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Stuck in a rut?

16 July 07

Some experiences of, and advice from, solicitors who decided they needed a change of practice area and are glad they took the plunge

by Sue Lennox

A job equals a routine. You travel the same way to the office each day, you see the same people and you do the same work. No matter what form your employment takes, whether it’s orthopaedic surgery or modelling, you can bet that surgeons will feel it’s “just another hip replacement” and models will see “the usual dull designer clothes”. The point is that routines can get a bit boring – solicitors, like everyone else, will feel justified in having a good old moan about their lot now and then.

However, what happens when the malaise is more than just the “normal” feeling of monotony that everyone is likely to feel now and then? What if the thought of going through the same routine is bordering on thinly disguised hatred for your job and its demands? Then it’s time to get out of that rut…

In a way, solicitors are lucky. Being in the legal profession these days means a huge variety of work to choose from. If you compare the situation to that of junior doctors in the UK at the moment, solicitors at least can rest assured that there is work out there. In fact, there are so many practice areas cropping up, does anyone know what half of them actually mean? Private finance initiative? Corporate recovery? Renewable energy work?

Whilst some solicitors decide that they have had enough and go on to do something completely different, there are many alternative options for those who want a change of scene but don’t want to kiss their legal careers goodbye (understandable when you think of the time, money and bun run endurance suffered in order even to become qualified). So, if for you the treatment is a large injection of change, how easy is it, how do you go about it, and will it all be worth it?

Now for something completely different

There seems to be a general feeling within the legal community of “Once you have made your bed you have to lie in it.” A recruitment consultant of my acquaintance says it really depends on the particular individual’s circumstances.

“Changing practice area probably gets tougher as you gain more experience. It is easier to change practice early in your career, but the key thing is that you need to really have a genuine interest in doing whatever it is you want to move over to. So, if you want to go from one practice area to a completely different one that’s fine, but you need to be able to really show that you have a definite interest in that area.”

Moving in-house from a private practice role is the most popular move: “The benefit of moving in-house is you are still using your legal skills, but this type of role can open up other opportunities in management and other areas further down the line.” She also highlights the option of becoming a professional support lawyer (PSL) as “another way of staying in the law broadly speaking, but without the fee earning side of things”.

The contrast between city firm and rural practice also makes it a major shift to switch from one to the other, but it can be done – as the profile in the panel shows.

Switching to specialise

There is the option of making a move to a more specialised area, from a general background. In the bigger firms, such a progression is more plausible, particularly given the many different teams within these firms.

Take Anna Reid, a senior solicitor with Maclay Murray & Spens in Glasgow. Anna previously worked for Maclays’ litigation department, doing general commercial litigation work and liquor licensing. Almost two years ago, she moved into the firm’s construction and engineering department and now deals with contract disputes. What prompted the change for Anna? “I wanted to get a broad base of knowledge by doing general litigation but liked the thought of becoming an expert in a particular area.“ So, how has she found this change? “Construction is a much more specialised area and required me to build up a lot of specialist knowledge. Initially there was jargon to learn and standard form contracts to familiarise myself with. In addition, adjudication was an area of dispute resolution that was entirely new to me, in that it’s particular to construction disputes. Though there was an initial steep learning curve, I have enjoyed building up knowledge and expertise in the construction field.”

Into commerce…

Some have taken on a more commercial role, for which their legal experience has made them well qualified. Laura Hunter, who previously worked for McGrigors as a solicitor in their Edinburgh real estate team, now works for Dunfermline Building Society as a senior manager in property finance. Laura describes her new role as “working as a client relationship manager in the commercial lending department, which involves liaising with clients to structure commercial property loans that best suit their needs”.

Such a move represented quite a shift in direction for Laura but she has found it a very positive experience thus far. “I have really enjoyed the move into commercial lending as it is more people-focused. I am out meeting existing clients and potential clients all the time. It’s exciting doing deals.”

Laura’s move was one that came about quite naturally, as she explains: “I met my current boss at a Spifox [charity] event and then spent a couple of weeks researching my role and meeting members of the DBS commercial lending team. It sounded like a really exciting opportunity and I decided to go for it, feeling it was an ideal next step to build on the experience I had gained at McGrigors.” Has there been anything she has missed about working in private practice? “I do miss the people that I worked with at McGrigors and I do miss the law as well, but I deal with reports on title and facility letters so there is law in my life still!”

… or out of it

For others, a move away from the commercial side of law is more appealing. Many are interested in the public sector work available at the Executive, Crown Office or other government bodies. Hannah Lynde, for example, moved to work for the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, having trained at Shepherd and Wedderburn in Edinburgh. After completing her traineeship, she gained more experience in litigation with a smaller firm in Glasgow. In January of this year, having worked for the SCRA in Hamilton in a temporary post, Hannah applied for a reporter’s job with the SCRA in Perth, where she hails from originally.

Hannah found herself surprised by the ease with which she managed to move. “I had been thinking about it for ages, and I wasn’t too sure if I had enough experience, but I thought it was worth a go and it was!” Hannah is glad she made the move: “Working as a reporter on the panels is really interesting. There is a lot of interaction with social workers and the families themselves – there’s a real variety of work available and I enjoy being in court now and again. I have to say I don’t miss private practice – although you may take a pay cut, the fact that I am really enjoying my job outweighs everything. I am really pleased with the way things have gone.”

Another person to follow her heart was Julia MacLaren, who is now finishing her first year of training with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Edinburgh. After university, Julia lived in London for a few years, working for Reed Human Resources as part of their graduate programme. During her last 18 months there, Julia worked for the in-house legal department, dealing with “small claims, debt recovery, data protection and employment tribunals”. Julia began to consider qualifying as a solicitor because she was “essentially doing the work of a qualified solicitor without having actually qualified. I felt I wanted more of a structured career path. I only really wanted to do law that affected people and their lives and I have always been very interested in criminal law, so coming back to Scotland to train as a PF made perfect sense.”

Julia is another one who is glad she has made the move. “I’m really enjoying doing the work and I can definitely say I would enjoy a career in this field. I never wanted to do the typical commercial traineeship and I’m glad I had the courage of my convictions.”

Make your own luck

All the people interviewed for this feature had the same advice for anyone considering a change of scene – know what you want and then do your homework to back it up. My recruitment consultant contact maintains that you “must be sure of why you want to change – if you are thinking of giving up law completely, maybe try an in-house move first of all as it can be a very different way of working and may be all you need”. She also highlights how important it is to really want what you are proposing to do, and singles out being able to explain your reasoning for any proposed move as crucial: “You need to be able to speak quite passionately about why you want to move in order for people to understand your thought process.”

Anna Reid’s views are similar: “If I were to give advice, I would say that you should do as much reading up as possible on the area that you want to move into, (a) to check it is an area that really interests you, and (b) to give you a head start when you begin to work in your new job.”

You can also actively test out some areas of work you may be interested in. Julia MacLaren, for example, was involved in England’s version of the children’s hearing system, which gave her an idea of what working within the justice system might be like. She agrees that doing as much as you feasibly can to find out about the work you might be doing is essential: “I am glad I had some experience of dealing with these types of situations and dealing with people – I think it has prepared me quite well for what lies ahead.”

Even if doing voluntary work or similar work experience is not possible for the job you may be coveting, the value of simply speaking to people involved in that area cannot be underestimated – most people are more than happy to give an honest opinion of the pros and cons of their job, for those interested enough to listen.

The final word is left to Laura Hunter: “If an opportunity comes along that you are really interested in, then you should go for it. I always felt I would have regretted not pursuing this opportunity, and I am very glad that I made the decision to move.” So, if you’re feeling like you’re going nowhere on the hamster wheel, the message seems to be that the opportunities are clearly out there – you just have to go and find them.

Sue Lennox is the pen name of a practising solicitor


GOODBYE TO THE BRIGHT LIGHTS

Aspirations of a different lifestyle can be the driving force behind a move. Jamie McDonald, a solicitor originally practising in Glasgow at a large commercial firm, has moved home, hoping to achieve more of a work-life balance, now that his wife is expecting. Jamie moved to a small general practice in Argyll and Bute. How has he found things so far? “To be frank, the salary has been something which I have really noticed as a major factor. Also, you’re a lot more transparent in a small office – everyone knows what everyone’s doing the whole time – maybe that’s not a bad thing! And I must admit to miss meeting people for a beer after work.”

Jamie identifies one big plus of working for a smaller firm. “The community spirit, both between fellow solicitors and generally in the town itself, is a real bonus. You will find your contemporaries are just generally a lot more friendly and I like walking around the town and seeing clients out and about. You have more of a place in the community, you’re the local solicitor, just as you will see the local doctor or butcher as well. Also, because I am doing more general practice, people come back to you, so if you have sold their house, you then do their will and then if they need help with a neighbourly dispute or something, they’ll come back to you. It’s nice because you do build up more of a relationship with your clients. In Glasgow where I was doing commercial litigation, I would do the work for the client and then I would never see them again.”

Jamie found his move to a smaller firm a very easy one. “They were desperate for good people – I think there’s a real issue of people going to the cities and the smaller places suffer, so it was not difficult to find a position when I started looking. I was worried about the wide range of work I would be doing, but so far I have managed it fine.”