Changing the Course of Your Legal Career within the Legal Profession

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This article is intended to give you some ideas about changing the course of your legal career within the legal profession. You may have qualified as a lawyer, practiced for a while and then decided for a variety of reasons that your chosen career is not as you anticipated or wanted, and you are now considering making some adjustments. If you still want to practice as a solicitor, but would welcome a fresh challenge or a change of scene, perhaps moving to a different type of practice area, then this article describes some options.

There has never been a greater range of opportunities than at present. A burgeoning E.U. offering closer economic and political affinity, has afforded scope for qualification and practice in all the countries of the E.U. An obsession with competition and expansion has extended the range of openings available to lawyers. In the competitive world of business, size matters, and the trend towards multi-disciplinary practices involving law and accountancy may offer broader horizons to solicitors who prefer to work in a multi-professional team.

First though, it is interesting to explore the reasons why practitioners change course within the profession. Do they jump or are they pushed? Is the mobility we are witnessing within the profession just a reflection of the modern world where people do change career several times within their working lives, or is it something else?

The vast majority of those who qualify as solicitors proceed to private practice in a law firm. After completion of a traineeship they gain employment as a legal assistant (the first rung on the ladder) and they can then progress to an associateship, a salaried (or junior) partnership and then full (or equity) partnership. Until partnership is reached, the solicitor is employed. Those who aspire to have a measure of control over the firm, a vote in policy and management, and a share in the profits will want full or equity partnership. There was a time when that status could not be expected until you had reached your 40s or 50s but the age profile of the profession has shifted significantly in recent years putting increasing pressure on the promotion ladder. Solicitors are now expecting to be partners by their early 30s. As Cyril Glasser (ACLEC 1998) pointed out, "it is now difficult to find anyone over the age of 55 in city practices".

Inevitably this means that the profession has a relatively young and dynamic profile, but it also means that there are many lawyers in their late 20s who are concerned that their ambitions of partnership will be thwarted until those in the age group of 35 to 55 move on. This is just as much of an issue in the small to medium sized firms (i.e. firms of between 6 to 15 partners) where, unless a prospective partner is injecting capital into the firm, it may not be financially viable to take on another partner, as it is in the large city firms where efficiency drives and down-sizing dominate management policy. The age "bulge" has been given as a reason for firms being reluctant to recruit older trainees-it is argued they will make disgruntled assistants as they will hold unrealistic expectations of early promotion.

If you are considering a move it is always worth taking time to reflect on whether you need to move outside law altogether or whether a "sideways" move might not be sufficient. Every firm is different and even if your current job is not providing satisfaction it is worth exploring options in other firms. It may be that there is nothing inherently problematic with the work that you do but that you are experiencing difficulties with some of your colleagues. It may be that the ethos or culture of the firm does not suit you and that you would thrive in a different environment. If you feel like a move, speak in confidence to senior people in other firms who may be able to offer advice or even a post, or discuss your position with one of the many agencies that exist to recruit legal staff. They advertise regularly in all the professional journals and, even if they do not seem to have any suitable posts, if you provide them with your C. V. and a note of the type of firm in which you are interested, they can notify you of any vacancies that arise.

Just as there are varied office cultures within private practice, there are also distinctive differences between private practice and public service or industry. Both public service and industry have particular reasons to promote attractive working conditions for their staff. Organizations that are dependent on public funding are accountable for their expenditure, and there is usually a strong union presence to negotiate pay and benefits. Industry, too, tends to have better internal structures for all aspects of working conditions. There is a clear recognition of the market advantage that can be gained by investing in people: retention of good staff is a primary objective. Policies are implemented to secure that objective, including transparent promotion procedures and staff development opportunities. In contrast, although some forward-thinking private practice firms have established programs that support and encourage good employee relations in areas such as parental leave, private pensions, job-share schemes, continuing professional education and sabbaticals, these are the exception rather than the norm and tend to be confined to large firms in London and the major cities in England.

There are a large number of public appointments filled by solicitors, advocates and barristers. For example, all full-time chairmen (regrettably this term is used in the legislation irrespective of the gender of the appointee) of Child Support Tribunals, Medical Appeal Tribunals, Employment Tribunals and Mental Health Commissioners must be legally qualified, and only those with substantial experience of the area of law in question will be considered for appointment. Normally the level of experience required is a minimum of 10 years but exceptional candidates with less experience may be considered. In addition to full-time chairs, there are a number of part-time appointments available.

Legal appointments of the type mentioned above tend to be made on a United Kingdom basis and as such it is the Lord Chancellor's Department in London that carries responsibility for appointments. While adverts are occasionally seen for such appointments, it is possible to write directly to the Lord Chancellor's Department to enquire about vacancies.

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