Why Wannabe Lawyers Should Learn To ‘Pivot’

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By Alex Aldridge on

Initially, I wasn’t sure about applying this idea to the realm of legal careers – and considered passing it on to our (spoof) tech correspondent i@n davison. But on reflection, I think it’s worth writing about seriously. So at the risk of alienating the hard-bitten cynics among you, here is a hopefully not too cheesy blog about why the entrepreneurial concept of the “pivot” – a term first used in this sense by Eric Ries in his book ‘The Lean Start-up’ – can be useful to law students and junior lawyers.

First of all, for those of you uninitiated in start-up industry jargon, a pivot is when a fledgling business suddenly changes direction by homing in on something that it is especially good at. Many high profile businesses pivoted before they became successful. For example, Instagram went from being a fairly unpopular location-based social network called Burbn (with a popular photo-sharing element) to being just a photo-sharing service. And Twitter emerged out of a struggling podcasting company as a desperate last throw of the dice. Both were capable of performing this dramatic change in direction because they were lean and nimble – unlike big organisations.

OK, you’re probably wondering how all this applies to law, but stay with me. Now, for me the concept of the pivot is much broader than just the start-up scene. Isn’t a pivot, at its core, about someone who is relatively unencumbered committing themselves to a goal, then doing everything they can to make a success out of that original act of commitment after plan A hasn’t worked out? One example of this would be a student deciding to go to law school with the aim of becoming a lawyer, then not getting their first choice job, but using their legal education to take them somewhere else that’s still good.

At the risk of boring you with a very brief account of my own career, that’s what I did when as a 26 year-old I decided to try to become a lawyer – and failed. Back then, in a benign job market, most of my law school contemporaries went straight into training contracts or pupillages. But during interviews I found that I didn’t really fit in as a lawyer, and moved – via a number of what I’d term pivots – from BPTC graduate to serious legal journalist to monger of scurrilous legal gossip (and owner of my own start-up – OK, Legal Cheek is no Twitter, but it’s mine!). Each time I changed course, I did so by focusing on what I was best at or most enjoyed (usually the same thing) and went off in that direction, ditching everything else.

Now, as a misfit, I’d probably have been better suited to graduating in the uncertain economic climate today’s wannabe lawyers find themselves in. That’s why I reckon those without jobs lined up can probably learn something from my unconventional career to date.

Which isn’t to say that they should all become journalists (an industry that’s even more screwed than law) or bloggers (hard to make it pay initially). They might still become lawyers – just not the magic circle trainees they’d hoped to be (which isn’t to say they couldn’t arrive at a magic circle firm later on in their careers – note the rise of Linklaters’ co-head of private equity Richard Youle who got a 2.2 and began his career at a small firm in Hull). Or perhaps they could use their paralegal experience to go into business, like Bar graduate Aiden Brindley, who started up the Baby Barristers recruitment firm using the experience he’d gleaned in the post-BPTC netherworld. Hell, they could even follow the route of Gerard Butler who went from depressed trainee with a drinking problem at Edinburgh firm Morton Fraser to become a Hollywood actor.

Alright, that latter example is far-fetched, but you get the point. By going to law school you’ve undertaken an act of initiative. You’ve created an incentive for yourself to do something interesting with your life. So rather than beat yourself up about not liking your job, or failing to get a TC or pupillage in the first place, think about what you’ve learnt about yourself during the journey. Then stay optimistic and take the opportunities as they come your way – however unexpected.