As a career coach and outplacement specialist I’ve recently been having endless conversations with lawyers across all levels of post-qualified experience, and working for a broad range of law firms, who are understandably very concerned about job security.
Some of my most challenging discussions have been with final seat trainee solicitors who have unfortunately missed out on internal newly qualified (NQ) lawyer positions and are now scabbling around chasing the limited external opportunities that are currently available. And that’s despite, as one graduate development specialist recently confirmed to me, many of the trainees being top performers and who under normal market conditions would’ve been retained without hesitation.
Sadly, after several years of study and hard graft many NQs who should by now simply be applying for admission to the solicitors’ roll and daydreaming about how to spend their qualification leave, are instead fearing the worst. Plenty are having to contemplate making significant compromises, including qualifying into practice areas / teams they’ve not even gained any exposure to during their training; moving in-house when their long-term career goals are to stay in private practice; or even potential relocations.
And let’s be honest, if they can achieve this, they’ll be the lucky few because some of their contemporaries may well end up either having to work as paralegals or pushed into non-legal roles. Whilst others risk having untold damage being done to their CVs due to a period of unemployment – the length of which is at present almost as impossible to predict as whether or not we’ll experience a second wave of the coronavirus.
I’m obviously doing my level best to reassure trainees and indeed more experienced lawyers by reminding them that because the current economic crisis has resulted from an unexpected once in a lifetime health emergency, once the jobs market eventually does pick up law firm lateral recruitment teams and hiring partners should be more open-minded about candidates who don’t have typical, and the much sought after, ‘straight-line’ CVs.
That said, I also know from my experience of working as a legal recruiter, this hasn’t always been the case for some employers. Granted, law firm graduate recruiters have come a long way in boosting diversity and have to an extent created a more level playing field when assessing aspiring lawyers for potential training contract places. But when it comes to lateral hires, unconscious bias remains a real issue with many partners still guilty of favouring candidates who are ‘like them’. That means unfairly dismissing applicants who might, for instance, want to return to private practice after short spells in-house or those who want to switch practice areas.
For me, this begs the simple question, if professionals working in other industries can change their specialisms, why do so many hiring partners think lawyers are any different? If you aren’t convinced, I’d urge you to take a closer look at journalism and teaching to name but a few. I have loads of journalist and teacher contacts in my network who initially focussed on one subject and then switched to another further along in their careers.
As far as I’m concerned, being a good lawyer isn’t just about memorising the law or indeed learning all the answers off by heart. Personally, I believe competent lawyering is much more about knowing where to look for the solutions and being able to process complex information quickly and then putting it into practical client-friendly language that offers a way forward / or an appropriate solution. And as far as the rest is concerned – I think most of it is about developing key business and life skills, which have very little to do with an individual’s ability to quickly get his / her head around certain key statutes and / or cases.
Also, let’s not forget that NQs are hardly the finished articles and provided they adopt growth mindsets then there’s very little reason why with some additional training and mentoring they couldn’t quickly fill in any potential skills deficits that might arise out of the current economic crisis.
The same also applies for career gaps – irrespective of whether these were voluntary or forced. Many of the skills lawyers are taught from their training contracts onwards are likely to be ingrained in their brains for life so again I need a lot more convincing to firmly believe that any lawyers who end up with gaps on their CVs as a result of the Covid19 pandemic deserve being written off as candidates.
After all, I’m fairly confident that if I returned to corporate law after almost two decades away – after a quick refresher I’d be capable of drafting most relevant legal documents. Similarly, I’m sure if given a chance I’d also be able to get to grips with the law relatively quickly. Particularly, because I’ve spent many years developing both my writing and research skills – albeit in non-legal roles. It really isn’t rocket science. So frankly, if I think I’ll be able to do it then I’m sure lawyers with much shorter gaps will be just as, if not more, capable than me.
As such, I’m pleading with law firm lateral recruitment teams and hiring partners – once green shoots do start to appear in the jobs market please think about finally dropping your narrow and biased approach to lateral hiring. Only then will lawyers who are facing months of uncertainty be able to feel properly reassured about the future. After all, when it comes to career planning most of us will at some stage encounter a bump or two along the way.