Making a legal career plan: how to avoid the biggest mistakes

Martin Underwood - Making a legal career plan: how to avoid the biggest mistakes

First, the elephant in the room - big corporate law firms pay the most. That's a big motivator for many, yet you would never say so in your application form. Money is of course important, but not the be all and end all; too many overlook the downsides it tends to come with (eg, longer hours, tighter deadlines and more stress). To find a satisfying career, you have to know what is important to you, what will be the right fit and not be swayed by the assumptions that so many of your friends and classmates might hold.

You may become one of those lawyers - and they do exist - who love the day-to-day practice of big law firms (as opposed to the theory of the classroom), the attention to detail required for reams of documents, the stressful, time pressured situations and highly demanding clients. They have a genuine interest in corporations and deals. If the above sounds like you, then great! If not, you need to get real about what you want from your legal career and avoid the pain of switching practice area or changing careers later down the line.

If you’re heading eyes-wide-shut into law because you’re uncertain about what you really want - or because you’re simply keeping your options open - you should take a moment to re-evaluate your options. It can be damaging, both personally and professionally, to move headfirst into law without taking a moment to explore your talents. If you’re uncertain, try getting the experience you need to find out what really motivates you and then act on it.

Be honest with yourself. Question your beliefs, your motivations, your actions and your direction. It may sound simple, but sometimes you need to challenge your values to see if they’re solid or just so much smoke. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that making those big decisions becomes much easier and, more importantly, you’ll have true insight into what you really want (or don’t want!). We’ve all heard the age-old mantra, "you can do anything with a law degree", but I believe the truth is double-edged; yes, you can do a lot with a law degree, but no, you can’t do everything with it - and you’re certainly not going to land your dream job just because of it.

Get out there and have a look around - don’t confine yourself to a one-dimensional view of your life and career; talk to people and try different vac schemes and work experience, based on your interests, which will propel you further. Don’t just get schmoozed or blindly accept something that happens to have fallen onto your plate; rather, try to meet the right people and ask the hard questions. Remember that any assessment process is two way and you want to find out that it is the right place for you; it’s your career and life, after all. Find out about different practice areas and try to match them to what you’re good at and will enjoy, considering some of the following key skills:

  • advocacy;
  • commercial awareness;
  • client contact;
  • problem solving;
  • research;
  • analysis; 
  • writing concisely;
  • drafting formal documents with precision;
  • oral communication;
  • attention to detail;
  • management and resolution of conflict; and
  • teamwork.

As an example, you probably want to avoid litigation unless you love advocacy. You can get really good at perseverating over the minutiae of each point, tripping up your opponents on obscure procedural points and mastering the art of delaying on the thinnest of grounds. Compare that to the real world where businesses want to serve the needs of customers quickly and easily.

As a lawyer, I was trained to believe that no other field is as demanding as law when it comes to the mix of intellectual challenge, prestige, money, great clients and interesting colleagues. Well, I have gone on to discover that there is a big world out there with many alternatives to law on offer. The less sure you are, the more it pays to keep your options open and an eye on how your legal background could appeal to different types of recruiter. Talking to a careers adviser or independent careers consultant (such as Life Productions) could help.

Stop now and think what you want from your life. Don’t be stuck thinking you have to choose between your money or your life at the end of the day.

Martin Underwood is the course producer at Life Productions, a career aspiration agency. He is running a free webinar on 16 June, 7:00pm-8:00pm, entitled "More than law - find a better career fit, in or out of the law". Find out more here

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