Taking your career beyond the law

Career coach and outplacement specialist Husnara Begum made a switch from practising as a corporate solicitor to journalism before launching her own business. She shares her tips for successfully moving to a career outside law.

The sad truth is that many solicitors fall out of love with the profession soon after qualification. But most stick with it, simply to conform. That should hardly come as a surprise, given the traditional career paths enjoyed by previous generations when partnership was easier to achieve and loyalty towards an employer guaranteed greater job security.

As soon as I secured my training contract in the 1990s with magic circle firm Linklaters, I immediately started looking ahead and picturing myself as a partner. The thought of leaving Linklaters, or indeed changing careers, did not occur to me. But as I approached three years’ PQE, I decided to quit law and move into legal journalism which, after careful reflection, I should have done at the beginning. That said, I have no regrets about trying law first. The transferrable skills gained as a solicitor specialising in corporate law have proven invaluable in all my roles since, as well as helping me launch my consultancy.

Change takes many forms. For some, the new scenery from switching law firms may be just the tonic. For others, moving from private practice to in-house or to a professional support lawyer role is enough. You could join a virtual law firm, or try your hand at freelancing as a legal consultant.

If you're still yearning for something different then explore non-lawyer positions in the legal sector. The ones I come across most frequently are support roles within law firms: HR, learning and development, PR, marketing and business development. Legal recruitment is also popular, and there’s the route I took - journalism/publishing. Another is teaching/lecturing on the LLB, GDL or LPC. The list is endless.

An even radical step would be to leave the sector altogether. Former lawyers in my network have switched to management consultancy, medicine, secondary school teaching, joined start-ups, or, like me, launched their own businesses - from floristry to domestic services.

In this article, I offer advice to help you decide whether or not to leave law, and if so, what to do next and how to get there.

Why do solicitors leave law?

Stress, being unhappy at work or a lack of job satisfaction are some of the key drivers for solicitors wanting a change in direction. Others include:

  • poor quality work
  • redundancy or being ‘managed out’
  • missing out on partnership or a promotion
  • team dynamics/fit
  • a feeling of disillusionment as a result of working long hours
  • serious illness or a change in personal circumstance, such as starting a family.

What do I need to think about before I decide to make the move?

Before making any rash decisions, do plenty of soul-searching. Considering the following will ensure changes you make are carefully thought through.

  • What aspects of your current job do you most enjoy/dislike?
  • What is preventing you from looking for a new role? Are they genuine barriers or psychological ones you've created?
  • If money were no object, what would your dream job be?
  • What are your short-, medium- and long-term career and life goals?
  • What are your key strengths and transferrable skills, and can you demonstrate them convincingly to a new employer?
  • Do you need to re-train? Are their any fast-track courses to update your current qualifications or gain new ones? If you had to go back to university, could you cope financially?
  • What is your attitude to risk?
  • What are your current financial commitments and can you afford to take a cut in your salary? If so, what minimum starting salary is acceptable to you? Beware not to confuse actual with perceived figures.
  • How does your family feel about you changing jobs/careers?
  • How do you feel about starting from the bottom of the career ladder and being managed by someone who is younger than you?
  • Who in your current network of contacts is worth turning to for help?

This list is not exhaustive – these are merely suggestions to get your thought process going and start discussions with people who can offer support and guidance.

Am I really ready to give up law?

It is often psychological barriers rather than practical considerations that put lawyers off changing careers. For many, losing the solicitor label and the perceived drop in status that may go with it is a major concern. Added to this is the feeling they have failed or wasted their time (and money), and the worry of being negatively judged by colleagues and contacts if they move out of the sector.

That was certainly a concern I faced when I decided to quit law for journalism. And if I’m being completely honest, it took me a while to feel comfortable with my new status. Indeed, even though my transition to The Lawyer was as smooth as it could have been (I secured my new role within weeks of leaving Linklaters), I still spent many sleepless nights wondering if I had made the right decision. This was exacerbated because at the time my younger brother, who also pursued a career in law, was excelling in his new in-house role and earning significantly more than me!

But how you perceive yourself is not how others see you. You may feel you've lost your identity or status along with your title, but the skills and knowledge you gained in your legal career will travel with you whatever choices you make, and may help you move into new roles of similar status.

Portfolio careers are becoming the norm as our lifestyles and indeed life expectancies increase, and are viewed with growing respect by both people and employers. Employers increasingly value breadth of professional experience – which also holds true if you later decide to return to the law. Perceptions of success are changing, but should ultimately be defined by you depending on what you want out of life, and not by society. And if you do feel judged by your peers, remember that those who genuinely care about you and understand your reasons will not be so quick to judge.

Perhaps a bigger barrier is the financial consequences. Many solicitors, especially those working at top commercial or City law firms, quickly get used to the hefty pay packet and the lifestyle comforts that comes with it.

Changing careers does not always mean a pay cut, but for many a lower salary is a reality that must be faced, at least to start with, and you will have to make some sacrifices. Be patient and you will reap the benefits you envisioned when you made the change. The odd wobble is completely natural for transitioning lawyers, but don't focus on the negatives. I have worked in the legal sector for almost 20 years and I am yet to meet a former lawyer who regrets changing careers.

If you decide to take the leap, you will need to be confident in your decision and resilient through the transition process. Make sure you have clear reasons for making the change, and clear goals, and focus on these whenever you feel uncertain. This confidence will help you communicate your decision to others.

It's wise to maintain good, positive links with people in the sector – although some solicitors will be incredulous about your decision or feel that you have slighted their profession, or alternatively be jealous of you, so diplomacy may be needed. You may also want to keep your name on the roll and keep up to date with developments in your area, at least in the short term.

I've made my decision to move on so where do I start?

Whether you decide to go it alone or turn to a career coach/counsellor for professional help, you need to figure out who you are: your values, what you want out of life, what you’re good at and what you enjoy.

There are plenty of online personality tests that can help with this. One of the most popular is the Myers-Briggs Type indicator, which will show psychological preferences in how you perceive the world and make decisions.

You could also ask family and friends who know you well and trust for their input.

With these activities, keep an open mind and don't decide in advance what you would like the results to be. A blank canvas should be exactly that: blank! Also, remember that constructive career planning should start with broadening your horizons – the funneling process will come later. So although some of your ideas may on the face of it sound a little far-fetched or indeed whacky, what harm is there in including them in your brainstorming?

What transferable skills do I have?

Now you understand your key motivators, interests and values, compile a list of all the skills and attributes you have gained in all your roles.

Don't simply list the skills required to be a lawyer: focus on yourself and what you're really best at, and, just as importantly, want to use in any future career. Don't be selective to start with – write down everything you can think of. Once you're done, whittle it down to your top five.

For me, one of the best aspects of working as a lawyer was interacting with people. And importantly, people skills and the ability to communicate effectively are key to a career in journalism and, indeed, legal recruitment. Other transferable skills that have followed me from job to job are: effective time management and delegation, attention to detail, and the ability to digest and analyse large volumes of information. For others, the list might include:

  • knowledge of the law and the legal industry
  • research skills
  • able to weigh up points and counter points
  • skilled in creating a logical argument and reasoned conclusion from a set of facts
  • a good communicator with people at all levels
  • able to work under pressure
  • a first-class memory
  • commercial awareness

How do I whittle down my options?

You now need to find out which career options will fit both your skillsets and desires (such as work-life balance, salary, working environment). Some common options more closely related to legal careers include:

  • non-fee-earning roles within law firms, learning and development marketing and business development – for those not ready to take the plunge and who want to stay in a professional services environment
  • legal journalism – suited to those who have strong people and writing skills
  • editorial in legal books, online content provision or looseleaf services – for those who want to continue using their legal knowledge and who enjoy writing
  • legal recruitment – for those with strong people skills and who enjoy selling
  • teaching on the LLB, GDL or LPC – for those who want to continue using their legal knowledge and enjoy working with young people

However, you may have ambitions outside the legal profession, in which case the world really is your oyster.

The most effective way of researching a new career to determine if it ticks your boxes is to ask someone who is already doing it. I am fairly confident that by simply browsing through your LinkedIn contacts you will find individuals who would be delighted to meet with you to discuss how they got into their current role, what they like about, what they dislike, etc. That said, use contacts wisely and avoid being overly demanding on their time or generosity.

Also, I would recommend saving your best contacts (those who are most influential and are potential gatekeepers or budget-holders) until you have a clearer idea of what you want to do next. One of my biggest regrets when I changed careers the second time round was meeting some of my more senior contacts too early, so that when I spoke to them, I came across as slightly confused rather than as a potential supplier or employee.

Should I register with an agency or go it alone?

The traditional job-search strategy – registering with recruitment consultants and posting your CV on job boards – may not necessarily work for career changers, as recruiters will typically favour candidates with conventional CVs and relevant experience. I recommend a more proactive approach, using your networks to identify leads or secure recommendations. Additionally, make yourself visible to potential employers by sprucing up your online profile – most importantly, LinkedIn. Lastly, selective speculative approaches to target employers may also be worthwhile.

Fitting job-hunting and career management into a busy working week is challenging to say the least. Indeed, so many lawyers I speak to tell me that they simply don’t have time to find a new job or that the timing isn’t right. As such, it is critically important to build time into your weekly schedule and then stick to it.

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