For some it is redundancy. For others the hallowed path towards partnership appears strewn with potholes.
It may simply be a question of lifestyle.
Whatever the motive, many lawyers are reshaping their careers, either by switching specialism, leaving private practice for in-house roles or abandoning the profession altogether.
The Gazette has spoken to solicitors who have changed course – as well as legal career experts – for their insights.
Tight job market
First the bad news. Switching practice area is not easy. Julian Summerhayes, a former lawyer now advising law firms on the use of social media, says that during his 14 years in practice as a dispute resolution lawyer he saw few ‘cross-discipline moves’, such as going from corporate law to family law, or from insurance law to employment law.
Furthermore, switching has become harder since the start of the recession: ‘Before 2008 there was more evidence of people switching specialism.
But the job market is tight at the moment.’ He adds that firms are looking for a fast return on investment and want recruits to hit the ground running.
Simon Broomer, also a former solicitor and since 2001 director of CareerBalance, a City-based consultancy that advises barristers and solicitors on changing career direction, says: ‘The structural changes within the profession mean that there is much more emphasis on specialism now.’
Broomer believes that this creates difficulties for newly qualified solicitors, who are pushed into narrow specialisms by firms, particularly in the City.
‘If there is great demand for acquisition finance lawyers or derivative lawyers this is where they are going to end up.’ This means that law firms are less flexible when it comes to people wanting to switch.
Junior Lawyers Division/College of Law re-training courses
For solicitors wishing to switch specialism, the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society has developed re-training courses in partnership with The College of Law.
Judith Perkins, JLD chair, says: 'With the recession taking hold, we thought we needed to offer some form of retraining for young lawyers who were qualified but struggling to get jobs in their own practice area and who were looking at re-qualifying into areas where there were perhaps more positions available.'
JLD surveyed its members - solicitors with up to five years' active PQE – who backed the idea and indicated that the course should be CPD credited, reasonably priced and run over no more than two days. The JLD approached The College of Law and in November 2009 the first retraining course in private client law and practice was held in London.
Perkins explains: 'We looked at the market and there were still positions available in that area of law. Also, this was an area where everyone had done a little bit on the Legal Practice Course.' The course content was also designed to attract solicitors coming from the recession-hit property sector.
The course, running on Friday and Saturday, counted as 11 hours CPD and covered areas such as intestacy, wills, inheritance tax, trusts in wills, and claims being made against an estate.
The College of Law says that while some attended to simply add to their professional portfolio, most aimed to change discipline. Two more courses have since run, in March 2010 in Birmingham and in November 2010 in London.
With the commercial market picking up, the JLD and the College of Law then launched a commercial law and practice re-training course, the first of which was held on 11-12 March.
It comprises general aspects of commercial law, particularly trading vehicles and company law, contract law and remedies, and acquisitions and due diligence. Accredited for 13 CPD hours, the course also offers an overview of employment law, debt finance and intellectual property.
Perkins says: 'We did not want anything overly niche because one of the problems with the huge numbers of redundancy during the recession was that people, especially at the very large city law firms, were being pushed virtually on qualification into very niche areas.'
She adds: 'When the work dried up in those areas they were not being re-deployed to other departments because they did not have broad enough knowledge.'
Perkins says the course will help these solicitors be 'more attractive to smaller city firms that have general commercial teams and also in-house departments which are always looking for commercial lawyers with a broad experience’. Solicitors with criminal or a family law background can benefit from the course too, she adds.
Sangeeta Moore, who specialised in charities and trusts before being made redundant, attended the commercial law and practice course in March: 'I am open to the possibility of re-qualifying into commercial law as with only 1 year PQE I am not entrenched in one area of law yet.'
The course was 'fantastic, but intense', Moore says, adding that it provided 'a good review' of a lot of areas in company and commercial 'from a practitioner's point of view’.
The 2011 course fee is £390 including VAT. Numbers are limited to 25 students to ensure an 'interactive approach’, says Colin Davey, business development director at The College of Law. The focus is on small group practical exercises as opposed to the traditional lecturing style.
The College of Law says take up has been sufficient to justify running the course. The College of Law hoped to launch more 'up-skilling' courses, including an employment law and practice retraining course, probably before the summer, and a commercial property course, Davey adds.
For more information on the course, visit the Junior Lawyer pages.
Nevertheless, solicitors can and do make the move. Says Sarah Fulbrook, a legal headhunter at Deacon Search: ‘A lot depends on the change you want to make.
If you want to move, for example, from banking law to restructuring law, or from corporate to commercial law, it can be easier to do it within the same City law firm, provided there is internal support for the switch.’
Your employer may not be supportive, especially given the tough economic times.
But if things are not overly busy in your department, you could offer to help out in an area of the firm you are interested in.
‘That way you can get some brownie points for thinking about boosting the firm’s revenue and this also enables you to get some experience in other areas,’ says Judith Perkins, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society.
But whatever the circumstances, to switch you may need to change employer, which may mean going to a smaller firm.
Broomer points to a recent example of a lawyer he advised who returned to work after a nine-year career break to do family law, having previously practised as a commercial litigator.
‘She turned over a completely new leaf because she was not embedded in a practice somewhere,’ says Broomer.
So how do you prepare for the switch? Try pro bono work, suggests the JLD’s Perkins: ‘There is a lot of work on the business side of things, assisting small charities that don’t have money to pay corporate legal advisers.’
Other forms of unpaid work are beneficial, for example shadowing solicitors who practise in your chosen area, observes Broomer.
Case study: switching to support the firm
The big switch for William Bailey was in 2000 when he moved from doing legal aid-funded mental health work, to focus on private client work, principally probate.
Bailey wanted to strengthen his small business, which did 50:50 legal aid and private client work, including family law and conveyancing.
The firm, now with a staff of 9 with two partners, William Bailey and David Coombs, was struggling to justify the amount of paperwork associated with legal aid. 'I was involved in legal aid for about 25 years and it is quite sad to see what is happening [cuts in budget]. But, as he puts it, 'In the end it is survival. You set up your own firm and you want to make a success of it.'
Ten years after William Bailey Solicitors was established in East Dulwich, the firm dropped legal aid work and mental health (which took him onto the Law Society's mental health panel) and boosted wills and probate, which grew to be a major area alongside conveyancing. 'There was a gradual increase in demand for probate.
'I had already done a certain amount of probate work and, having decided to give up legal aid, I decided I would focus more on that area.'
This was not the first time Bailey switched areas of law. Two years after qualifying as a commercial lawyer with City law firm Stephenson Harwood, he left to join a Law Centre in 1974 to do housing law and juvenile crime. He took a cut in salary, but says: 'The city did not suit me. I preferred working for local people.
The law centre movement was an interesting new development in the 1970s so I was keen to get involved.' He later joined a fellow law centre solicitor who had established a small firm in Greenwich, which provided a model for his own firm.
In between he worked for a small firm in Croydon, where he set up a litigation department.
Bailey says of his most recent switch: "Obviously I'd done some probate in my training contract, or articles as it was then. But expertise is a key thing. So we joined the Law Society's probate section, and regularly attend courses and seminars on wills and probate. You could say it's been a steep learning curve.'
Bailey had to get to grips with other changes too. Legal aid guarantees a regular income, for example, whereas probate tends to have a delayed billing process, he points out.
However, in his case, this was counterbalanced by the firm's conveyancing and family law practices. It helped that he had an existing wills service and that he remains rooted in the same community for two decades. So there wasn't a big shift in client base. 'We advertised a little bit locally and work came in,' he adds.
Perhaps mostly importantly, by the time Bailey set up his own firm in 1990, he had already experienced different areas of the law. 'I am little bit of a generalist,' he concludes.
Taking a hit to income in the short term will in any case be likely. Fulbrook says: ‘You have to be prepared to take a pay cut at the beginning and a step back in terms of PQE level.’
External retraining courses are also useful. Kathryn Harwood, partner and head of wills and estate planning at Napthens in Preston, says: ‘Research what qualifications you can undertake and what retraining is available.
'Gaining confidence in a new area is about making sure that you are being trained properly and that there is a secure foundation for what you are doing.‘
The JLD, in association with the The College of Law, offers retraining courses. And there are free seminars run by chambers. ‘Barristers will always be more than happy to answer any questions you have over a glass of wine afterwards,’ says Perkins.
Also, consider raising your profile by writing articles on the chosen discipline, or via social networking, for example LinkedIn. ‘I encourage my clients to look at the specialist interest groups and join in the discussions. It is a very good way of making contact with people in a particular field,’ says CareerBalance’s Broomer.
Finding out as much as possible about the new area of law is important. Fulbrook says: ‘Talk to everyone you know, including friends of friends. You have to be sure that the grass is likely to be greener for you.’
Nick Jarrett-Kerr, visiting professor at Nottingham Law School, recommends secondments – for example, with a bank or institution to gain experience in the relevant sector.
For less experienced lawyers, another route is becoming a Professional Support Lawyer (PSL): ‘That would give you experience and allow you to build up expertise in your chosen area.’
Doing paralegal work for a while in the chosen sector may also be useful, experts say.
Remember that many of your existing skills will be transferable, says Napthens’ Harwood, who moved from family law to wills and estate planning.
She says: ‘I think there is a correlation between family, and wills and estate planning work as you have to have good interpersonal skills to deal with both.’
There are also parallels between commercial litigators and family lawyers. Both have to produce fairly detailed witness statements, adds Broomer, who concludes: ‘It’s not rocket science. Quite often you sit in these large law firms and you look around you and you think everybody is a fountain of knowledge in their own area and some people find it quite daunting to make the move.’
He adds: ‘It’s just a question of sitting down and doing some book work alongside some practical training. All lawyers have done that already. It is not beyond them intellectually.’
However, Summerhayes has some words of caution: ‘If you are doing it for the money, or if you think there may be more work available in one area in the future, I would question that.
'Every area of law will at some stage come under pressure.’
To make a success of things, says the JLD’s Perkins, the most important thing is commitment: ‘You have to demonstrate an understanding of the practice area you want to go into and the type of client you will be dealing with. Showing an enthusiasm for that will tie everything else in together.’
Case study: corporate to family
Sarah Fulbrook trained with Eversheds, qualifying with the firm as a corporate lawyer in 2001. Three years later, she requalified as a family lawyer, and most recently worked at the London office of Manches.
Fulbrook says: ‘I did not enjoy corporate law. Unfortunately this happens to a lot of trainees who are not necessarily enamoured with the areas of law that they are qualifying into.’
Not wanting to build up an ‘enormous debt’, she took a law school sponsorship from a large firm. ‘Many people are channelled into commercial law because the large firms offer financial support to enable them to get through their CPE and LPC studies.’
Fulbrook explains that training contracts are geared towards specialisation in order to facilitate the move into a job the sponsoring firm wants to fill: ‘I specialised in this area without thinking too much about the long-term consequences.’
Fulbrook’s switch also required her to leave her firm. When she decided to move to family, many large commercial firms had cut back on private client work.
Fulbrook wrote to law firms, setting out ‘very concisely why I would enjoy family law’. You have to be ‘very persuasive’, she says.
She had no practical experience of family law but some knowledge, as it was one of her law degree electives. ‘I also spoke to many people, for example matrimonial lawyers, to find out as much as possible about what it was like in practice and I read a lot about family law,’ she says.
Fulbrook did not immediately go to work for Manches. She started at ASB Law, a regional law firm with offices in Surrey and Kent: ‘I kept an open mind and had to take a salary cut, but it was worth doing. I was very lucky to find a firm that was willing to take a punt on me.’
A strong academic record helps too – she graduated from University College London and did her LPC at the College of Law in York – and training with a well known City law firm was a real plus. ‘With enough determination and an open mind, it is definitely achievable,’ she adds.
Sarah Fulbrook is now a legal headhunter for Deacon Search, a London-based firm that specialises in partner appointments. She stopped practising in 2007, deciding to switch to recruitment for lifestyle reasons.
However, having experienced two very different areas of law, she feels well equipped to do her job.
Increasingly, solicitors are leaving private practice for an in-house role (see case study, opposite).
CareerBalance’s Broomer notes that over half of his lawyer clients are considering this move. ‘The conditions of work, particularly in the City firms, are not so appealing now to young lawyers.
'They are not attracted by a partnership and are fed up with the long-hours culture and the kind of relentlessness of working in a very competitive City law firm environment.’
Broomer notes: ‘Ten or so years ago in-house was seen as a place for second-rate lawyers who could not make it in a private practice. That’s changed. Now the opportunities are growing, in-house jobs are better rewarded and they give you a career progression.’
The JLD’s Perkins says: ‘People are becoming more interested in in-house positions for a number of reasons – variety of work on offer, work-life balance and stability of employment. And as you are part of a business you are seeing the impact of your work on the business’s profits and losses.’
However, there is a downside. Martin Chivers, director of Career Legal notes: ‘When it comes to pay reviews, you are a cost to the business. Your salary will not necessarily go up every year as it does in private practice, just because you are one year more qualified. If you want a pay rise you need to ask for it and show the value you added to the business in the last 12 months.’
Chivers adds: ‘Normally in private practice you have access to PSLs and paralegals and all sorts of infrastructure. With in-house, often there are two or three solicitors and a secretary and that’s it.’
So what other skills and personal qualities are needed for the role?
You must be happy dealing with people who are not lawyers, says Chivers. In addition to commercial nous, a would-be in-house lawyer must also show people management and business development skills.
So, if you don’t already possess it, gain some ‘cutting-edge business exposure’ by looking for opportunities to build personal relationships with clients, particularly entrepreneurs and people who run small businesses, or through a secondment, adds CareerBalance’s Broomer.
Case study: property to in-house
Annalisa Checchi was a four year-qualified property solicitor at Withers when she was made redundant in 2009.
She was unemployed for 10 months before finding an in-house position at residential property investors Regis Group plc as head of their legal department.
Then, in February 2010, Checchi joined business services company Liberata UK Limited as legal counsel.
Checchi completed her training and qualified into property with West End law firm Gordon Dadds in 2004.
However, she wanted to pursue corporate commercial law at the time, but was not able to find any openings; partly, she believes, because she was trained in a West End firm.
Before moving to Withers, in April 2006 she joined another West End law firm, Jeffrey Green Russell, working in its real estate department for a year.
‘There was always the feeling that I would not necessarily be satisfied with just focussing on area of law,’ Checchi says, adding that she had a strong interest in business, stemming from her background in a family of business people.
Checchi sees her redundancy as an ‘opportunity’ finally to do what she wanted – move in-house.
‘In private practice you have the divide between you and the client, you are not necessarily in the thick of it. Whereas working in-house you are employed by your client. It is much more "hands-on" and it is very challenging because you can be asked many different things.’
Her job has included negotiating commercial agreements, issuing County Court claims and advising on compliance issues.
Checchi also had to get up to speed with EU and domestic public procurement regulations, intellectual property and employment law.
One advantage of being in-house is better work-life balance: ‘You have much more ability to manage yourself and your own work. We all have laptops and we can work from home if we need to. In a law firm, you have to be seen to be there and to be working.’
Any downside? Her small team of two solicitors has no secretarial support and therefore they need to be competent at typing, she says.
Checchi would not consider going back to private practice. She fears being trapped as a property solicitor again.
And she believes that the traditional law firm model, with the advantages of partnership, may have had its day.
Case study: a career break plus switching specialism
Kathryn Harwood took a 12-year break from practising as a family solicitor in order to raise her children. She returned to work in 2002 as a private client lawyer at Lancashire-based firm Napthens LLP where she is now a partner and head of the wills and estate planning department.
It was not until her eldest son began secondary school that she considered returning to work. 'I came back in the full knowledge that I might very well have left it too late,' she says. Harwood was keen to work in an area of law which would 'fit in better with my responsibilities at home’.
Family law did not: ‘There are times when the court's diary means that you have got to be there whether it is your day off or not,’ she says.
She kicked off her return by enrolling on the Association of Women Solicitors Returner in Cambridge, a course designed to help solicitors who have been on a career break or seeking a career change. 'The course ran for a week and it gave an overview in various areas.
'I had a full day on wills and estate planning. It reinforced my idea that this was an area that I would find interesting.'
Recruitment agents couldn't help.
So she wrote to every firm in her local area, explaining that she wanted to retrain as a private client lawyer and that she would be happy to be taken on as trainee solicitor – despite the fact that she was three years PQE. Most firms did not write back.
However, the managing partner of Napthens invited her for an interview, telling Harwood that the firm was looking to replace, in four year's time, the head of wills and estate planning department.
The interview went well and Harwood was able to work part-time until her youngest son began high school.
The understanding was that the part-time option would only be for a limited period. In 2007 Harwood became a partner and in 2008 she was made head of department.
Harwood also obtained a diploma – funded by Napthens - from the Society of Trusts and Estate Practitioners (STEP). 'It was hugely important for me in terms of giving me confidence in what I was doing.’
Harwood was lucky that her husband could support her financially so that she could afford a cut in salary when she joined Napthens, she says.
And she thinks her return to work in 2002 would be harder in today's more competitive environment. 'The Legal Services Act is already making its impact felt in terms of private client work. It would be more difficult now.'
Nevertheless there are opportunities in wills and estate planning. While firms need to replace practitioners when they retire, it 'isn't a sexy area' for young lawyers, she says. 'I am sure that in the long term there are going to be vacancies again for private client lawyers.'