The Essentials to building a (successful) career in law

There is an inevitability about the legal profession. All the signs are, from a career perspective, it is headed West. I sense a slow, nervous trajectory of embracing change but not nearly fast enough to keep pace with market forces.

With this backdrop, career planning is crucial.

My entry into law was not my first career.

I worked briefly as an Engineer for British Aerospace and then moved into recruitment for nearly 5 years where I was fortunate to act for some high profile FMCG (“Fast Moving Consumer Goods”) brands.

My passage into law wasn’t pre-planned. It came on the back of some repeated, off the cuff advice, gaven in a crude way to a number of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ salespeople as they weighed up how they were going to extricate themselves from their current employer with their client database neatly tucked under their arm. I enjoyed this aspect of my job more than the act of placing candidates, and thought I might just enjoy what law offered. More importantly though it gave me the opportunity to escape back to my beloved Devon, England.

I had the great fortune, as a final year graduate, to spend a year at the University’s Free Representation Unit (“FRU”). More by accident than design, I ended up winning (with my best friend) the prize for the best FRU student. But this experience, and my general temperament, confirmed that I wanted to work in litigation. And that was how the early years turned out. I carried an employment and general civil case load.

Looking back, my early career choices stood me in great stead for my progress in law. The former gave me the analytical skills and the latter the dedication, perseverance and drive to make sure that no target was beyond me. In fact, I was surprised how target driven law was.

Are there any lessons in this and my later years experience for those currently embarking upon or just starting their career in law? Perhaps.

Lesson 1 ~ Only enter the profession if you are willing to give up at least 15/20 years of your life to it. And be prepared for it to change your very being.

Lesson 2 ~ Don’t think that you are going to be highly paid. Yes, if you are fortunate to make full equity partner of a decent size firm, then you might be well rewarded but there are many partners who are paid an average (notional) salary for their effort. And more than that when you look at the risk, you have to wonder if their career is worth the candle.

Lesson 3 ~ Yes, you will have heard it a gazillion times, but don’t chose law as your first career. Do something that you love. No seriously. I have always worked to the motto “If it’s not fun it’s not worth doing”. This might sound selfish but it has been my bedrock in times of (career) crises. There are only so many crappy days that one can put up with even if you think, at the time, you are being well paid (yes but in comparison to what – running your own business?).

Lesson 4 ~ Are you indispensable? Huh? Be prepared for the fact that playing the game is as important as being technically brilliant. In other words, be prepared for office politics, poor people skills, a lack of emotional intelligence and generally having to fight your way through the weeds. I am not cynical about my time in law, but little did I know how personality driven the whole process was and would become. I am not suggesting that you constantly suck up, but you need to cultivate a number of race faces to succeed all the way to partnership.

Lesson 5 ~ Enjoy self-promotion. BrandYou as enunciated by Tom Peters will be super important. If you are slow at coming forward then be prepared for the long haul.

Lesson 6 ~ Make sure you can work your home/family life around the job. It is not a 9-5 job if you want to get on. Your partner, children and close family need to understand that you will come under increasing pressure, and that just once in a while you are likely to snap or if you have the foresight take yourself out of the fray and go get some R&R.

Lesson 7 ~ Be super smart about the practice area that you pick. You need to assimilate all the changes in the market, and acquire a skill-set that takes you beyond the run-of-the-mill LL.B/LL.M student. Maybe an MBA would be a starting point or how about working in-house or in a start up business where you have had to think through more than just the usual, off the shelf stuff.

Lesson 8 ~ Work on your listening skills and being able to ask people for help.

Lesson 9 ~ Sharpen your IT skills. Get comfortable with the fact that more and more of the components that make up your job will be capable of being done by a machine.

Lesson 10 ~ Acquire a teacher. Make sure that you align yourself with someone who is prepared to give their time to mentor you. This is a dying art in legal practice but can make such a difference. Cut the flannel so far as the labels are concerned. Find someone who has seen it/done it and is willing, no strings attached, to give up their time to see you succeed.

Lesson 11 ~ Don’t be afraid to say No. There are too many yes people in law. I would love it if I had worked with a few more contrary types.

Lesson 12 ~ Live and die by the motto: Am I the most of anything. Don’t rest on your laurels and be prepared to work on your career every single day. If you think that billing is the sine qua non of the job then that will sustain you and your paymasters for a few years but sooner or later something will snap as the goal posts over a bonus or two get moved for the umpteenth time. You need to make sure that however you move down the career pipe that you grow and develop. Don’t put yourself in a position where the only career choice open to you is another me too job at another me too firm.

You career is ultimately what you make it (or of it); but don’t leave it in the hands of others.

Reach into your soul and practice law for you and not others. Peer pressure be damned. It has to float your boat. With work and life coalescing more and more, you have to be 100% sure that you can keep up the motivation for 10+ years. Absent your complete life and soul, you are likely to face an increasing battle with yourself to stay focused. And you may just find yourself slipping down the slope.

I have borne witness to many a well qualified laywer leave the profession because they ended up hating the business of law. Or those that ended up dropping one almighty clanger, which could have been avoided, destroying their fragile confidence still further.

If you are convinced you have chosen well then the very best of luck to you, but for everyone else don’t be afraid to keep talking to yourself in the mirror each morning and have the sense to reach out and ask for help before you finally give up on something that you once held so precious.

~ JS ~

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