When it comes to career progression for lawyers, it doesn’t get much simpler than the age-old associate lockstep.

In its purest form, a lockstep means following admission to the solicitors’ roll associates automatically move up the career ladder once every 12 months and jump to the next level of their firms’ salary bands. This reflects their additional year of post qualified experience (PQE) and happens irrespective of any colleagues who are either behind or ahead of them in the pecking order. In many City and US law firms, this cycle continues until either the associates are invited to join the partnership or flee for the exit (either by choice or due to forced circumstances).

Such a linear structure has the advantage of offering lawyers a clearer and more predictable path, arguably making career planning much easier. Indeed, with progression almost certain every year from being newly qualified upwards, as soon as you’ve chosen the team and practice area you want to specialise in it’s fairly natural to stop thinking about it and switch your focus to the day job or more fun stuff.

However, there’s plenty wrong with the associate lockstep, principally relating to its inflexible nature and as to whether or not it is fair to determine associate pay and progression entirely on PQE levels. Consequently, more firms than ever before operate a modified structure that encompasses competency frameworks and other tangible targets such as hours billed etc.

A further fault, from my career coaching perspective, is that the simplicity and formulaic nature of the lockstep risks far too many associates leaving career development to chance – why bother discussing advancement with partners when a salary rise is a near done deal and, with the exception of ad hoc secondments to clients or overseas opportunities, moving specialisms or switching between departments is so rare?

Meanwhile, others often adopt a far too resolute approach to career planning and tell themselves: “I’ll only move in-house when I get to X years’ PQE” or “I’ll quit law when I reach X years’ PQE.”

What’s the problem I hear you ask? Well, it’s pretty difficult to predict precisely when your dream job will become available so insisting that you’ll only start exploring options after a set number of years of qualification can potentially hold you back. Think right job wrong timing! This is especially the case with in-house legal jobs when vacancies come up on a much more ad hoc basis than in private practice. And in the case of more senior level jobs, due to most in-house legal teams operating pyramid team structures, roles for candidates with 6-7 years’ PQE upwards can be even more scarce as they typically rely on a role becoming vacant first. What’s more, when it comes to senior level recruitment the hiring team may well favour the candidate who is already working in-house than one that’s spent their entire career in private practice.

This straight-line approach to career planning can potentially reach crisis point as an associate’s experience creeps above the 7-8 years’ PQE mark when either they belatedly realise partnership isn’t for them or they get the dreaded tap on the shoulder. What next?

Granted, many firms have introduced non-partner tracks (often referred to as counsel) for senior lawyers they want to hold onto. Meanwhile, others might move into professional support lawyer roles. For many the former can be a mutually beneficial solution but as I’ve witnessed in recent years for some counsel it can be pretty challenging to hang around at their firms indefinitely. Counsel may be viewed by some hawkish partners and colleagues as ‘dead wood’, particularly during the tougher economic times we’re currently experiencing and for employers considering cost-cutting such individuals are likely to be collateral damage.

As part of my career coaching portfolio I regularly support senior lawyers who by their own admission let themselves ‘drift’ at work and as a result of not paying sufficient attention to their longer-term career goals have essentially sleepwalked into a career cul-de-sac whilst simultaneously closing down their external options.

Though on the face of it the ‘up or out’ system of career progression adopted by some firms seems harsh, there is an argument in favour of being “cruel to be kind”. If handled sensitively, having a transparent and grown up dialogue about future career goals with associates who’ve either decided against climbing the greasy pole towards partnership or lack what it takes to become partners can be mutually beneficial. Indeed, the vast majority of associates who’ve gone through this process tell me they felt a huge sense of relief after such discussions and that having their minds partially made up for them by their employers was a positive development.

That said, imagine the feeling if were given greater freedom in determining your own future career aspirations? This will only be possible if you stop burying your heads in the sand and proactively take control of your career from the outset. Only then will you be able to and stop leaving progression to chance or worse still in someone else’s hands.

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