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Can one wrong career move damage your future in law? How can you plan ahead to avoid your career ambitions sailing clear out of view? When should you start mapping out your ambitions?

I’ve always felt that legal is an unforgiving industry; one wrong career move can be detrimental.

We often see junior lawyers in ‘workhorse’ roles - where work being dripped down to them from above while the fees are being accounted for in the partner’s billing. Often, such roles look fantastic on paper but in reality leave practitioners feeling bereft – either because the billings aren’t great or because they’re not doing the kind of work they wanted. These lawyers are often the ones that have failed to create a 5-10 year career plan and have found themselves drifting in roles they now realise aren’t for them.

It’s up to you to take control of your career and helping to shape your future, NOW. Employers aren’t responsible for that - you have to build your career. Sit down and think about where you want to be in the future – what kind of role you want, in what type of working environment - and then start mapping out how to get there. Every role you take should be a stepping-stone towards that end goal. This is the basis of your 5-10 year career plan.

For example, if you’re an NQ and want to become a partner, managing a team in property, you need to think which kind of route will suit you to go down. If you go down the city firm route then does your face fit, are you prepared to work late, go for drinks after hours and network – will you put the leg work in? The City firm culture is often quite faceless so if a partner is looking at two similar candidates for a promotion, how they tell you apart? Most likely work ethic and ‘best fit’. Whereas in a West End firm, the distinction here would likely be billing figures and client relationships.

Think ahead

I always say to candidates, think where you’d like to be in 10 year’s time and then plan back from there so, if your ultimate aim is to be a partner heading up a team, sit down, write it down and plan backwards.

Just like a regular car service, professionals need to MOT their career plan every six months. Ask yourself: how is my career going? What do I need to do to stay on track? Where do I need to be and; is this career plan still relevant to me? Really give yourself the time to plan.

I find that the candidates who plan ahead are those who end up with the right early placements in terms of their long term career aims. Of course you can overcome one wrong career move but it may add two more years onto your CV before you get to where you need to be. Lawyers are so risk averse that this situation may not be palatable for all.

Candidates that find themselves wanting to leave their current role sometimes face the dilemmas of ‘shall I move now - even if I’ve not been working here for long?’ ‘Would that look bad or should I stick it out and then leave?’ ‘Would that look even worse?’ It’s a tough call but my advice is: if it’s not working, move straight away. You can then tell potential employers that you realised the role wasn’t working for you and you fixed it; carefully aligning your next move to your long-term career plan which can only be reassuring for your next employer.

In my view, one of the biggest mistakes a candidates could make is to prioritise the financial rewards of a role (accepting one role over another on the basis of a higher salary being offered) over the role’s alignment with their long-term career plan. What needs to be a priority in the short term is a role that allows to you to achieve your ‘end game’ – whatever that may be. Realistically money is a driver (not only for lawyers) but it has to work for you tomorrow as well as today.

Be bold: ask the right questions.

How do you know if the firm that’s interviewing you is the right one? Ask! It surprises me that candidates don’t always ask the right questions about the culture and vision and future plans for the firm at interview stage – even when encouraged to! This could be a confidence thing but asking questions about the business is such an important part of the candidate’s fact-finding process - I actively encourage it. Why wouldn’t you do your due diligence and take the time to get to know the firm? It’s your career, your future - own it!

When should I start drafting my career plan?

As soon as you can, from LPC onwards. Consider what area of law you really enjoyed during the LPC and make a clear decision on the kind of area and firm culture you’re looking to develop in, today and in 5-10 years to come. Don’t leave it until you’re a Newly Qualified solicitor. A few NQ candidates come to us with a clear role in mind but if they haven’t had a lot of exposure to that area of law as a trainee then it’s increasingly hard for us to place them in their chosen field.

A note for employers: sadly we don’t see much loyalty from NQs to the firms that helped them gain a training contract. NQs are a lot slicker than they used to be about their careers and will quickly move if they have concerns about opportunities and plans at this early stage.

I think I need to move, what do I do next?

Before speaking to a recruiter, you need an idea in your mind about where you want to go. Great recruiters will help present the options available to you but they can’t second-guess you and – as I said – you need to (and should want to) take control of your own career.

Then speak to a recruiter – they will know better than anyone what the market is like. They hear all the good and bad elements of different firms, what the different working environments, opportunities and rewards are and will match you to the right interview. If you work with a good recruiter, you’ll never have a badly positioned interview.

The days of people having a job for life are long gone. You need to own your career, think about where you want to be and review your career plan every 6-12 months to ensure you get the role and lifestyle that’s right for you now and in the future. 

Jason