Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc. He is also President Elect of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel.
The unemployment rate for lawyers is 3.2 percent. This means there are 56,000 unemployed lawyers across the country. However, 1.7 million of us are employed. That is a pretty good ratio. Only health-care practitioner and technical occupations fared better than lawyers. Although for the unemployed lawyers out there, the favorable ratio provides little solace.
Over the course of my 23 years of practice, I’ve worked for three different employers – a small boutique general practice firm, a Fortune 500 retail, catalog and internet giant, and my current employer. When I went in-house in 1996, I thought I would stay at my company for the rest of my career. Bankruptcy put an end to that in late 2004.
Over the years I’ve learned some valuable lessons about being ready for the next stage of my career. One of them is the importance of “networking.” As a young lawyer I believed I had neither the time nor the energy to network. I believed that my skills and achievements would carry the day when the time came to look beyond my current position. This was a huge mistake.
I am a smart person with excellent credentials having worked for top-notch companies and with outstanding executives – just like many of the other lawyers shooting for the positions that I want. However, having some connection to the person making the hiring decision puts me a half or full step ahead of my competition. I am a known quantity, less of a risk. I might even find out about an opportunity before it is published.
The most important lesson I have learned about networking is that the best time to actively network is when one is comfortable and secure in one’s position. In good times, one has credibility as a networker because nothing is needed, there is no apparent selfishness. A good networker simply establishes and nurtures relationships. She puts people with complimentary needs together. Of course, it is difficult for human beings to act with complete selflessness and so when we network we cannot help but to think there will be some payback in the future. This may be true. However, successful networkers do not think selfishly. This brings me to my point (finally!).
Most of us have been helped by someone in our network. In turn, we have an obligation to help another in need, to return the kind act with a kind act to another – to “pay it forward.”
Ben Franklin described the concept in a letter to Benjamin Webb in 1784:
…I send you herewith … ten Louis d’ors (gold coins). I do not pretend to give such a sum; I only lend it to you. When you shall return to your country with a good character, you cannot fail of getting into some business, that will in time enable you to pay all your debts… When you meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a knave that will stop its progress…
Now is the time to pay forward the kind acts you have received from others. This can be as simple as picking up the phone and offering an encouraging word or two, reviewing and marking up a resume, arranging for an introduction or as involved as helping conduct a job search and making calls on behalf of your colleague. The point is – there are many people out there looking for some kind of help in their career. If you can, give back. Pay it forward! Do not be the knave of which Franklin writes. Be a good egg.