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Approaching five years PQE? – It’s time for a career spot-check

 
Lawyers approaching the five year post qualification mark tend to use this milestone as a time to take stock of their career. It is seen as a good time to assess whether you are truly happy in your current role and direction, and whether it is likely to deliver on your ambitions over the next five years.

We are not necessarily talking about lawyers who are unhappy in their current role, it’s about assessing where you want to be professionally in the coming years. In fact a good proportion of the lawyers we speak to conclude that their current role/firm can satisfy their mid-term goals. 

So what about you? Have you given your career a mini spot-check as you edge towards that five year PQE mark?

The starting point is to work out what is important to you now and what you anticipate being important to you in the long term (of course that latter can change with time). We tend to find that, remuneration aside, the biggest considerations for lawyers at this stage centre on one of the following:
 
(1) Progression 
(2) Work/life balance and flexibility
(3) Private practice Vs In-house
 
Let’s examine each of these areas so that you can give your own career a mini spot-check.

(1) Progression prospects – Climbing the ladder

Approaching five years PQE

The first question to ask yourself is “Do I want to be a Partner in a law firm” Yes or No?
 

“No”

 
If you’re starting to feel that the answer to this question might be “no” then don’t worry – you are not alone. There is an increasing number of lawyers who are less attracted by the idea of partnership and the responsibility that comes with it.
 
That is not to say that you are not ambitious, but maybe that your motivators and ambitions have changed. If you’re more motivated by quality of work than responsibility and management, is your current firm allowing you to focus on the fee-earning and client side of your role? The motivators in sections (2) and (3) below might strike a chord with you.
 

“Yes”

 
Others do remain completely focussed on reaching the partnerships milestone. If you fall into this category there are two further questions you need to ask at this stage in your career:
  • Am I realistically going to reach partner at my firm in the next five years?
  • And the even bolder question – Do I want to be a partner at this firm?
If you are unclear on either of these questions, then it is time to take stock. Remember, if you leave a lateral move until a later point in your career, firms will expect more from you. You’ll be a more senior, more expensive hire so will have to expect elevated scrutiny around the strength of your network and client following.
 
A lateral move later on in your career will also require you to re-establish yourself internally and this can take time. That is why the four/five year PQE mark can been seen as the perfect time to take the plunge, as it gives you ample time to establish yourself on both fronts.
 
Recruitment decisions at the four/five year PQE mark are more centred on expertise and ability and less on external network – of course showing an appetite for business development is a plus. Equally, at this time in your career, firms will still see you as fairly malleable – if you are looking to make the step up into a larger firm it is not too late. It may become trickier to do so the longer your career progresses.
 
As for the second bullet point, if you are already having doubts about your current firm then it is definitely time to take stock! Perhaps you’ve seen some of the frustrations and red tape the partners at your firm face. In this case a move to a smaller firm may work. Some may see this as a risk but being part of a smaller team can expedite your path to partnership. You’re also likely to get a lot more autonomy, allowing you to develop your own brand and client base.
 

(2) Work/life balance and flexibility 

 
Your priorities may have changed. What might have seemed like a great lifestyle and career path as a junior solicitor might not seem so attractive any more. Working at the very best firm and acting for the very best clients often comes with a compromise – your own free time.
 
The search for a better work/life balance is without a doubt one of the biggest reasons lawyers register with Michael Page Legal. This has been even more evident in recent years. As the market picked up post-recession, a lot of teams suddenly needed to recruit en masse to meet client demand, but soon realised there was a lack of quality talent. As a result, talented junior lawyers have been under immense pressure, often working very long hours and weekends. Sure, some might say that this is part and parcel of being a lawyer but many have realised that it doesn’t have to be the norm.
 
We’ve helped a large number of lawyers make a move before the five year PQE mark – moving to firms with a genuine focus on flexibility and policies such as part-time hours, remote working and job sharing. It’s not an urban myth – these firms really do exist! What has been refreshing for a lot of these lawyers is that they have not had to compromise on the quality of work and have actually enjoyed a lot more client exposure.
 
A lot of teams still remain bereft of quality mid-level lawyers due to the recession and natural attrition. We are seeing a lot of the more regional/national players snap up talent from the larger firms by allowing more flexible working.
 

(3) Private practice Vs In-house

Approaching five years PQE?

Lawyers often see ‘in-house’ as the perfect escape from the headaches and hazards of private practice. After all, doesn’t life as an in-house solicitor allow you a more manageable work/life balance and the chance to move to move away from a KPI/chargeable-hours culture?  
 
It really depends on the in-house organisation and role. We’ve certainly seen a lot of private practice lawyers move in-house and never look back. They feel like a valued part of the wider commercial team and a lot closer to the commercial rationale of the legal advice given.
 
Equally, we speak to in-house lawyers who have longer (and at times more stressful) working days now than they did in private practice. You really need to think carefully about what is motivating your desire to move in-house and whether you have found the right role for you.
 
It is certainly an option to be thinking about as you approach five years PQE. The more senior in-house roles tend to prefer someone with previous in-house experience, whereas lower level roles can often be more flexible thus allowing a lawyer to make that first jump from practice to in-house.
 
Whatever you decide to do at this stage you have a wide array of options in front of you and are in a position to make choices about the mid and long-term trajectory of your career.
 
Contact Conor Farrell, Manager at Michael Page Legal for a confidential discussion about your career opportunities.
 
Conor Farrell
T: 0121 634 8800