In a sector where it’s easy to be pigeonholed at a very early stage in one’s career, what can junior lawyers do to keep their options open? We asked legal careers coach Paula McMullan to offer some pearls of wisdom.
With 25 years’ experience as both a lawyer and a coach, (most recently as Head of Recruitment at Slaughter and May and as the internal careers coach at Allen & Overy LLP), Paula now helps dissatisfied lawyers find balance and fulfilment in their career.
Congratulations! You’ve survived your training contract, successfully navigated qualification and your legal career is laid out ahead of you like the Yellow Brick Road. So far, so good.
I speak to a lot of mid-level and senior associates who get to 5 or 6 PQE and suddenly realise that their work/life balance isn’t great, and that they’ve fallen out of love with the law, or with the type of law they’re now practising. Maybe they’ve become too specialised, or they’re not getting involved in the type of work they’re really interested in. Or perhaps they’ve already decided that partnership is akin to being the little man in the booth pretending to be the Wizard of Oz.
Often more experienced lawyers find they have painted themselves into a corner and that it’s not as easy to transfer to an in-house role or another firm as they had imagined.
One thing is for sure…the future is uncertain. Whatever plans we may make now, it’s wise to build options for ourselves so that we’re well equipped to deal with change when it comes.
Before you get too far down the line with your legal career, here are three ways to give yourself more professional flexibility.
1. Develop your skills and knowledge with future roles in mind
When I ask lawyers what makes them unique and what they have to offer an employer, many find it difficult to talk about themselves. They give me underwhelming, generic answers, and they clearly have no idea of their value to a business or their ‘unique selling point’. If they can’t articulate this, what hope do they have of persuading a new employer?
It is therefore vital to develop your business skillset with one eye on future roles. For example, if you want to work in-house, what skills will you need to persuade a corporate to hire you out of private practice? How can you develop these while you are still working for a firm?
There are also a lot of flexible working opportunities for lawyers nowadays with outfits offering work on a contract basis. Does your specialism lend itself to working in this way? What skills and attributes do you have/want to develop that will enable you to flourish in that professional environment?
Lawyers tend to be quite detail-focused and they talk about their assets in isolation. Think, for example, about how your ability to analyse complex legal problems will benefit a corporate employer and put your skill into their context. How about saying you are used to assessing risks and advising on appropriate strategies to further your client’s business interests?
And be aware of the opportunities that may or may not be available to you once you are a few years into your legal career. What roles will a 4 PQE pensions lawyer or debt capital market specialist be suitable for?
A top tip from a recruitment consultant: if you’re thinking of a change in career direction, employers will want to see a commitment to that career change. So, if you want to move into learning and development, start designing and delivering seminars, read about learning strategies, find a mentor in L&D.
First steps? Find out what skills and experience will set you apart from the competition when you decide to go for another role. Work out who can help with finding out and then ask them!
2. Develop a sustainable approach to money
It can come as quite a shock to learn just how much of a drop in salary you may need to take to land your dream job outside private practice, or at least a stepping-stone role. The golden handcuffs that restrict many lawyers can seem unbreakable, so you need to change your approach to managing your financial resources.
It’s vital to work out your priorities – what’s most important to you right now? Maybe you are saving to buy your first property and you feel you need to keep going in your private practice role until that’s taken care of. Fair enough. But it’s also important to consider the downside of that strategy. What will the impact be on your mental health? Are you becoming even more specialised? If you get a large mortgage, will this compel you to keep your earnings at their current level?
Consider now the impact of different financial scenarios and develop a plan for tackling them. I knew when I was posted to Singapore, my ex-pat package would only last for a couple of years, so I lived on the same amount as I had in London and put the rest into my pension. When it came to leave, the resulting drop in salary wasn’t a shock. I didn’t need to recalibrate my lifestyle in line with my lower income.
First steps? Devise a sustainable financial plan. Talk to an independent financial adviser who can advise you on different ways to safeguard your assets and how to plan for a secure financial future while keeping your professional options open.
3. Separate your identity from your job
Have you noticed how, when asked what they do for a living, people often simply say “I’m a lawyer/doctor/architect/designer”? Our belief that “I am” a lawyer can get in the way if we become dissatisfied with our legal career because we can internalise that feeling as dissatisfaction with ourselves and our choices. This, in turn, can make it difficult to imagine ourselves as being able to do anything else, or being worthy of someone taking a chance on us.
Limiting beliefs like this can be quite deeply ingrained. You may have wanted to be a lawyer from an early age, maybe you have relatives who are successful lawyers and therefore feel that you should be too, or perhaps simply being surrounded by other lawyers day-in and day-out reinforces this belief. It served you well once because it got you to where you are today, but if you are no longer wedded to your career in its current form, then believing “I am a lawyer” can hold you back from realising your potential.
Think more in terms of what you do and the benefits you bring to your employer and your clients. Turn “I am a finance lawyer” into: “I help tech start-ups open up opportunities to develop by guiding them through successful negotiations with investors”.
First steps? Start noticing how you think about yourself professionally. How do you introduce yourself and talk about what you do? How can you reframe who you are into what you do?
As you’re reading this, you may think that none of this applies to you because you’re enjoying having reached qualification after so much study and hard work, and you’re looking forward to the challenge of growing into a great technical lawyer. But this brings us back to the start – the future is uncertain so why not make sure you are ready for it?