The law is close-knit and getting ahead is about nurturing relationships that last, hears Eduardo Reyes.

Imagine this cliched scenario: you decide to be a lawyer; you work hard at school and pass your exams; you do a degree that is assessed to a transparent standard, go to law school and secure a training contract; supervising partners spot your talent and in a few years you are on the partnership track; you are guided into the partnership and live happily ever after, sustained by a loyal client base that recognises you are just naturally fabulous.

If that all sounds familiar, it is unlikely you are thinking of the recent past. Things were never quite that simple, but for lawyers moving through their careers it will not have escaped anyone’s attention that old certainties are being replaced by ‘rules’ that are harder to discern.

Taking risks

The Gazette spoke to lawyers with contrasting experiences and at different stages in their careers. One word that recurred in advice to fellow lawyers was ‘risk’. Junior Lawyers Division chair Leanne Maund urges: ‘Don’t be afraid to figure out what you want and take some risks to get there. Loyalty is still valued by organisations and can help you progress, but remember that your first priority should be to stay true to yourself. There is no shame in doing that.’

‘Embrace opportunities, especially the terrifying ones,’ counsels Stewarts Law partner Philippa Charles, now the firm’s head of international arbitration. ‘Experience really matters and every new challenge completed gets you better prepared for the next one.’

Charles reflects that some of those opportunities present themselves through events beyond a lawyer’s control. In her case, international mergers provided a chance for cross-border disputes experience (starting with her first firm Rowe & Maw’s merger with a US firm to form Mayer Brown). ‘I began to work more with colleagues in the US offices of the firm on London-seated arbitration matters,’ she recalls. A subsequent merger added offices in Hong Kong, Vietnam and China.

‘It is not always necessary to move to a new job to develop new experience,’ James Betts, an education and community care solicitor at Simpson Millar, observes. Betts says secondments are an opportunity junior lawyers should push for: ‘Without asking, you will not know if it is possible.’

Richard Allen, a lawyer at niche costs and pricing firm Burcher Jennings, argues that a willingness to adapt is critical if you are to make the best of the opportunities that do arise: ‘Be proactive, not reactive and, importantly, be flexible and adapt. That’s more important now than ever, with the fast pace of change, not only in practice and procedure but in infrastructure and technology.’

Relationships matter

At the core of a successful career are good relationships. Browne Jacobson partner Marlene Henderson says: ‘Looking back, a major part of my success was the ability to build long-lasting relationships with clients and colleagues. In respect of clients, this was facilitated by a mixture of personality, knowledge of the law and, most importantly, the recognition I was providing a service to my clients.’

As a consequence, when trying to spot the potential in younger lawyers she looks for ‘someone who takes a long-term approach to building relationships with clients. This is key to being successful as many junior lawyers only look at “short-term” wins due to the pressure to generate fees.

‘Too many young lawyers believe that technical skills alone are enough to be successful. The junior lawyers that really stand out are those that never lose sight of the fact that “how” the work is delivered is as important, if not more important, as “what” work is delivered. The “how” is absolutely what sticks in a client’s mind.’

Wedlake Bell partner Suzanne Gill notes: ‘The best way to progress a private practice career is with a following – a book of business you generate.’ Building that following includes, of course, assimilating ‘the basics of client service’. Gill adds: ‘When you get a call, return it. If someone sends you an email with a document to review, a quick reply expressing enthusiasm for the task or even just confirming receipt goes a long way. Better to say you’ll get back to someone by the end of the week and do so on Thursday than to say you’ll reply within 24 hours but take 48.’

‘Make your own network,’ Charles says, ‘whether that’s through law firm alumni, law school friends or fellow enthusiasts in your specialist field. It’s never too early to start making those connections, which may bear fruit later in terms of work or other opportunities.’

Her approach also acknowledges that what impresses others will change over the course of a career. ‘Talented young associates stand out by punching above their level of PQE,’ she points out. ‘When you get to 40, you no longer get to be “good for your age”. You have to be good in your own right.’

There is a strong personal and social side to making and maintaining the relationships that help a career. But what ‘works’ may need to change with time and circumstance, Gill reflects, especially if family commitments grow.

‘You need to stay in touch with clients and contacts, and before I had children this contact was invariably a drink after work,’ she says. ‘But that’s the only time a working parent sees their young children… This made me realise there are other ways of keeping in touch with a network or maintaining a profile. I’ve come to understand that using a wider variety builds a stronger and more resilient network.’

For example, she notes, writing an article or a blog can be done at home when children are asleep. ‘Morning coffees,’ Gill adds, ‘can be just as productive as a glass of wine at 6pm. I still catch up with people for that “sundowner”, but nowadays it’s not the only thing I do.’

The ability to build and maintain a network is hugely important in the world of private wealth, McDermott Will & Emery partner Dhana Sabanathan, notes. ‘It’s never too early to start doing business development,’ she says. ‘Networking becomes less daunting the more you do it. The private wealth industry is a small world so there’s a good chance your contacts will become your friends. Remember that as you rise through the ranks, so will your clients, contacts and peers… opportunities can come from the unlikeliest of places.’

Move on up

  • Manage and meet promises made to clients
  • Make your own network and spend time on developing relationships
  • Seek advice when you don’t understand an issue
  • Develop an unusual specialism
  • Seek out development opportunities such as secondments
  • Take time to learn about a client’s business before you meet them. Clients want advisers who share their enthusiasm
  • Improve numeracy and knowledge of business strategy
  • Be self-aware
  • Find a work-life balance
  • Be willing to take calculated risks

Making decisions

For what purpose, though, are you trying to develop your career? Clear thinking is important because, as Maund says: ‘The more senior you get, the more difficult it is to make big changes to your path, such as changing practice area, or moving from a small firm to a larger one.’

Maund qualified at a high street firm but four years later works as a corporate lawyer in the City. Even if there is no desire to change a working environment, or even firm/in-house department, there are important choices to be made. Bruce MacMillan has had a varied career, including time in a City firm followed by in-house posts in multinationals, finance, a start-up and legal regulation. He is now director of the Centre for Legal Leadership, established by RPC.

He says: ‘Be clear – what do you enjoy? Invariably, senior management positions involve overview, operation and people. The first thing to work out is: is that what you want to be, or do you want to excel as a technical specialist? If it’s the latter, you will likely cap out as a head of practice or, in-house, as something like [the senior] IP specialist.’

Seen this way, a career is a ‘Y-curve’, he continues: ‘The lower part takes you up to junior partner or (in-house) senior legal adviser. You then need to make a career decision. “Expert” takes you a shorter distance up. Management takes you in a less specialist direction.’

To take the management route, ‘accurate self-awareness’ is needed, MacMillan says: ‘You need to know your weaknesses and become less weak. It’s about becoming a rounded individual and understanding others – [being able to spot] what is in it for them and to engage with them.’

Such skills, he adds, ‘are underpinned with the ability to plan, budget and understand strategy and forecasting. There are few environments in business where you can get away with no ability to forward plan’.

Preferring to develop as a specialist need not limit a lawyer in their career, others observe.

‘The classic advice is to become an expert in one area of law – however obscure,’ Gill says. ‘This builds your reputation and gives you something which differentiates you from all the other lawyers. My (feigned) enthusiasm for a wayleave, which I followed up by explaining the difference between a wayleave and an easement to a telecoms partner, started me off in the complex inter-relationship between telecoms law and property law at an early stage in my career.’

Gill is a commercial property lawyer. Since then she has ‘won work and friends’ in that area, and ‘seen and done things well outside the range of normal property experience’. She adds: ‘As a junior lawyer I didn’t appreciate that with a new act or legal development, juniors stand just as much chance of becoming the team expert as anyone else.’

There may also be more opportunities in a particular area than an ambitious lawyer realises. Frazer Stuart’s passion for criminal law meant he originally saw his future in advocacy, but he is now legal adviser to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

He originally arrived at the commission on a six-month secondment: ‘The learning curve has been near vertical, but the commission has been incredibly supportive,’ he says. ‘The work is interesting and I would not have the opportunity at this stage in my career to be involved with serious and high-profile cases had I stayed a defence lawyer.

‘There are always opportunities for development. The commission recognises that by giving staff these opportunities, it might well lead to good people moving on to other things, but it encourages you to do so nonetheless.’

MacMillan cites a once-in-a-lifetime chance for in-house lawyers to develop skills and be noticed at the same time. ‘Brexit,’ he notes, ‘provides a huge opportunity for in-house lawyers to demonstrate their worth. Those opportunities are around strategy, business risk and business planning. The future will be about regulation and legislative change – how to predict and plan for it. There are three years of opportunities to demonstrate skill at that and to have a pivotal role.’ However, ‘if you get it wrong, if you aren’t good at that, you will be caught out’.

Balancing act

If following advice on career progression looks like it would add yet more to a bulging in-tray, MacMillan reminds ambitious lawyers: ‘A key piece within all this is establishing your work-life balance. You need to learn how to achieve that balance. You can’t get to the top by sprinting… What’s most importance is accurate self-awareness, knowing what you can do, and what you need to achieve it. You need to take and sustain ownership of your career – take stock and alter course when necessary.’

Most could do worse than follow Allen’s closing advice: ‘The law is a close-knit profession. Make friends not enemies along the way, since you will come across the same people at different times in your career and dynamics and roles do change.’