licenses that are either granted after years of coursework and arduous testing or purchased;
3.  Job descriptions gently described as “Purple Squirrel” positions because they seek impossible candidates with seven years of corporate AND seven years of litigation, or patent lawyers licensed in USA, Greece, Argentina, and Hong Kong from a Top 10 US law school who are fluent in English and French with MBAs as an additional preferred qualification.
4.  Jobs that appear to be filled by completely undeserving people who are hired through no skill or expertise of their own, perhaps through nepotism, blackmail, or lack of due diligence in the hiring system. (NOTE: Sometimes it just happens. I once was part of a team that hired a temp clerical person who filed candidates by their first names. Who would have thought to inquire or train for that?)

Helpful signposts: best bets

 1.  Jobs that are filled by friends, neighbors, and current or former colleagues and others who know you and know your work; or
2.  Jobs that are filled because candidates make plans, work their plans, adjust their plans, and have injected networking (the polite kind) into their DNA.
Every career counselor knows someone who has gotten a job without dotting every “I” and crossing every “T.” When quizzed, most will reveal that the “lucky” candidates were diligent networkers who had built skill banks, taken time to understand the market for their skills, and made it a point to be where they could be found by potential employers.
Every job seeker needs to make a plan which starts with self-assessment, follows with common sense-based market research, and moves on to a gut-suckingly realistic review of the credentials and behaviors needed to get hired.

Why Make A Plan?

If I give someone $600 plus airfare to the Mall of America and two hours to shop, who knows what she might buy?

If I give another person the same $600 plus airfare and two hours, AND an assignment (buy a blue suit), what might it look like? Whether it turns out to be a light blue, navy, black, gray, stripes, plaid, pants-or-no-pants, vested or not, it will likely be an interview-ready garment.

A job search may contain completely unfair surprises, and here is the one for this example:  Both parties must wear only their Mall of America purchases for their next interviews. The first candidate bought an amazing, expensive purse which alone will make a memorable interview outfit. The second may show up looking like a 1980s car sales manager in a blue plaid suit, but he will be wearing a suit.

That’s why you plan.

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Hide A Job Search from Your Employer

amanda 6P Hide Your Job Search from Your Employer on LinkedIn « The 6Ps of the BIG 3™

When you are lucky: no need to hide the job search.

When should you hide a job search from your employer? Not when you are lucky and have a boss who supports you and your career development. She may be sad to lose you, but she will encourage you to make a move when there is no chance for promotion or salary increases in your office or in other parts of the organization. Your boss will enlist her network to help you make a change. Be thankful.

When you are not lucky: hide the job search.

When you work for  any kind of Boss-From-Hell, loosely defined as someone who has created an atmosphere of panic and distrust, hide your job search. If you feel ill every time you walk in the office door and feel fine at the end of each day, hide your job search.

Do not ask for a recommendation from this boss. A vindictive boss will see your job search as evidence of disloyalty or more egregious failings. She will fire you the minute she learns that you are looking. Hide your search. Keep your secret safe.

Always read and heed advice from Amanda Ellis. A blog post for everyone to read. Pronto.

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Honey can you type? Technology changes skills required

Mass. Moves to Require Technology Competence for Lawyers · Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites

“Honey, can you type?”

When I was in high school, “Honey, can you type?” was a question that girls of all ages were asked in interviews.

After a 10-year break between my 7th and 8th semesters of college, one of my classmates was insulted when she was asked “Honey, can you type?”

One of my headhunter clients bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t hire a senior male attorney into his (then) very technologically advanced law firm where everyone had a desktop computer. “The guy needs an infrastructure, and we don’t have secretaries to take dictation.”

Massachusetts opens the door (finally) to requiring technology competence for lawyers.

“Honey can you type?” has morphed from gender-specific to gender-neutral question to a professional competence assumption. Technical skills and office management will never be the same.

******Susan Gainen has created a suite of programs for law students that can be sponsored by student groups, career or alumni offices or deans of students: Alternative Careers, Second Career Law Students, Professionalism, Job Search Skills = Business Development Skills, Job Search Outside of OCI: The Forever Skill (unless you are a Ground-Hog-Day-2L). In addition to 25 years of legal career development activity (headhunter, law school career development, consultant), she is an artist. Her creativity workshops include “Open Your Heart and Close Your Wallet: Watercolor Postcards for Thrifty Travelers,””Watching Paint Dry Can Be Fun: A conversation about creativity,” and “The Lost Cave Paintings of Saint Paul: Create your cave with gesso.”

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