Yes I’m a City lawyer, but the gruelling hours just aren’t for me
Once upon a time, the dizzying heights of partnership were what law students, trainees and associates all desperately aspired to reach. Who could blame them? The prestige, the power, plus the long, lavish, boozy client lunches (taken while your assistants stay behind at the office grafting).
It remains a widely-held assumption that every young lawyer naturally wants to reach those dizzying heights, yet it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the career aspirations of today’s young lawyers differ quite substantially from the goals of their forebears.
For many, slaving away over mundane tasks — regardless of the return of a high salary, expensive material possessions and status — just isn’t what life is all about. More and more millennials value work-life balance and achieving career satisfaction through doing something that matters above high pay and promotion. They want to feel like they matter, not that they’re selling their soul. What’s more, with an expansion in education in recent decades increasing the talent pool of bright and gifted lawyers and with clients getting more sophisticated and more demanding, a trainee qualifying in 2017 wanting to make partner really does have the odds stacked against them.
As a junior associate at a City law firm, I look at many of the partners who give me work and know instantly that their life is simply not for me.
The stress, the gruelling hours, the ultimate responsibility for mistakes made by your juniors (however skilled they are), the ultimate accountability before the courts or disciplinary bodies. I know that if I were ever given the nod and trusted with the keys to the partners’ dining room, I would be constantly anxious that I wouldn’t be able to bring in the big bucks that I’d persuaded my firm I could. And if I wanted to make a shedload of money, why would I give my life and soul to a law firm when I could get paid far more at a bank or a hedge fund for the same stomach-churning stress?
As the years go on, law firms wanting to retain the best talent will do well to remember that dangling the prospect of partnership won’t be enough to make their talented junior staff go to hell and back in their name like it once was. If they’re sensible, they’ll think of innovative ways to attract and motivate this generation of lawyers so they take full (yet fair) advantage of their talents.
But for those bright juniors who are currently starting out but for whom the burdens of partnership do not appeal: what then? What are their options?
1. A consultant/‘of counsel’ role
There’s already some evidence to suggest firms won’t simply kick an old hand to the kerb if they don’t want to become a partner. Striking a deal with your firm under which you’re treated and remunerated better than the average associate and given the swanky title of “consultant” or “of counsel” on your email signature can be quite appealing and is definitely worth considering.
2. Becoming a professional support lawyer
The technical brains of the average law firm department, these learned bookworms can often be lifesavers for junior lawyers who are not being supervised and who have no idea what they’re doing. Operating away from the frontline might prove frustrating for those who thrive on the cut-and-thrust of clients and deal-doing, but being the hub of knowledge and (in many cases) training within a department might appeal to those who get a buzz from all things academic.
3. Go in-house
Looked at wistfully among many private practice lawyers as a realm where colleagues and clients are nice, you get to leave at 5pm and there are no timesheets, there are few private practice lawyers who have not considered the prospect of moving in-house at least at some point in their careers. For the lawyers particularly keen to give something back or to find meaning in their work, working in-house for charities or for the Government Legal Service shouldn’t be overlooked.
You might be holding out for your firm to offer you an attractive of counsel or consultant role. But like many such requests, you might only receive wishy-washy non-committal replies from your superiors. If so, it might be worth either moving to another firm more receptive to the fact that you and others may not want to become a partner or even moving to a smaller firm which doesn’t place so much emphasis on rising to the top. Your firm may have conditioned you to believe that leaving before becoming a partner is a fate worse than death. But go boldly forth and who knows what you might find.
5. Leave law for an alternative career
You might not believe me when I say it, but there is a vast multitude of possible alternative careers out there just waiting for someone with your skills and expertise. It’s your life and if the law is no longer giving you what you truly desire, you owe it to yourself to break free and go and do what you truly love.
Unnamed Lawyer is a non-law graduate from a Russell Group university, who crossed over to the dark side and converted to law. He is now an associate in the commercial property department of a City law firm.
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