Three years ago, I was searching for a new job. My nightmare first legal job was coming to an end, and although I had a medium-term job to tide me over, I needed to lean into my network hard until I found a permanent position. I started setting up lunches with mentors and midlevel associate attorneys I knew through law school connections.
The last lunch I had was with a woman (we’ll call her Beverly) who was leaving her firm for another firm whose management team had promised to make her a partner the next year (they did). This was just a networking lunch; I didn’t ask her for a job or reveal the urgency of my job situation - I told her I wasn’t happy with my firm or boss and asked for advice. During our lunch, Beverly told me she couldn’t give me a job (again, I hadn’t asked for one) but she was happy to talk me through the job search process and share with me how she made her decision on which firm to choose from among her several offers.
Pro-Tip on networking lunches: If you need a job and you’re networking like this, DO NOT PITCH THEM FOR A JOB AT THE LUNCH. They know you’re looking. If they respect you and they have a job opening at their company, they’ll probably send the info your way or they’ll send friends who need people with your skills your way. Stay in touch and if you see a job opening at their firm after the lunch, you can e-mail them that you’re applying and ask if they would mind vouching for you.
Long story short, Beverly ended up sending me associate openings from her firm several months later and I was hired after a single interview with 9 people in 2 hours (was this a red flag? YES. Yes it was.) But it wasn’t her help finding a job that still resonates with me, it was this advice she gave me:
"No firm/job/boss is perfect. There are going to be bad things about any job you choose. The most important thing to do before and during the interview process is to figure out what bad things you can handle and don’t accept a job with bad aspects you can’t handle.
Figure out the bad things you can and can’t deal with, and look for jobs that meet your non-negotiables.
That is some money advice, y’all.
It came in handy eight months into my job at Beverly’s firm when I realized I CANNOT WITH THIS PARTICULAR BRAND OF BAD. I remembered her advice and thought about the issues I’d had at each of my firm jobs (they were very different types of bad), and formed an idea of what my next job would hopefully entail.
Use Your Bad (and Good) Work/Life Experiences to Figure Out What To Look for In A Job
During the interview process with my current firm, I was able to use my bad experiences and all of my self-evaluation to assess the people I met, particularly my prospective boss. I was leaving to go to Paris a couple of days later and they asked me to return for a second interview the very next day so that I could meet all of the partners before I left on my trip. We went to lunch and I employed the same technique with those guys that I did in my in-office interviews.
Now let me be clear: I probably would have taken this job offer even if things didn’t seem like I could deal with them. I had found myself, for the second time in a row, in a very bad situation and didn’t have NEARLY as much power as I led my now-current employer (or the recruiter who connected us) to believe. I was *desperate as hell* but I played it cool AF and it just so happened that the firm was legitimately going to be a good fit for me. So that’s worked out quite nicely.
If you’re in the hunt for a new job, or even if you aren’t, here are a few tips to help you think critically about what you want, need, and can’t accept in any given job:
(1) Think about the bad things you’ve experienced & categorize them into “cannot deal” and “can deal if I must”
This is the biggest one. As Beverly wisely told me, there’s going to be bad in every situation. Hell, relationship have bad parts to them. YOU have bad parts to you! We’re all a bunch of flawed folks running around, so expecting PeRfEcTiOn would be hypocritical, right?
But everyone has things they can and can’t tolerate (whether or not you should tolerate certain things doesn’t mean you can’t do so). For example, I can work long hours sometimes, but if I am EXPECTED to bill 50 hours/week (meaning working 60+ hours/week) or more on a regular basis, that’s just not going to work for me. Some of my friends can grind out 12-16 hour days on the reg, no problem. Not me. So most BigLaw is automatically out unless they are notoriously schedule-friendly.
Other Bads I Cannot With: unspoken expectations that are held against me, insanely unrealistic expectations, including of producing perfect work quickly and with very little training, micromanaging (of work and ingress/egress), too much feedback, not enough feedback, only negative feedback, etc. etc. It basically all comes down to terrible communication and unfair and/or unspoken expectations.
Being underpaid sucks, but I am fine with it in my current job because first of all, it’s still a solid six figure salary, and also my boss is generally patient, reasonable, a good teacher, ethical, smart and pleasant. I also like my work. And I have SO much flexibility with my schedule here. It really is kind of the Wild West in terms of office hours and work expectations (for attorneys, anyway).
The firm has some occasional drama, which I also hate, but occasional drama dies down and I’m learning to weather the storm.
Figure out the bad things you can and can’t deal with, and look for jobs that meet your non-negotiables.
Your list may change over time, and that’s okay too! Once you identify some of your current Bads You Can and Cannot With, move on to Step 2.
(2) Think about questions you can ask and things you can observe in interviews that will give you an idea about how well the company and your potential boss/team match with what you can and cannot handle in a job (You’re interviewing THEM just as much as they’re interviewing you)
If you’re in the job application and interview process, this is an excellent time to be thinking about your non-negotiables. As I mentioned before, I got a good vibe from my future boss during my interviews. What was I looking for?
I was trying to see his communication style and expectations for his associates. So I asked my prospective boss:
“How do you communicate with your associates about new and ongoing assignments?”
And his answer described collaboration, consistent check-ins, weekly project meetings, etc.
Sounds good, right?
But everyone puts their best foot forward during an interview. So in my interview with the associate who did some work for him on occasiona, I asked him the same question.
The associate described by prospective boss the same way my prospective boss described himself. There was consistency.
Tips for your interview questions:
Ask pointed questions about communication, firm culture, etc, and ask many people about the other people you’ll be working with.
Look for consistency. Red flags include hesitation to answer, vague answers, or answers that clearly try to put a positive spin on a negative trait.
Read between the lines generally. Is the interviewer warm? Is he sharing things about him or herself in addition to showing true interest in you? Is she adhering to proper, legal interview questions? Those things are telling.
You will get “a vibe” on most interviews. If it’s a bad vibe, RUN THE HELL AWAY. If you’re really good at interviews and often interviewers seem to connect with you (and you even like them a lot even though you don’t think the job is a fit), you may get a false-positive on a good vibe.
Sometimes it can be hard to read the job or the boss if you’re really good at interview dynamics. If you’re like that (I’m like that), having insightful questions is even more important because you will have real, useful information to evaluate afterwards apart from your easy chatter during the interview.
(3) It’s okay and normal to consider the interplay among your preferences - even with “non-negotiables”
You may notice a couple of things that aren’t your favorite. For me, the salary range was a big question mark when I was interviewing with my current firm. During an interview or if you’re evaluating your current office space, you may realize there are too many Bad Things You Can With than you can handle at one time, and that pushes the job into a Bad Thing You Can’t With.
Conversely, you may find that one aspect of the job would normally be a dealbreaker (say, long hours or constant availability requirements), but the salary is SO GOOD that it overrides one dealbreaker (as long as the rest of the job seems fine to you).
Looking at the big picture is just as important as tallying the good/bad/ugly of the job to see whether you could thrive there.
(4) Talk to other people who have worked at the same firm/company and listen to your gut when they tell you things. Read between the lines.
Story time again! When I took my first legal job, the girl whose place I was taking happened to move to a firm where I had a good friend looking out for me. He put me in touch with the girl and she gave me salary information (INVALUABLE to negotiating my salary) and the down-low on my would-be boss.
What did she say? “She’s really detail-oriented and checks your work closely. [pregnant pause] Which is good when you’re a brand-new lawyer! You’ll learn so much!” She continued with a couple of similar anecdotes that all screamed THIS WOMAN IS A MICROMANAGER. When I expressed some concerns about that, she said, “I mean, I wouldn’t say don’t take the job or anything like that, but…”
Ladies and gentleman? Should I have taken the job after a diplomatic, yet completely obvious description of my future boss that included Bad Things I Cannot With? No. No, I shouldn’t have.
Did I take the job? Yes. Yes, I did.
Now granted, I think this first legal job opened all of my future opportunities and not taking the job might have been a mistake as well. It also taught me through experience that certain job situations are abusive and untenable. It took me to a city that made me miserable. It was one of the absolute darkest periods of my life. But the end of it was one of my major growth periods in life, too.
The moral of me highlighting some of the reasons accepting this job might not have been a total mistake: try not to regret current or past terrible jobs or if you get into something that’s awful, don’t blame yourself or write it off. Just get out as fast as possible once you realize it’s killing your slowly, and try to absorb as many lessons as you can. If you aren’t hiding in a dark room every night after work rocking yourself to sleep and avoiding getting up until the very last second every morning. Not that I did that. (I totally did that)
There are also other ways to get information if you don’t know someone at the company: Message former employees on LinkedIn (preferably contacts or people with whom you share an alma mater or professional organization) and researching on Glassdoor and similar sites for culture and salary info are two good places to start!
(5) Negotiate salary and benefits. You can learn a lot about the company from that process.
First of all, never talk salary specifics until you’re in a final-interview stage. I’d try to discuss before a company makes an offer, but sometimes that isn’t an option. For BigLaw folks on the Cravath scale, obviously you don’t negotiate your salary because it’s lockstep and publicly available information. I envy your salary amounts. I do not envy your workloads. For everyone else, salary is *almost always* negotiable.
Arm yourself with data about average salaries in your area for similar jobs (and nationally). Be prepared to defend the amount you’re going to ask for.
A good rule of thumb is that a salary should be ⅓ to ¼ of the total value you bring to the company.
This works really well for lawyers because you can multiply your billable rate times your hours requirement and divide by 3 and 4 to get a range. (Also on this scale, BigLaw lawyers are UNDERpaid if you can believe that!)
Ask for more than you want so that you can negotiate into a number you’re comfortable with.
Anyway, if the company completely stonewalls salary and benefits negotiation, is not clear with the benefits options they offer, lowballs your big time and/or has terrible benefits, those are important pieces of information about how the company values its employees. The converse is also true!
(6) When you’re dealing with some shit at your current job, review your list of Bads I Can With and Bads I Cannot With. If it’s the former, calm thyself and push through. If it’s the latter, consider making moves.
Recently, my boss was out of the office and got on a real cranky e-mail kick. About once per quarter (usually when his wife is out of town or he has deadlines of his own piling up), my boss will become weirdly unreasonable in his demands for work product, and generally unpleasant. Not even mean. Just...projecting his stress onto me and the paralegal and making us want to whack him on the head Gibbs-style to bring him back down to earth.
See, I told you binge-watching NCIS was useful!
When that happened (and granted, I was in the middle of writing this piece so the concept was on my mind), I reminded myself that my boss is only Grumpy McCrankyPants every so often, and that it is a Bad Thing I Can With. It helped me get through the day much more easily and the next day he was as pleasant as a summer breeze. We talked about amphetamine use by German soldiers in World War II that afternoon. As one does.
Anyway, I know my triggers and I’ve started to develop coping mechanisms for the bad things and bad days on the job. Eventually the pay discrepancy of this job will become untenable, but right now, the tradeoffs are well worth it.
Whatever you do, don’t accept things you cannot bear as permanent fixtures in your life
By considering your own preferences and personality, you can create a good roadmap for finding a job you can handle. Simplistic Steph left a job because she was underpaid and wanted to learn something new. She took her DREAM job! And two months in, she realized she hated it. So she went back to her old job where they loved her. She took the pay cut, but now they’re paying for her Master’s degree! She also wrote about dealing with a job that sucks.
HerFirst100k left a high-paying job to move to Seattle and work for TomorrowIdeas AND runs her own company on the side (with her company’s full knowledge and support - GET YOU SOME, GIRL). The 76k Project just left a terrible job that gave her crippling anxiety and is taking a career break befor jumping back into the job pool. And The Fioneers recently published this OUTSTANDING piece on 5 signs that you should look for a new job (worth using in conjunction with this piece!)
If you’re desperate for a job or can’t accept an interruption in pay you may not have this same luxury- to leave a terrible job for a better one or leave a job and not accept the first thing that comes your way. (That’s why building an emergency fund is such a huge deal link) But do your best not to take a “career”-type job offer you know is going to be terrible for you. A short-term lull and non-permanent job while you secure something that works for you is SO much better than hopping into a terrible career job.
Keep interviewing and looking and doing the work of evaluating companies and eventually, you’ll end up somewhere that works for you. Not a perfect place, but a place with the Bad You Can Live With.
What are y’all’s Bad Things You Can and Cannot With? Have you ever taken a job and regretted it? Tell me all your horror and success stories!