It’s a question that professionals have been grappling with for decades. How can you cultivate a successful and fulfilling career that also makes you happy? Is the best way to enjoy the work you do, or can you build a career from a job you like but don’t love? We asked legal recruitment expert Mark Husband from Jepson Holt for his advice.
Working with a team of people you like and trust is vital - when you know that each member of your team will pick up the ball if you drop it and that you are “in it together” your working life is likely to be enjoyable. Finding yourself with a group of sharp-elbowed, credit grabbing team members ought to indicate that something has gone awry in your career and a move is in order!
Enthusiasm is key
By far the most successful lawyers Jepson Holt work with are those that find their area of practice interesting and stimulating. They never lose their enthusiasm for the next deal or case and are fascinated by the latest developments in their practice area for the commercial opportunities it may present to them, their firm and their clients. Enthusiasm is catching; clients feel that you are immediately engaged with their issue and are happy to instruct you; colleagues see you as a positive person to work with or refer work to and your team are likely to push a little harder and be a little more creative because they can see that you are fully on board.
This doesn’t mean that you should rant to anyone who will listen about how fascinating you find the latest additions to Tolley’s Yellow Tax Handbook, but rather that you find some aspect of your practice area really interesting and enjoyable and seek to be known for your interest in that area. For example, I know tax lawyers who are fascinated by the subject and love the fact that their practice area intersects with almost every part of public and private life. For the time I am with them their interest in tax becomes interesting to me.
Clients and colleagues are often more of a motivating force than the area of law you practice: the way in which you interact with and impact upon both groups is likely to have a significant effect on your career. Clients who feel that you are really interested in their needs will stay with you or refer others to you. Colleagues who you support today are likely to support you in the future. Having a real interest in the success of your clients and colleagues will keep you interested and engaged.
Say “No” a lot!
The hardest thing to do while forging a successful career is to look after yourself. For most this lesson comes too late - they get exhausted and one way or another drop out. How do I know? Well I see it all too frequently in others but also, I lived it myself. I could not say “no” to more work, higher billing demands or additional responsibilities: I loved the work – appreciated the need for revenue and felt flattered by the responsibility I was given.
You cannot be enthusiastic or deliver a quality service if you are exhausted – pretending otherwise does no one any favours least of all you so say “no”. In almost all instances the person who was going to dump an avalanche of work on you will shrug and move on or, if they think of it at all will respect you for standing your ground.
There is no need to seem unhelpful or lazy when saying no; instead a brief and factual “I would love to get involved but I am snowed under” or “I really do not have the resources available to commit to this” or words to that effect are enough. Alternatively if it would be unreasonable to say no try to define your contribution “I could chip in on X,Y,Z if you like?” or “I could assist X in getting up to speed if that would help?”. Ultimately if you are a doormat and take on more than you can cope with – you will not cope; the quality of your work will drop and that will be noticed, your health will be damaged and you suffer the consequences and your career will be adversely affected.
You are doing a good thing for yourself, your firm and your clients when you say “no” so say it – a lot.
Have a vision – not a plan.
One of the great things about my role is that I get to see the career paths of many of the country’s most senior lawyers. Very few, if any, have neat linear careers. The majority spend time working in practice areas peripheral (at best) to the work they are now recognised for, or with firms that are so different to their present status that it seems unimaginable that they could have made such progress. If you feel that your current role is only mostly tolerable, you’re normal: this is a near universal experience at some point in everyone’s career and the way out of it is a function of curiosity, time and opportunity.
This is about you, your work and others. Taking the time to really think through what you enjoy about your work is not easy. Figure out:
- what you really like and would like to do more of
- what you don’t like doing and would like to do less of
From here, have a conversation with your manager or mentor to see if there are opportunities for you to grow and develop in the areas you like.
For example, are there courses you might take to improve your skills? Could the marketing and BD teams contribute to your aims by emphasising your capacity or that of your firm for that specific class of work? Most firms have a business development team whose role is to raise the profile of the firm, teams and individual lawyers in it. Getting these guys on side and promoting you as an expert will raise your profile and make getting work and promotions easier. Finally, what are other people doing in that area that looks great to you? Are there brilliant market leaders in the area and how do they describe themselves? What attributes are most important to their market recognition and what do you need to do to match or exceed them? If there is no clear market leader but you are convinced there is a market – well done; you have discovered your niche!
Be patient – timing is everything
Your career is a marathon and not a sprint. Do not feel that you need to build your career plan in a rush. Occasional “Meerkating” is the best approach – every few weeks lift yourself up out of the day to day – have a look around and see if you can get closer to an answer, speak to someone who might know something useful, a partner in the firm, friend, colleague or even a headhunter! Most people who have reached the top of the profession will credit timing as part of the reason why they made it.
The reality is that there is loads of opportunity around – the key is to find it and make it your own. Remember, opportunity is visible to all who look for it and opaque to those who do not.