Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Answering Reader Mail: From Lawyer to Executive Assistant?

“First of all I would like to say thank you for the wealth of incredibly useful and generous advice on your blog!

Secondly, I was hoping you might be able to extend that generosity to offer some specific advice for my own position. I am currently looking to transition into an executive assistant position and although I've knocked on a few doors I would like to put together something of a game plan before I really start approaching people. I like many aspects of my job, but the most important thing for me is working for the right company, in the right industry and with the potential for growth, and my current position offers none of those things.

I currently work as a lawyer and undertake every day many of the types of responsibilities that make up an executive assistant role, such as administration, communication, project management and so on, usually in a very demanding and high pressure context, and before this I worked in various communications/PR roles. Despite this, I get the feeling that convincing employers of my suitability for an executive assistant job is not going to be an easy task - in a competitive job market, employers don't want to hear about skills as much as they want to hear about experience in the field. From this perspective, I would really love to know whether you think a transition from my current position is feasible and, if so, what the best ways of communicating and building on my skills might be to land a job?

Thanks very much!”

Dear SH,

Glad you enjoy my blog! I will try to be helpful and keep me posted on how everything is going. I’ll lay out the obstacles you will face and then offer suggestions for you.

Any recruiter who sees your resume and finds out you used to be a lawyer will silently wonder the following questions.

1) Do you have the admin skills to be an EA? Can you fit in a corporate structured environment?

Whether based on your cover letter or resume, recruiters only take 6 seconds to see if you are match. They are looking for a job history with the exact same job they are looking to fill. Use the same buzz words, job descriptions, and skills they used in their job ad. If the fit isn’t close enough, they toss or file your resume. This means, you may want to remove anything that says you used to be a lawyer. I’m not sure how long you were in the field and practiced. Obviously you can’t have zero work history if your entire career was based on law school for the past 10-15 years. In this case, you may only land your job thru a friend and word of mouth from anyone that will take a chance on you as you transition.

The shortest route is to look for temp work thru agencies or TaskRabbit, Craiglist, or volunteer. You want to gain as much relevant experience as you can. It’s good that you have a background in PR and communication roles. I’m more interested if you have worked at companies that were not law firms.

The corporate business world is very unique to each company and the executive leading the division. A lot of things don’t make business sense, there is never enough money or time, office politics can be rampant. There are A players and total slackers. There are differing levels of emotional intelligence and common sense. Not everyone will be a workaholic, passionate, or invested. There is a lot of protocol, observing seniority, and getting permission thru the chain of command. The bigger the company, the more people you have to work with and it’s very much like herding cats. So not only are recruiters looking for the right hard skills, do you have the soft skills to fit into the department and company vision?

2) How manageable are you?

This really translates to the following questions... Will you be humble enough to take direction and do minor tasks like get coffee, scheduling, and travel? Are you hungry, green, and have a sense of urgency with all tasks? The attitude is very much you will do almost anything and everything that isn’t illegal. If you watched the Devil Wears Prada, Entourage, and Swimming with Sharks some of those scenes are not fiction.

Play up the fact that you are willing to do the little tasks, but are smart enough to make good decisions and think on your own when needed. Have great stories to tell about paying your dues, any grunt work you did, why you understand doing anything is vital.

3) Can you afford to live off of an EA’s salary after being a lawyer?

Most EA’s start out in the low 30s to mid 40’s and they tend to hover there unless they climb the EA corporate ladder. The only way to get a great salary hike is thru time and growing responsibility just like any other job. Most admin stay admin. Most EA’s stay with the same level executive their whole career - whether a VP or SVP or EVP. It’s hard to make the leap from VP to President, CEO, or Chairman especially because there is only one at each company or less than a handful and a big corporation.

You'll have to know what is the least amount of money you can survive on. Be honest you understand the paycut and why it doesn't bother you at the appropriate time in the interview process. Your best bet is to get a job with an executive that is also climbing the ladder so you follow them as they get promoted. Perhaps you could also look at coordinator, project manager, or director roles. With any admin job, you will need an area or field of specialty so think about what yours is and what your unique selling point is.

4) Why do you want to quit law and become an EA?

I know you stated: I like many aspects of my job, but the most important thing for me is working for the right company, in the right industry and with the potential for growth, and my current position offers none of those things.

Since becoming a lawyer is such a long and expensive road, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would change their mind since it wasn’t an impulse decision in the beginning. Starting a new career at any age is a great endeavor and they will want to understand your values, goals, and impressions of being an EA. Why be an EA? Why not seek the potential for growth by becoming a sales person? I just picked that job at random, but the point is, how you define the right industry, potential for growth, and the right company are very vague until you can explain with specific details, values, and somehow gauge growth if you are on the right track.

Learn to answer why being an EA appeals to you more than any other job. Come up with a list of pros and cons of being an EA. Know which roles are acceptable to you and those that aren't. Many pay their dues by working 24/7 the first couple of years before they get more experience or promoted. Think about all of this before you start asking people for help or when you network.

5) Will you want to stop being an EA in a few years and switch again?

This questions is to figure out how committed you are to your new career and the reason behind the switch. Whatever problems or aspects you didn’t like of law, they will wonder if those same ones will be in the admin world and how you will overcome them. Perhaps they will believe being an EA is not challenging enough or prestigious enough. The thing that matters most is what is your end game? What job title or job description do you want to have right before you retire and then figure out a game plan and work backwards on how you want to get there.

Your best bet is to get some experience in admin and being an EA thru temping or other contract work. Network 2-3 degrees out for opportunities. Do a lot of informational interviews with people who are already admin or EAs to see what they like and dislike and how they got into the field. Come up with a game plan to address the five questions I listed above.

Even within being an EA, there are various types of roles and job descriptions that make some more enjoyable than others. Think hard about who you are as a person, what you want at work and outside of work. You do have a lot going for you that you are committed, smart, organized, have a game plan, can follow thru and will seek help and advice. Do a lot of soul searching and be willing to learn what you DON’T like as well. As long as you are learning, you’ll be that much closer to whatever it is you want! :)

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