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Come to a mid-career block? Here’s how to move on or up

Written by: Richard Simmons
Published on: 6 Sep 2015

    Mid Career Block article image

    As autumn sets in, are you thinking of moving up, around or away? How can mid-career professionals progress in private practice? And what are law firms doing to help them?

    Summer is coming to an end and it’s back-to-school time. But with no smart new exercise books to look forward to and the trainees looking younger every year, autumn is a good time for lawyers of all levels of seniority to reflect on where their career is going.

    Should you go for promotion? Is it time to move in-house? Can you develop at your current firm or is a lateral move a better option? Is there the opportunity to get that move to New York (or York) that you’ve been hankering after? Here are the things smart associates will be considering doing in the next year to advance their career ambitions, as well as advice from lawyers who have recently made a big career jump.

    It should also serve as a prompt for law firms looking to progress associates’ aspirations.

    Moving up: Making partner

    Build client skills
    For those that want to become a partner, doing the job right goes without saying.

    For juniors, knuckling down, meeting billable hours targets and concentrating on building up technical knowledge never goes amiss. But in the modern day, having good technical skills is the base standard.

    Being able to build a client following is the other critical factor. Junior lawyers should concentrate on delivering the best service possible so they can start to build a client base. Plus satisfied customers may well mention the ambitious lawyer in glowing terms to partners.

    “It’s not necessarily going out there and introducing new clients, even though that’s very welcome,” says Paul Robinson, director of human resources at Trowers & Hamlins. “But it’s certainly being able to become the go-to point for a client, where an individual is running transactions, and where the client is more than happy to contact them directly rather than the client partner.

    “If an associate has developed the relationship to an extent that they are the go-to person for that client, that really signifies something.”

    If associates can get two or three ‘trusted adviser’ relationships on the go, they are putting themselves in a good position.

    Apart from the willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, there are subtle client-handling skills that can be taught.

    “It’s more of a struggle for some associates than others,” acknowledges Robinson. “It’s having that confidence of knowing how far to take a conversation, how far to push things, when to push things and when not to.

    “In some conversations you go so far, reach the point where you can bring up a certain topic, but then you shy away from it.”

    Many firms provide training geared around these sorts of areas, and associates should be encouraged to find out what is available to them.

    Become part of wider firm life
    Some lawyers might prefer to separate work and personal life and spend time with their friends and family rather than their colleagues. But there should be a certain level of participation in the life of the firm if they want to be a part-owner in it.

    “They’ve got to put themselves out there and be keen to fit in with the culture and the spirit of the firm,” says Covington & Burling’s HR manager Kirsty Russell.

    Most firms look for something along the lines of ‘emotional commitment’ to the firm when they are sizing up potential partners.

    That does not mean lawyers need to attend every single social event, but organising a few team outings shows they are engaged.

    There are other ways to demonstrate belief in the firm – Russell cites participating in graduate recruitment activity as one example.

    Communicate your ambition
    Bragging about how they are going to be the next star rainmaker is not endearing, but too much modesty about their ambitions is not great either.

    “Associates need to be really clear and talk quite openly about it because otherwise people may jump to the wrong conclusions,” warns Addleshaw Goddard head of HR operations Niki Lawson.

    “State early that you want to be a partner,” agrees Gillian Coyle, Baker & McKenzie head of HR. “Being open about career ambitions will help to ensure that people give you the opportunities and support you to realise your career goals. They’ll invest in you because they know that developing talent for the future is important for every firm.”

    Bringing up the topic up in appraisals and mentioning it to supervising partners is also recommended.

    Get out and about
    If an associate is serious about being made up in a multi-office firm, they cannot just rely on the good word of the three partners they work with all the time. They will need people from elsewhere in the network to at least recognise their name when it gets put to the vote.

    “The internal profile is really important. There’s actually a lot of evidence that says if you’re known to people you can be more successful,” says Lawson.

    “An associate’s profile across the firm is important but that’s not to say they have to spend their time flying round the world to meet everyone,” adds Coyle. “It’s about getting exposure within their wider practice group and making sure they are thoughtful about how they manage that without taking their eye off what’s really important: the clients and delivering quality client service.”

    Most international firms have European or global conferences, which are a perfect opportunity to meet a lot of people within the firm at once. If an associate does go to a big firmwide conference, they should not just sit at the bar with their friends.

    “Don’t spend your time socialising with friends you already work with,” says Coyle. “Make sure you get to know partners and associates in other offices.”

    Members of their own practice group are most likely to be consulted when it comes to a partnership vote. But networking should not be treated as a job – mechanically doing the rounds having three-minute conversations and handing out business cards is not the way to
    impress people.

    Top up your business skills
    Everyone knows that lawyers need to have more than technical expertise these days, so equipping people with business knowledge is essential. “Potential partners need to think how they might acquire those skills – probably outside their firm,” says one managing partner.

    Associates should be encouraged to attend any training provided by the firm. If the firm does not have the relevant training on offer, external courses are an option.

    “Try to get yourself into the mindset of a partner before you are promoted,” advises Niki Lawson. “Getting to grips with financial metrics and what running a profitable business actually means is really important, not necessarily at two-years qualified but certainly once you are on that track to partnership.”

    Get a mentor
    Many firms assign mentors to help less senior lawyers along the way. If a firm doesn’t have one, or if a mentor doesn’t cut the mustard, associates can look for someone else.

    “Speak to someone you admire professionally and ask them if they would mind having a coffee to discuss how you can best take your career forward,” advises Addleshaw Goddard HR manager Katherine Rathbone.

    Get a mentee

    Having a good mentor is incredibly helpful in moving careers forward.

    But it is also good if an associate helps out those less experienced than themselves. Patience and a smile for someone stuck on a routine point is something firms look for in a potential partner or management role.

    Be nice
    It is easy to be cynical about this point considering some of the more psychopathic partners currently stalking the corridors, but some firms have officially written “being nice” into their partnership requirements.  

    Build a business case
    Firms need to be convinced as to why they should promote someone. That means thinking about what specialist skills an associate offers, who their clients are and how they can prove the strength of their relationships, as well as why the department needs another partner in the first place.

    Every firm uses a framework to determine who is good enough for consideration. This framework should not be a secret, but available for associates to view.

    “Associates should review their current objectives and make sure they remain relevant and aligned to the strategy of their team and firm. Where required, they can tweak these to ensure they are working towards the right goals,” adds Rathbone.

    “They should also look at their job profile and competencies and discuss with their supervising partner where they need to improve to meet the standards of the next role up.”

    Tidy up
    Those who can untangle legal knots that baffle all others can maybe get away with a messy office.

    If, however, they are the average associate, a tidy office will help them look more like a responsible potential leader.

    “It’s about acting like a role model and being thoughtful about their presence in the office,” says one HR head at a US firm. “Knowing where everything is and managing time and space properly demonstrates that. If they can’t get to grips with the basics then it’s unlikely they’ll get to grips with the demands of partnership.”

    A neat office may be a small thing, but it all helps.

    Get some presentation skills
    “I went to a seminar by a big international law firm recently,” one regional managing partner recalls. “It was the worst presentation I’d ever been to – some public-school twit standing behind a wooden lectern, with a jacket and tie on, droning on about professional indemnity insurance.

    “There was no recognition by that international firm that there are other ways of presenting. It was incredibly boring but people still think that because lawyers have specialist expertise, we should all be grateful when they stand up and dictate their wisdom to us.”

    The managing partner’s point: a bit of training in the art of presentation goes a long way. Firms would do well to get in a coach.

    Don’t do it for the money
    Money is nice but if that’s all that motivates someone maybe they should become a banker instead.

    The concept of partnership has become diluted recently but at most firms there still remains the idea that it is a group of people who are looking to build something together. If someone cannot buy into that, they should not bother applying.

    Moving around: Switching offices

    Maybe it is not the firm that an associate is tired of, but the location. Perhaps they long for the bright lights of London instead of the provincial grind, or are seeking respite from the City lifestyle. Maybe they would like to go abroad. If a firm has multiple offices there is the chance to make a move.

    Got on a transfer scheme
    A transfer programme is the easiest way to get a move overseas.  

    A one or two-year stint in a different office allows a lawyer to discover whether they really want to move there for good, and if it works out well and their new colleagues like them, there is a good chance they will be made a permanent offer.

    If there is no formal transfer scheme to a preferred destination, a different strategy is needed. If they want to go to New York, for example, they will need to find out about the office. What’s going on with their practice group there? Is it in growth mode?

    “Contact a peer at the office you want to transfer to and find out more about the practice and then speak to your partner,” advises Coyle. “On the whole, firms will absolutely support that move internationally where it makes sense for both offices.”

    But even moving between UK regions can be a challenge. There are many professional concerns to think about: is the quality of work going to be the same? How about the quality of the clients? Then there are personal considerations: house prices, schooling for the kids and so on.

    Partners and HR can help out with all these issues although associates need to think about the business case for a move – what will it offer the firm?

    Moving around: Switching practice areas

    Try and fall back in love with your practice area
    Every practice group has its own subsections and specialisms and associates often find themselves lodged in the wrong one.

    “It would be a good idea to reflect on the type of work they are doing and whether it’s that specific work they’re not enjoying, rather than the practice area as a whole,” advises Coyle.

    Requesting contentious employment matters rather than advisory work, for example, may work wonders – or at least provide some variety.

    If you want to move practices, the sooner the better
    Making the move should be done as early in a legal career as possible.

    “At NQ or 1PQE it’s quite easy, and at two years it’s still possible,” says Coyle. “After that it becomes more difficult because they’ve started to build up specialist experience. By four or five years PQE it starts to become a proposition that doesn’t quite make sense, because they’ve got to start from scratch and yet need to operate as a senior associate leading on client matters.”

    Options should be explored with HR because an associate will need to be thorough as to why their current department is not working out for them and have a really convincing case as to why another department is the one for them.

    “It’s thinking it through beforehand and saying, ‘I understand what work you do and this is how my skills could be used’,” says Lawson.

    Moving on: Leaving your firm

    Decide whether it’s time for a new job in the first place
    Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London, writes in Harvard Business Review that there are five key psychological signals that flag up that it may be time for a change: they are not learning; they are underperforming; they feel undervalued; they are only doing the job for the money; or they hate their boss.

    “Of course, there are many other valid reasons for considering a job switch, such as work-life balance conflicts, economic pressures and geographical relocation,” Chamorro-Premuzic writes. “But these reasons are more contextual than psychological, and somewhat less voluntary.”

    If an associate ticks one or more of the five psychological signals, though, it might be the right time for them to start looking for a move.

    Writing a list with the pros and cons is always a good idea – someone may hate their boss but if they are learning a lot from them at the same time, the positive may outweigh the negative.  

    Tell your firm you want to leave
    If a lawyer is thinking of moving on, should they tell their current firm? They might fear that if they make their intentions known, the firm will get angry and partners will stop giving them work as they search for a new job. In fact, it is best to be open.

    “My strong advice would be to tell their firm,” says Coyle. “Realistically, law firms cannot retain every associate. People leave for all sorts of reasons, but it’s better to leave in a constructive way.

    “I’d say the majority of partners will react sensibly, despite their disappointment that an associate is leaving.”

    The HR department can advise on how best to discuss career goals with a partner. If it’s a move in-house they are after, it makes total sense to talk to your firm – between them, the partners have a huge client base and lots of contacts and can really help to find a dream in-house position.

    But even if they want to move to another firm, there is still a benefit in being honest.

    “Quite often somebody resigns and then we have the conversation around what factors are pushing them to leave,” says one HR professional. “Often we’ll resolve the problem after the resignation, but by that time it’s too late.”

    Being open gives the firm the chance to address any issues. Even if an associate stills ends up resigning, they will have done so in an adult and constructive way – something bosses will remember if they are across the table from them in a couple of years’ time.

    Have a convincing reason for your move
    “One of the things I’m really looking for when I’m interviewing potential lateral hires is the right motivation for their to move,” says Robinson. “Why are they leaving their current firm? Is their reason for coming here the right one, and is going to take their career in the right direction?”

    This is not always an easy thing for a firm to find out from an applicant.

    “You can ask them the technical questions but if you can discover their motivation, that’s what’s going to keep them here in five years time rather than seeing them move on again,” adds Robinson.

    Are they moving to a smaller firm for a better work-life balance? Does that mean they think they will be able to coast?

    Or are they moving to a larger firm? Does that mean they are just coming for the money?

    Whatever their objectives, they need to think deeply about where would actually suit them and be good for their long-term careers, rather than shooting off applications to every firm in a certain bracket.

    Think about your target firm’s clients
    Doing homework on a firm before interviewing there sounds like an obvious point, but it bears repeating.

    “What really stands out are those associates who are attuned to what kind of markets we are working in and what kind of client they would be working with,” says Lawson. “That’s not just looking at our website, although we have a suite of information there, but thinking about what’s going on in the wider world is something we really test.

    “Being able to talk about the external factors that clients are facing is something that will really speak to the partners, because that’s what they’re thinking about: what the clients are going to need from a law firm and where we can be a trusted adviser to them because we understand what they are going through.”