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Husnara Begum, associate editor & career coach

How long is too long? In recent months I’ve had several conversations with senior contacts about the perils of staying in the same job for too long and why loyalty towards an employer can sometimes be misguided.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not recommending you all aimlessly start job hopping either. Because that too can be just as damaging to your CV and in turn limit future options.

As well as potentially becoming institutionalised, the danger of reaching your sell by date at work was nicely summed up by Robert Kiyosaki in his best-selling book Rich Dad Poor Dad. He wrote: “My educated dad worked harder and harder the more competent he became. He also became more trapped the more specialised he got. Although his salary went up, his choices diminished. Soon after he was locked out of Government roles, he found out how vulnerable he really was professionally. It is like professional athletes who suddenly become injured or are too old to play.”

Now image you’re a senior lawyer working in private practice and have clocked up 10 years with your current firm (two as a trainee solicitor and eight as an associate). You’ve ruled out partnership but conscious your firm has a strict ‘up or out’ policy.

As you edge closer to the end of a career cul de sac you suddenly find yourself feeling vulnerable and trapped. Your loyalty ends up counting for very little because eventually you get the dreaded tap on your shoulder. Your firm thinks you’re ‘dead wood’ and encourages you to explore external opportunities. Your options feel limited with many involving a potential pay cut or a reinvention, or indeed, both. What next?

My senior lawyer coaching clients who have found themselves in the situation I’ve described above have successfully transitioned into new roles. But almost all wished they’d taken a more proactive approach to career management with some going as far as admitting they would’ve been in a better place if they’d not left exiting their firms till they were pushed (albeit gently).

There is no optimum length of time to stay with the same employer but for lawyers anything less than a year may be viewed by some recruiters and hiring organisations as job hopping.

Whilst at the opposite end of the spectrum, when determining if it’s time for you to move on, your PQE is a key consideration. Most recruiters will agree that 2-4 years’ PQE is when a candidate is at their most marketable level. But this is just a rough guide and irrespective of your level a more sensible way of deciding whether to jump ship is to start by surveying the landscape around you.

Below are some tell-tale signs of when you may wish to consider taking a pre-emptive strike:

  • There’s an obvious bottle neck with far too many senior associates at your level vying for partnership. Decide whether to fight or flee – more content coming up in future blogs on how to ‘fight’ in a gentlemanly manner.
  • You look up and the role you’d like to be promoted into in order to achieve meaningful career progression is occupied by a colleague who isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. How long are you prepared to wait? What does a potential internal move sideways look like (note: this is likely to be more relevant for in-house lawyers with most firms still operating associate locksteps)?
  • The diet of work you’re being fed is no longer aligned to your core interests. Identify the root cause of the issue. Is this a result of the pipeline of work coming into your team or down to the loss of a key partner / client? Or perhaps, there are again too many associates at your level all scrambling around for that one ‘sexy’ deal. Either way, not getting involved in the right work or enough of it risks you falling behind in terms of technical development. What’s more, you could also become labelled as a specialist in an area of law that you don’t want to be in longer-term and at the same time close down alternative options.
  • The partner(s) you work most closely with have moved to a new firm. It may be that they’ll offer to take you with them, or that simply isn’t an option because of them being bound by restrictive covenants. Review the profiles of the partners who are left in the team and ask yourself if you want to work underneath them and how that compares to moving to another firm.
  • Toxic culture. Don’t need to say much here. Healthy relationships at work speak for themselves.
  • Overall health of your firm. Take a keen interest on your firm’s finances, five-year strategy and any related political wrangling. Thankfully, there are only a few examples of major law firms collapsing since the turn of the Century. But every recession in recent decades has resulted in job cuts for lawyers. Your ultimate job security will depend on how your firm is managed when the going gets tough.

My limited word count means I don’t have space in this post to do a deep dive into any of the above bullet points. But I’d like to note that in some of these instances a sensible starting point is to discuss any concerns you have with your partners and/or HR because an internal solution may, on balance, be a more appropriate fix. Saying that, ask yourself what such a solution looks like in the medium and longer-term and whether it’s a simple case of kicking the can into the long grass?

Husnara Begum, associate editor & career coach