My Superpower: I Know What You Should Be Doing

Many, many times in my life, I have been told I am bossy. Not true! As my favorite coffee cup says, “I’m not bossy, I just know what you should be doing.” I’ve always been very free with my opinions—sometimes you don’t even need to ask—and over time, I’ve found that some of them are pretty sensible. Entirely without meaning to, I discovered the perfect way to channel my wise opinions and my knowledge of what other people should be doing into a career, as the assistant dean for career and professional development at Lewis & Clark Law School.

When I graduated from law school in 2008, I thought I knew what I would be doing next: building a successful career as a labor and employment attorney. I landed a job with a firm where I really wanted to work, and I loved the complex questions, quirky fact patterns, and even the late nights that new attorneys often suffer through. I enjoyed digging through documents and researching minutiae, drafting memos and contract language, and generally learning to be a lawyer.

What I didn’t expect when I started that career was that the economy would take a drastic shift within a few months. Within a few years, employers had pretty much lost interest in paying lawyers to defend employment suits, and there was not enough work to keep me busy. For a while after I was laid off, I had no idea what to do next. Remember, I know what you should be doing, not what I should be doing!

Eventually, I found an answer when my alma mater, Lewis & Clark, created a short-term position for a career advisor to work with recent graduates in their job searches. I couldn’t help but note the irony of an unemployed, new-ish lawyer being hired to find jobs for even newer lawyers, but it seemed like a good opportunity. Over time, I found that I am better at helping other people with their job searches and professional development than I had been at moving my own career forward.

I began this new chapter by contacting students in the class of 2011 to let them know that I was there to help with their job searches. I reviewed a lot of resumes, made a few introductions, and tracked down a couple of grads. After a few months, my job shifted focus a bit, as I became director of alumni relations and recent graduate advising, which seemed at first like an odd combination of jobs, not to mention a mouthful that gave me an extra line on my business card. I found, however, that the more I talked with alumni and met other lawyers, the more I knew about what legal employers look for in a candidate, and the more people who I could connect with my students. By this time, I was thinking of them as “my” students. Connecting my students with practitioners, making students network even when they would rather do anything else, and finding the right professional connection for the right student is one of the best parts of my job.

It goes the other way, too; I love convincing lawyers, young and not-so-young, that they would be good mentors, and they have more wisdom and experience to offer to a student than they realize. For example, I manage the law school’s attorney mentor program and other programming to bring lawyers and judges on campus to talk with students. Helping experienced attorneys mentor their soon-to-be colleagues is sometimes as important as helping the students make the most of the mentoring experience.

I describe my role as that of a career coach, a cheerleader, sometimes a drill sergeant, and sometimes a mom. Each student has their own needs, and they vary throughout the year, or sometimes day-to-day. Students generally come to see me for career advice (career coach), but sometimes they just need someone to tell them they are on the right path, or need to hear “go get’em!” (cheerleader). Other students might need a fire lit under them, and to hear that I know they can be more successful if they put in the work and try a little harder (drill sergeant). On occasion, a student just needs to talk about a rough day, or vent about how hard law school is, and I’m there for that, too (mom). On occasion, I also offer solid, if unsolicited, advice such as “get a haircut” or “don’t say in the interview that you just want to make a lot of money.”

As assistant dean, I’m also a hiring partner, project manager, and PR person. Our office includes two other counselors and a program assistant, and we work together to ensure that programming and other student services, as well as employer outreach, are managed successfully (project manager). Occasionally I need to remind people outside our office about how hard we work to help students, and in particular, when we can help a student or graduate find a job, I’m thrilled to remind our faculty and alumni about the work our office does (PR never hurts). Finally, I’m a statistician, tracking and reporting graduate employment outcomes and reporting them to the ABA and US News & World Reports.

I may actually be bossy, but properly channeled into a professional setting, that translates to looking objectively at a student’s or alum’s situation, identifying their skills, experience and challenges, and offering my insights about how they might want to move forward professionally. I know what they should be doing, and I try to help them find a way to do it.

As lawyers, we are trained to advocate zealously for our clients, to offer prudent counsel, and to help our clients understand the possible outcomes of their decisions. Lawyers offer advice to clients regarding their options, but we cannot make the ultimate choices—it’s up to the client.

I’m not entirely convinced that I have an alternative career in the law. I am a lawyer, and I represent my students and alumni. I advocate for my students every time I meet with members of my legal community and with the law school’s alumni. I counsel students about their plans and how to achieve them, about leveraging their skills and their networks to find rewarding opportunities, and generally get through law school and into the legal profession. I advise students about getting good experiences and making the transition from law student to lawyer, but ultimately, they make the decisions, and they are free to reject my suggestions.

But I hope they take my suggestions, because of my superpower: I know what you should be doing.

About the Author

Sarah Petersen is the assistant dean for career and professional development at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, OR, and is the president of the Oregon Legal Recruiting Association.

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