One Perspective: What's in your portfolio ... of career skills?

By Daniel C. Crane

The Daily Record Newswire

"I would like to work on interesting matters with good colleagues, be paid well and work hard, but not give up my life for work."

That summarizes what several lawyers and law students told me recently and what a lot of attorneys and other professionals seek throughout their careers.

Unfortunately, such a job description doesn't exist. But that doesn't mean you can't work to create greater satisfaction for yourself.

Start by thinking about your career as not just a series of positions and titles, but as a journey during which you accumulate skills, expertise and experience to add to your professional portfolio, at times deliberately, but also incidentally.

After all, anyone who is hiring or seeking services wants to know whether you have the skills and abilities that are needed to succeed in the work, not solely what your titles have been.

By example, most lawyers who devoted the last 10 years of practice to representing clients in commercial and employment matters probably don't have the skills to represent a client who now needs help with a lease for an expanded call center. However, the lawyer might have the skills her prospective client needs if she spent the first four years of her career working at a small firm that represented several owners of commercial property and stayed reasonably current with new developments in the area.

If so, that lawyer is in a position to tap into her professional skill portfolio to serve her client in the matter.

Like an investment portfolio, your professional skill portfolio needs to be diversified to meet the range of professional opportunities and client needs that present themselves to you over time.

There are steps you can take to reach that goal:

Identify the portfolio of skills you have and what you need or want to add.

Start by assessing the skills and expertise you have accumulated not just through your practice, but also through direct professional education, internships and work experience.

You also may have acquired useful skills and expertise through volunteer activities or family responsibilities. You may be surprised by the skills you have and how you got them.

For example, I learned to use Google docs' shared document functions for spreadsheets during volunteer work on a political campaign. I learned more about sharing Google calendars working with other parents supporting a soccer team.

I've used those skills recently to help me work more efficiently in collaborating with lawyers on client matters.

You also may have worked with fundraising groups; advocated for community, school or neighborhood improvements; or served on non-profit boards. In doing that, you've probably learned how to reach agreement on common goals, what needs to be done to achieve those goals and how to collaborate throughout the process. Those skills may be useful and valuable assets as part of your career skill portfolio.

You also need to assess whether something you want to do professionally requires skills you currently do not have. If so, deliberately set out to acquire them.

For instance, if you want to work as a mediator, you need specific training to qualify for the statutory privilege that protects the parties' confidential communications to you from disclosure. You will need to acquire those qualifying skills as your career and interests evolve.

Develop and maintain your skills.

You need to maintain the skills that are already in your portfolio, but you should also give some thought to interests and activities that may help you develop skills and opportunities you never anticipated.

Will refreshing or maintaining your ability to speak a language other than English open new professional doors? Take a class. Although Massachusetts does not require continuing legal education, do you take the time to attend a few high-quality programs that keep your skills current or prepare you for a new area of practice?

And, when a client asks for representation on a matter in which you have limited competence (like intellectual property), refer it to a lawyer who specializes in that field and who will let you participate. It's a great way to get some hands-on experience and learn from an expert.

Learn to communicate the value of your skills to prospective clients, employers and colleagues.

We all know about communicating a message in the time that it takes to reach the 34th floor. You should be just as ready to articulate a pertinent sample of your skill portfolio when you encounter an unexpected opportunity.

You won't have time for the whole portfolio. You need to quickly decide which skills in your portfolio might interest or impress your fellow "elevator passenger" enough for that person to want to learn more about you and what you can do.

For instance, a business executive whose company knows about your past as a government prosecutor may not know about your experience in corporate governance as a board member or your experience in dealing with the media. You need to tell him about those other skills.

You can also communicate your skills without speaking to your audience. Those opportunities come every time someone sees your work. It demonstrates your skills to colleagues in any work you do as a professional or community volunteer, and even to your adversaries when you are handling client matters. Don't overlook those opportunities.

Nothing is for sure, but you will be much more likely to find yourself working on interesting matters with good colleagues if you consciously build and maintain a portfolio of skills as your career evolves. That diverse portfolio covers a lot more than specific substantive areas of law. The sooner you put your full portfolio to work for your career, the more likely you will hit that professional sweet spot so many are seeking.

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Daniel C. Crane is former bar counsel and undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation for Massachusetts. He advises lawyers and law firms on management and professional responsibility matters. He can be contacted at dancrane@comcast.net. He also blogs on www.dancrane.wordpress.com.

A version of this article originally appeared in Lawyers USA's sister publication, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

Published: Fri, Aug 5, 2011