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Why ‘following your passion’ isn’t always the best advice

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Law can be tough, but it provides a better grounding than a job in a trendy start-up, argues an anonymous magic circle trainee solicitor

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What do you want to be when you grow up?

A question that is constantly posed to children in their youth, has gained increasing relevance in Generation Y’s ambitious, fast-paced graduate careers market.

As more graduates turn away from careers in the City, opting for glamorous roles in start ups and Silicon Valley, the question springs to mind: is a career in corporate law still a wise choice to make? As a trainee in the middle of her training contract, this is a question that is a key feature of this stage of my career. The answer, I believe, is a firm “yes”, for three key reasons.

Firstly, we operate in a world where credibility plays a huge role. A good degree is like a visa: it will get you in the door, but you need a passport to stay. The stamp of a good university, or for that matter, a good corporate takes you far in life. The experience gained can convert your visa to a passport; the skills you learn along the way can put you in great stead for a career in many industries.

An illustration of this point is the alumni of several law firms. Barack and Michelle Obama are two of the most widely cited alumni of Chicago-based global law firm Sidley Austin. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is one of the most powerful women in the world — and comes from a corporate law background. The current CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, spent the first five years of his career in corporate law.

Granted, such high profile figures may be extreme examples, but there are plenty of individuals who have had incredible success in many industries: politics, journalism and business, to name a few.

The level of training and experience is what allows these individuals to gain credibility, allowing them to not just get their foot in the door of what they choose to do, but having the ability to survive once there. Part of the process can also help formulate vision along the way: not many graduates straight out of university know exactly what they wish to do with their lives, and part of gaining this experience can often help formulate and hone a vision.

Obama’s novel, ‘Dreams from my Father’, clearly highlights his search for his purpose in his early 20s. He works on fundraising campaigns and writes articles about interest rate swaps, while seeking to hone his ambition and identify where he sees his role in the world.

Secondly, a key part of working in the City is the networking opportunities it brings, alongside the individuals you meet and interact with on a regular basis. Everyone has been through a tough vetting process to get there. The elite firms have a rigorous interview and review process, which means that the individuals hired are extremely smart and ambitious. Each new project presents a new opportunity and client exposure can be extremely valuable. This presents excellent opportunities to build relationships with individuals at the forefront of various industries.

Thirdly, the phrase “following your passion” is often cited as a defining feature of our ambitious Gen Y generation. Yet I think this isn’t necessarily the best advice you could be offered right out of university. Inherently a simplistic slogan, it can often erase the difficulties that most individuals face in their day-to-day jobs. Most industries require you to get good at what you do before you are entrusted with increased responsibility.

I am a firm believer that you should enjoy what you do, but we must not live in a world where we create an ideal in our head of our perfect job, as a fantasy of a world where one is surrounded by their passion every day isn’t necessarily easily translated into a reality. However, it is possible to seek out your passion through dedication, hard work and experiences. Often, working with the right attitude can be the route to finding the right work for you.

Furthermore, the City is aware of Generation Y’s attitudes, and is doing a lot to accommodate them. Constant feedback, alongside opportunities to get involved in pro bono and extra-curricular work is a key feature of life as a trainee and junior lawyer.

So, to return to my initial question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. This is a question that should be asked not only in our youth, but a question we should continue to ask ourselves at each stage of our career. This will ensure our job brings us closer to our passions, helping us achieve our ambitions each step of the way.

The author is a trainee solicitor in the London office of a magic circle law firm.