Work life matters: Career paths

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making an assumption that every lawyer is following the well-trodden path to Partnership – via many years of PQE and a fair degree of hard work, long hours and high performance (and luck).

This trap presents itself at the outset of a legal career.

The hierarchy is established. Senior lawyers have senior sounding titles.  Junior lawyers very much do not.  Trainees and NQs are by their very definition fresh-faced and lacking experience.

“Getting on” at the firm used to be a race to move between the levels to reach the heights and to give yourself a shot at becoming a Partner.

But times they are a-changing.  We are no longer in the world where this is the ONLY option.

Other roadmaps are now available.

Not everyone can become a Partner.

And now we also realise that not everyone WANTS to become a Partner.

That level of seniority brings with it a whole host of challenges and for a lot of people the trade-off between the benefits of partnership and the negatives just simply aren’t worth it.

Non-Partner senior roles are now more prolific.

In my experience of conducting staff engagement work with law firm clients, I regularly ask a number of questions about career paths and preferred routes.  In some firms up to 33% of Lawyers have no desire to become a Partner.  In some firms there are massive differences between sector specialisms (eg. Family vs Corporate vs Real Estate) and in some firms there are some stark differences by gender.  Men tend to be more focused on Partnership, but that’s not true in all firms.

So whilst some people still have the exceptionally high levels of drive and ambition to reach the very top, not everyone does.

And that’s healthy.

Imagine the chaos if everyone was battling tooth and nail to get to the top. Competition and internal back-stabbing would be rife.  Collaboration would be out of the window.  Organisational culture would fail.

Career paths are not only about job titles, status and salary increases.  Personal development in terms of skillset, responsibility and line management are equally as important and for many it’s what they really crave.

So, it’s hugely important that firms understand that they need to provide career paths for all staff and allow their people to develop and achieve their potential.

It’s wrong to focus your thinking too much on the legal side of the business. Fee earners get a lot of attention but the non-fee earners should not be secondary.  Those staff in business services / business support roles (Finance, Marketing, HR, IT etc.) should be nurtured and managed in exactly the same was as their legally qualified colleagues.

And the legal support staff (legals secretaries and PAs) should also get the same treatment. Their development is similarly important.

But the hierarchy for these groups is not so well-established.

Working in smaller teams is difficult.  There won’t necessarily be a specific path to follow.  There will be additional qualifications and professional development – but not the PQE ‘badges’ that lawyers pick up.  There will be opportunities. But they are rarer.

Some staff in these support roles find this difficult.

They crave progress and there can be a sense of dead-man’s shoes here (and dead-woman’s shoes too) – ie. there is no chance of getting a more senior role until John or Jenny decide to retire.

When people resign and decide to go elsewhere, it’s interesting to see how things change.

My data from Exit Interviews shows;

  • about 40% move to a similar role in another legal firm (something better suited to their needs and challenges)
  • 20% move to a different role in another firm (usually a promotion)
  • 20% take a similar role in a different industry (change in career to go in-house for lawyers or support staff choosing a new sector)
  • 20% choose a different role in a different industry (complete change of focus, career path or maybe an ‘age and stage’ change)

People have many more career path options available to them than they’ve ever had.  It’s about understanding your personal motivations and goals.  Striving for the top may be your plan.  Or entrepreneurship could be your bag.  Or you may be one of the unsung heroes… someone who does a brilliant job but has no massive yearning to be promoted and take on huge extra responsibilities.  You know what you do and how you add value. You are confident in your performance and that steadiness (and some degree of routine and stability) is important to you.  Your career path is yours.  You are happy.  And that’s the secret, surely.

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