Our guide to moving out of the city as an Associate Solicitor
So you made it. You got the grades, a training contract with a great firm and survived the NQ cut to take your position amongst the elite of London’s legal sector. You even survived the recession. From here on it should be a steady climb towards the status and riches of Partnership in a top City firm right? Of course it is no longer that simple. We will address elsewhere the challenges of making the ascent to Partnership, but here we take a look at the options available when it dawns on you that life in a big city firm isn’t all you thought it would be.
Here are the steps we think you should follow:
Identify why you want to move
Before you decide where to go and what to do, first consider why you are doing it. You have worked hard for this and when you dream of leaving it behind, you should be sure that the problems are endemic and not just the result of a bad week or even month. One way to do this is to try to identify and isolate what exactly you are unhappy with. It is easy to be miserable with a particular Partner or team and assume that this is what all City firms are like. Consider the work, the client base, work/life balance, size of the firm, the salary, your colleagues, your boss and your long-term goals. By identifying where the problems lie, you (and your recruitment consultant) will find it easier to fix them.
Forget about status..
We may not like to admit it but many of us are defined by our jobs. If you are looking at somethin completely
different, are you prepared to no longer be a “City lawyer”? And if you are considering a move in-house are you ready to become a cost rather than a fee earner? Ultimately status alone won’t be enough to sustain a career but it has a stronger hold on many people than you might expect
Make your own decisions.
You are no doubt surrounded by people with their own opinions on your career – family, friends, colleagues, contemporaries, your boss, your recruitment consultant. Many will understand and support your move, probably none more than those closest to you, but some – especially contemporaries who dream of nothing more than Partnership - may think you have lost your mind. It is worth listening as they will have their own informed take on things, but ultimately it is your career and if you have identified problems that are not going to be easily fixed in your current role, do something about it now rather than two miserable years down the track.
Get some advice.
Recruitment consultants are a potentially invaluable resource to you even if only for fact finding. Speak to a few until you find someone you are happy with (NB. always ensure that they know not to approach anyone without your approval). Some will try their best to shoe-horn you into the easiest move but there are plenty of good people in this industry who will be able to advise you on different, more innovative options and the best way to go about it.
Consider all of your options.
Good City lawyers will generally have plenty of options – whether or not they appeal to you is another matter. Below we highlight the most common.
A move in-house may improve your work/life balance and offer a much broader range of exposure but will it offer the right career path and how will you take to no longer being the focal point of the business? PSL roles can be strategically important and intellectually challenging but will your career stagnate whilst others around you prosper? Moving abroad can be exciting and career defining but doesn’t change the day job and takes you away from friends and family. And moving to another firm can be the answer but might leave you feeling like you have leapt from the frying pan into the fire.
The connotations of each are numerous and for every person unique but there are some common threads.
- International Move: maintains your status, keeps the door open for a return to the City, and gives you potential exposure to some of the world’s fastest growing markets and all of the opportunities that brings. It is exciting and has the potential to be life changing outside of the office and we know many people who will never seek a return to London once they have made this move. But be cautious about this route if you are fed up with the pressure of a City firm. You will join a smaller team and there is often no hiding place – these offices tend to be all hands to the pump so expectations of an improved work/life balance may be misplaced.
- Offshore Firms: long considered the perfect compromise and with good reason. The quality of work is high and the lifestyle good, not to mention the drastically reduced tax bill. If you seek sunshine, sailing, diving then the Caribbean has it all. Top quality work without the commute and with a better work/life balance, look to the Channel Islands. But be prepared to step away from the leading role. You are more likely to be preparing opinions than running big deals and whilst this means you avoid the heavyweight documentation you do lose some control. Also make sure that the firm has the right career path for you. Prospects in some are excellent (and growing) but in others there is a log-jam at Partner level which is unlikely to change quickly.
- Regional Firms: The best regional firms have the potential to offer a very high quality of work but in a smaller team where your chances to make a mark are significantly enhanced. As an ex-City lawyer you will bring welcome credentials and – subject to your practice area – prospects are good. It keeps the door to the City ajar but you know as well as we do that it is considered by some to be a ‘step-down’ so if you have a change of heart two years later you will need to work hard to get back in. You will also need to accept the impact that a move away from the elite firms has on your status and salary. The work/life balance tends to be better but again many regional lawyers at top firms would question this so if that is your motivator, press a potential employer on this point.
- Smaller City Firms: This can be an ideal move if you enjoy the buzz of the City and like being at the centre of such an influential legal market but have had enough of life in a big City practice. Targets and expectations will generally be a bit lower (as will the salary probably) but the best smaller firms are fiercely ambitious and provide a great platform to build your career as part of a smaller team with real prospects for growth. You will miss out on most of the biggest deals/cases of course, but many people will find that being heavily involved in a £75m matter is far preferable to being a small cog in a £1bn matter. Work/life balance will be better but don’t assume it will be an easy ride. Career prospects, in the right place, will likely be good for someone who is successful.
- US Firms: US firms differ from one to another but in general this is unlikely to be the lifestyle move. You can expect high-quality international work and will more than likely increase your salary. You will also join a much smaller team and will probably work very closely with a Partner and get plenty of face time with clients. Really this is a move for someone who thrives in the big City firm environment but who has tired of the size and anonymity of the place, or simply someone who figures if you are working that hard you might as well maximise your earnings. One word of caution, investigate the firm closely and consider the plans for the office and the relationship with the US. If London is integral and well supported it can be an outstanding move – if not, proceed with care!
- PSL/KM: A move away from fee earning can be refreshing, removing the constant pressure to bill, the
competition, the long hours and rekindling the interest in the technical aspects of the law, perhaps last seen the day you started your training contract! At its best it can be intellectually stimulating, strategically important and highly valued by the fee earners, and can provide a strong career path in its own right. At its worst it can be under-valued, vulnerable to cuts and can tar you with lacking ambition. You need to be prepared to earn less and also to accept that your fee-earning contemporaries will on the whole see their careers rise far more rapidly than yours. Our advice, choose the firm and the role carefully and it can be a very good option.
- In-House: Every in-house role is different but as a rule they will answer some of the points that a jaded City lawyer may wish to address. More responsibility, a smaller team, a clearer sense of what you are achieving and certainly more commercial exposure are all commonplace. The work/life balance can be much better than in practice but be cautious on this, especially if going into a bank where your internal client will be every bit as demanding as any external client. Two points merit strong consideration: 1) You will need to accept that you are no longer the focal point. Some senior in-house lawyers are heavily involved in core business but for most junior or mid-level lawyers in most organisations you are likely to be in a support role. 2) Consider long-term prospects. There is a log-jam at senior in-house level with relatively large in-house teams and only one or two senior roles. Look at future prospects as well as the next couple of years and don’t assume that a move back to practice will be straightforward.
- Leaving the Law: Legal recruitment anyone? There are plenty of ways lawyers can exit the industry and there are far better placed people than us to assist in this move. But having seen many ex-lawyers in the recruitment industry our advice would be to think very carefully, over a lengthy period of time, whether it is really the law you are unhappy with or simply your law firm. If you are sure it is the former, go for it, but be prepared to take one step back before you take two steps forward.
It is impossible to cover this area in any detail on a generalist basis – every move is unique and every individual seeking something different. Our advice is to speak to a specialist – recruiters of course but also trusted contacts who have made similar moves. For our part we are happy to have preliminary conversations with people considering a career changing move. You don’t need to be ready to leap in order to benefit from our experience so if you think we can help, please get in touch.
Resources you may like
Summarise your experience and show how it fits the role with our CV Template
Summarise your experience and show how it fits the role with our NQ CV Template
When it comes to international recruitment, the option to interview over Skype, BlueJeans, or one of the many other online videoconference platforms.