This is the time of year when we are bombarded with advice on ‘achieving our goals’ and ‘reaching our full potential’. The legal profession has always provided a well-trodden career path from trainee to associate, then partner. But it also offers an extraordinary breadth of opportunities – from arranging global finance to the nitty-gritty of landlord and tenant relationships – conducted in a range of business models – including in-house, on the high street or in the City.
Whether two or 10 years’ qualified, taking the next step up can be a time of uncertainty and stress. Here the Gazette canvasses its panel of experienced careers counsellors to pinpoint how a solicitor’s individual trajectory should best be managed in its first decade.
Law firms are changing
It is important to recognise that the shape of the legal profession has altered over the past 10 years.
Alongside the traditional business models, there are also opportunities for flexible working offered by remote law firms, or firms like Obelisk Support, run by former Linklaters lawyer Dana Denis-Smith, which allows lawyers to work flexibly around their families while offering clients affordable and high-quality legal support.
‘My advice to junior lawyers would be: don’t panic, there is no longer one path, there are other options,’ Denis-Smith says. ‘You don’t have to think necessarily in terms of a linear career, more a series of jobs. You don’t have to make every step worrying that the wrong turn will be career suicide.’
Getting it right at the outset
The early stages of your legal career will be spent honing technical expertise in your chosen practice area. Many solicitors choose to move soon after qualification, but make sure you are doing this for the right reasons.
If you are junior and have qualified with the firm you may feel that you are still thought of by some as a trainee. This accounts for a good number of moves of more junior solicitors to pastures new
Tony Roe, Penningtons Manches Cooper
‘If you are junior and have qualified with the firm you may feel that you are still thought of by some as a trainee. This accounts for a good number of moves of more junior solicitors to pastures new,’ says Tony Roe, a consultant in family law at Penningtons Manches Cooper.
There is also the lure of more money – but higher pay should not be the main motivation for moving. ‘This is the time to analyse where the gaps in your knowledge lie, so you can plan how best to fill these in,’ says Suzanne Gill, real estate partner at London firm Wedlake Bell.
Changing firms is the time to analyse where the gaps in your knowledge lie, so you can plan how best to fill these in
Suzanne Gill, Wedlake Bell
It is important to be honest about what you require from your existing firm, which, after all, will not want to lose its talent. If opportunities are limited where you are, do your homework before making the jump elsewhere. This means understanding the work focus and client demands of each potential employer, as well as their working cultures. This is where networking is useful: there is no substitute for a trusted contact giving you the inside track. You also need to weigh up the pros and cons of international versus boutique or regional firms, including working hours (are you prepared to work on US time?), deal sizes and opportunities for career development.
‘At a smaller firm you are more likely to interact with others outside your chosen field. For example, you may practise family law but sit with commercial property lawyers,’ says Philip Giles, partner at Essex firm Giles Wilson. ‘At larger firms you are more likely to stay within your practice group.’
Actively managing people is a different skill to being a good lawyer. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses and there is no room for ego
Philip Giles, Giles Wilson
All firms spend a lot of time and money when recruiting to try to find the right fit. They will be looking for someone who not only has the technical prerequisites, but is willing to sign up to the firm’s values as well.
‘You can achieve a lot with training and support if the values are right,’ says Roe.
If you are invited in for interview, it is useful for your potential employer if you explain why you are leaving your old firm. Do not be rude and be explicit about what you are seeking in your new role. If you are looking for a change in direction (a move into a new practice area, for example) be clear about what you want to achieve. ‘Honesty is very appealing to an employer,’ says Roe.
Of course, your prospective employer will need to sell itself to you as well. Gill recommends asking to speak to your peer group, if this is not already a feature of the interview process.
‘This is by no means an unreasonable request and provides an opportunity for a more candid conversation,’ she advises.
Next step – grow your skills
The first six years after qualification are largely spent ‘getting to grips with the job and flying by the seat of your pants’, as Giles puts it. As time goes by, personal attributes become more important.
‘Between 4-6 years’ qualified you need to demonstrate that you are a safe pair of hands,’ says Gill. ‘This means showing that you can pull the team together and that you are a good team player.’
A sound knowledge of the law and established technical expertise is an excellent grounding, but it is not enough.
‘You need to build relationships and work well with people. This means demonstrating that you have the ability to persuade someone on the other side and work with them effectively,’ she says.
And it is crucial to keep your career under review. ‘Do not think 20 years ahead, think five years ahead,’ advises Denis-Smith. ‘You should give yourself time to reflect and take control over what you want.’
If you feel you are heading in the wrong direction, now is a good time to change course. Laura Uberoi qualified as a family lawyer in the team at Farrer & Co, before deciding that her real interest lay in banking.
Go to everything. And think outside the walls of your firm. I have met people who have become valuable mentors to me at events. Networking has also allowed me to make connections that have helped to accelerate my career
Laura Uberoi, Macfarlanes
‘It is easy to become entrenched and not acknowledge to yourself that things need to change,’ she says. ‘You need to have the courage to speak up and not be afraid. When I did, the firm was really supportive and did everything they could to help.’
What about partnership?
Traditionally – depending on the firm – solicitors start to think about partnership openings as they reach the 6-8 year-qualified stage.
Roe says: ‘Ultimately, the single most important touchstone for any promotion is “what is the business case?” Your firm’s partnership structure will be key. Questions will be asked about your record as a rainmaker and your profitability.’
You will need to demonstrate that you can bring in work and look after clients. Industry nous, an instinct for market trends and a network of contacts are all prime factors, as well as demonstrating in-depth understanding of your clients’ businesses.
Each firm will have its own reasons for elevation to the partnership: ‘It could be a case of succession planning; an older partner may be retiring, so there is no need to bring in lots of work personally,’ Gill points out. And the way you interact with your colleagues will be critical. ‘Actively managing people is a different skill to being a good lawyer,’ says Giles. ‘You have to know your strengths and weaknesses and there is no room for ego.’
Networks and contacts
It is never too early to develop your networking skills. Although solicitors often focus on how to network with clients, make the effort to forge connections with your peers from the very start of your professional career and it will pay dividends.
Adam Hattersley, a real estate finance associate at Fieldfisher, who sits on the national executive committee of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) and is the general director of the Manchester Young Solicitors Group, says: ‘Through networking with your peers, you gain a good understanding of the local legal market, hear which firms are recruiting or merging, as well as which are good to work for and which not so good.’
This is valuable ‘intel’ on the ground. Uberoi, now a real estate finance solicitor at Macfarlanes and president of the Westminster and Holborn Law Society, first became involved in networking events when she asked to take minutes at a local Law Society function as a trainee.
‘Go to everything,’ she advises. ‘And think outside the walls of your firm. I have met people who have become valuable mentors to me at events. Networking has also allowed me to make connections that have helped to accelerate my career.’
There is no doubt that if you have an opportunity to go on secondment, do so. It is an enriching experience that allows a junior solicitor to experience business from the client’s perspective. It also gives a valuable insight into what practising law is like in-house, which may be useful later in your career.
‘It is so useful to see how the client’s systems work, so you can visualise what is happening on their screens when talking to them over the phone,’ says Uberoi of her experience on secondment at Deutsche Bank. ‘You also know precisely who is responsible for what internally, which is valuable for the firm and the client, as well as it being beneficial for your personal business plan.’
Before entering private practice, Uberoi worked for a charity that documents the learning potential of young people in the criminal justice system, as well as for the Texas Defender Service, which aims to improve the quality of legal representation for those facing the death penalty in the US state.
‘These experiences, in particular dealing with prisoners on death row, provided a valuable sense of perspective that can be applied to my daily working life. This is incredibly useful,’ she says.
When in the employment team at Linklaters, Denis-Smith was seconded to a charity that offers representation to claimants in employment proceedings, ranging from age discrimination to unfair dismissal.
‘You deal with people whose lives are shattered over £5,000,’ she says. ‘It really balances your perspective and enables you to be more commercial and tuned-in. My advice would be to pepper your career path with different experiences.’
Mentoring inside a firm can be tricky. The mentor and mentee must be carefully paired and a chemistry between the two parties is essential, as it is difficult for either to speak up when it is not working out. However, if used properly, mentoring can be a powerful career tool.
‘Mentoring is a formalised way of asking for help,’ says Dana Denis-Smith, chief executive of Obelisk Support. ‘If you are not prepared to ask for help, it is of no value. It is important to have the courage to speak up.’
Having a range of mentors is more productive than focusing on just one, allowing solicitors early in their careers to meet more experienced practitioners with a varied range and depth of exp erience.
‘The most useful piece of advice I received was from someone when I was on secondment at Deutsche Bank,’ Uberoi says. ‘You should have one mentor who is on your team; one from your firm; one from outside your firm who is a lawyer; and one who is not a lawyer.’
Career pointers to remember
There is no substitute for technical expertise. But once this bedrock is in place, personal attributes – such as the ability to work as a team, and persuasiveness with the client and the other side– become more relevant as you progress up the ranks of your firm. A CV which demonstrates the ability to look at a business from all angles, through work in-house or for charities, is one that will stand out to future employers. And be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and what you enjoy and what you don’t.
‘One of the joys of the law is that it so diverse and varied,’ says Gill. ‘Within just commercial property there is a wide scope: landlord and tenant, sales and acquisitions, litigation, financing, development, environment, planning and more.’
Although flexible working is not always practical in certain legal sectors or within all firms, today’s junior solicitors have access to flexible career options that previous generations could never have envisaged.
‘You can have a working model that fits around your life,’ Denis-Smith concludes.
Katharine Freeland is a freelance journalist