Why your legal career is a lot more flexible than you might imagine
“You’re wasting your time.”
That was the response of one recruiter when approached by a lawyer with 18 years’ City experience who was looking to find a more generalist role. Her last role was as a commercial litigator, followed by a five year break. As far as the recruiter was concerned, her only option was to go back into her box.
Lives are Long and Messy
Let’s put careers to one side for a moment and think about our lives. As Lynda Gratton points out in her fabulous book, The 100 Year Life , very few of us will have a “job for life”. The days of gaining an education, working in one job, followed by a comfy retirement are long gone. In truth, lives rarely looked like that for women anyway.
I know from my own experience how careers can be derailed. I left a successful career when my children were young and I couldn’t juggle family and career. Sadly, no one told me they wouldn’t be your forever. Fast forward six years and I found myself scrabbling around wondering how to get my career back on track. Like the aforementioned lawyer I couldn’t go back to my previous career as a globe trotting management consultant. And like her I was facing twenty years’ ahead when I knew I could make a difference. Somewhere.
Play the Long Game
The key, I have found, is to play the long game with your career. This means really understanding what you have to offer, drawing on not just your experience but all of your intangible assets and being strategic about the choices you make.
Pivot before you Leap
Recently, I spoke to three women who found new roles through the Reignite Academy. I wanted to understand their experience and draw out common themes about what works when you’re relaunching after some sort of career hiatus. One of those themes was the way they had pivoted, using their past experience to move to a new but not totally unfamiliar role.
From Private Practice to In House to Freelance and Back Again
Anne had a successful private practice career and had already had to pivot from one industry to another as the economy shifted. Finding her options to progress limited after a recession, she moved to an in house role in Telecoms, a sector she knew well. In order to succeed in a rapidly changing market, she had to quickly learn a whole new set of regulatory requirements.
When her employer was engulfed in the Enron crisis, her understanding of these regulations and knowledge of complex outsourcing contracts enabled her to find a new role as GC at a global outsourcing company.
Eventually, family commitments put a strain on her ability to put in the hours required in this role but the breadth of her experience and ability to adapt meant that it was relatively easy for her to take on a freelance role for a while.
Years later, and missing the quality of work and development opportunities provided in private practice, she returned to Macfarlanes as a Senior Associate in their Commercial team. A full circle move. Ten years away from private practice and whilst communication methods might have changed, much is the same.
A New Direction in a Familiar Field
Claire, on the other hand, took a complete break from her career as a dispute resolution lawyer.
She had been out for fourteen years when she began to think about options to return. Unsure about what direction to take, Claire joined our “Future Proof Your Career” course. Through this, she was able to identify that she still loved the law and would enjoy a career in that space, though not in a fee earning role.
Joining Travers Smith’s Dispute Resolution team as a knowledge lawyer enabled her to explore those options. Whilst in many ways, she describes this as a “soft landing”, free from the pressures of billable hours, in many ways it wasn’t soft at all. Knowledge lawyers, by definition, have to have the facts at their finger tips and it was a steep learning curve.
Inevitably, Claire had to work closely with the Learning and Development team and it was whilst on secondment here that she saw her next opportunity. She seized the chance to “push at an open door” and now has a permanent role in that team.
Adding a New Skill Set, Taking on a New Challenge
Finally, Vanessa, had been a real estate lawyer for many years when she felt that she needed a new challenge. She initially joined a legal tech company who needed someone who knew how law firms worked. She was thrown in at the deep end and, not being from a tech background, had to quickly learn not only the jargon but how their processes worked.
Once that company was established, she returned to legal practice for a short while but felt unchallenged and in need of something new. She trained in coaching and leadership development and set up her own company, Legal by Design, to offer leadership courses for lawyers.
Like Anne and Claire, Vanessa eventually found that something was missing. She had plenty of flexibility and interesting work but wasn’t being stretched. And she wasn’t using the legal expertise she had spent so long acquiring.
Vanessa began to explore alternative options until an opportunity arose to join a fast growing, specialist Real Estate Investment company, A.S.K. Partners. They were and are a small, ambitious, and energetic company, led by founders for whom “having a sense of humour” is a pre-requisite for any person joining the team. It’s an open plan office, and whilst Vanessa’s role is primarily focused on legal matters, everyone has to know a little bit about everything. In her words:
It’s intense. It’s pushing me out of all sorts of comfort zones …it has set alight something new. I fell like I am discovering myself with A.S.K. at a really interesting time in my life.”
Talking to Vanessa, Anne and Claire, and thinking about the experience of other candidates who have found ways to carve out new roles after a break, here’s what I’d draw out as some key messages:
- You are not your job title. Your previous roles have provided you with a set of technical skills, knowledge, soft skills, experience and wisdom that can be deployed in several different contexts. This includes your experience beyond that job role.
- Be aware of and nourish your intangible assets: your networks, your ability to learn, your social connections and your fitness and health. All of these are invaluable when you are ready to relaunch.
- Be strategic and play the long game. Remember, your next step is just that: your next step. It doesn’t need to be the end point, it just needs to set you in the right direction.
- Be prepared to experiment. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Good enough is just that. Moving is better than getting stuck.
- No one cares about your career more than you do. Find advisors you trust, ignore voices that tell you you can’t, and be prepared to take this into your own hands. You can do this.