Careers: why ‘Big Law’ or any law?

For the students amongst you, or anyone thinking about a career in law, have a look at the excellent post by blawger Tim Bratton, General Counsel at the FT.

Westminster and Warwick – two universities I’ve worked in, are very different law schools, but their students have tended to share the same aspiration for corporate work at a magic circle firm – ‘Big Law’.
Why? Money and status are undoubtedly significant motivations for at least some, but we also know that those kinds of aspirations are not necessarily the ones that will keep you walking into the office with a spring in your step ten years down the line. The essence of Tim’s post is a plea to consider what is going to bring the gleam to your eye or a smile to your face – to put it more academically, (in American legal ethicist William Simon’s words) what will have you experience what you do as ‘meaningful work’. That’s not necessarily an easy question to answer when you’re in your late teens or early twenties, with limited experience of any working environment, and its not just a question to ask if you’re thinking about ‘Big Law’. it’s worth asking whatever you might consider doing.

I don’t think, even in these days of debt and under-employment, its romantic to want your work to be an extension of your self-expression. I’m clear it makes a difference. It’s certainly a big part of why I chose academia over practice, though I probably wouldn’t have phrased it that way when I was making those decisions at 22 or 23! While there are plenty of lawyers who are satisfied with what they do, research shows that there are also those, particularly 5-7 years PQE, who are pretty miserable, but feel trapped by the salary, or the narrow niche work they are doing.

Julian Summerhayes (a solicitor turned business consultant and coach) in his response to Tim’s post, strongly endorses that same view, as I think would many of the lawyers I know:

‘If I was starting out now in law, I would ask myself one basic question: “Why law [as opposed to any other career]?”

What is it that is so special about buying and selling a house, preparing a will or even the more juicy end of the market? If all I could rely on in answering the question was the money – I wish a few more people were honest enough to say that – then forget it.

Go do something that inspires you. But if you see yourself contributing in a much wider context – doing good if that is not too altruistic – then consider if the partnership model (as currently constituted) will allow for that. Don’t just focus on the brand name of the firm but think about the clients, sectors and pro bono work they do. What really does float your boat? Can you marry it up with a career in law?’

Changes to the legal services market being ushered in by the Legal Services Act are also changing the employment game. I suspect that opportunities to train as a solicitor or barrister in traditional private practice will, as a result, continue to decline gradually, whilst opportunities to work as a paralegal or employed lawyer in other business settings will expand. And remember, this is in a context where less than 50% of law graduates currently are progressing to work in the legal profession. Clearly there are opportunities and threats here. Be prepared to be creative and flexible; look outside the box of traditional practice. In short, think about what really matters to you, you’re core values if you like, and what kind of work would be alligned with those values.


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