Today, I am announcing my nomination for Career Advice of the Year. It was a sentence uttered several weeks ago by a top D.C. practitioner who had kindly agreed to a breakfast conversation with other lawyers in her field and with career advisors from Georgetown Law. We try to arrange meetings like this throughout the year to keep abreast of the state of the market and to learn more about the practice areas in which our students are interested. When we asked these attorneys what impresses them in a job candidate, one of the most experienced of them emphasized the importance of the interview and then said, “Anyone who can tell me his story in 20 minutes is going places.”
I love that statement — it’s like a little Zen koan, like, “If you send form letters to one thousand employers, and none of them read past the first paragraph, did you really apply for any jobs?” The more you think about it, the more it means.
First: What does this accomplished, knowledgeable professional respond to in a prospective employee? She does not mention grades, not these skills or that experience, not even proven success on the job. What resonates for her is coherence. How do the grades and the experiences and the successes fit together with aspirations and experiments and decisions to create a whole working person? She wants to hear that story. And we all know the best stories convey a sense of dimension, of depth and breadth and past and future. You can’t get that from a GPA.
And — digging a little deeper — in order to tell a good story, you’ve got to know a good story. You have to figure out the plot and understand the main character’s motivations. You have to research facts and detail so that every assertion you make rings true, even to an expert. Only someone who honestly knows what he wants and what he has to offer can tell a satisfying story.
I could keep digging into this, layer after layer, but I’ll wrap up with this observation: notice she did not say, “Tell me a good story and you’re hired!” Someone who can tell her a solid story is “going places,” but it may not be this partner’s firm, even though she would clearly be moved by such a presentation. The content of the story still matters. Not everyone you tell your story to is going to be able to provide the right setting for the next chapter to unfold. But this employer tells us: that’s okay. Those who know their true story, and know how to tell it, can feel confident of a happy ending — even if they can’t yet predict what it will be.