New year, new career: career planning for 2021

Written by: Jason Connolly
Published on: 4 Jan 2021


Jason Connolly, CEO of JMC Legal, discusses how to build your career plan, get organised and stay ahead of the game to achieve your career goals in 2021.

With 2020 firmly behind us, I’m sure we’re all ready to optimistically welcome 2021 with open arms. The New Year is often a time where many of us turn our attention to thinking about the year ahead. Do you want to get a promotion, move up the career ladder or switch roles in 2021? Key to ensuring you’re ahead of the game is career planning.

Most people don’t allow themselves time to plan their career and only turn their attention to doing so when looking for a new role. However, a strong career plan should be completed once a year, with a career review every six months so you can assess your progress.

Your career is in your hands. It doesn’t come down to your line manager to move you forward, you need to take responsibility for your own career progression.

Think ahead: the 5-10-year career plan

Just like a regular car service, professionals need to MOT their career every six months. Ask yourself:

  • How is my career going?
  • What do I need to do to stay on track?
  • Where do I need to be?
  • Is this career plan still relevant to me?

Career planning might seem like an overwhelming task, but it doesn’t need to be. Plans can change (never more true than in the last year!), things evolve, opportunities present themselves – the purpose of the plan is to allow you to map out where you want to be and to make sure you are moving in the right direction.

Having worked in the legal recruitment industry for a decade, moving Partners and teams, I have worked on thousands of career plans throughout my career. The first thing I always say to a candidate is “Where do you want to be in 10 years?” For instance, if your ultimate aim is to be a Partner and head up a team, write it down and then plan backwards. Establish what you need to do from that point backwards to move up the steps on the ladder to achieve your goal.

Overcoming a “wrong” career move

Of course, you can overcome one wrong career move, but it may add two more years onto your CV before you get to where you need to be. Lawyers are so risk-averse that this situation may not be palatable for all. Candidates who find themselves wanting to leave their current role sometimes face the dilemmas of ‘shall I move now - even if I’ve not been working here for long?’ ‘Would that look bad or should I stick it out and then leave?’ ‘Would that look even worse?’ It’s a tough call but my advice is: if it’s not working, move straight away. You can then tell potential employers that you realised the role wasn’t working for you and you fixed it, carefully aligning your next move to your long-term career plan which can only be reassuring for your next employer.

Moving roles

If you are moving roles, you will need to ask yourself: “Does this new role align with where I want to be long term?” If not, then why are you moving roles? In my view, one of the biggest mistakes candidates make is prioritising the financial rewards or benefits of a role (accepting one role over another on the basis of a higher salary being offered) over the role’s alignment with their long-term career plan. Is this really the role that’s going to pay the biggest dividends long term?

Any move you make must align with your long-term career plan. I think this applies to candidates at all levels of experience. This can be especially true in the early days of your career. You should establish as early as possible which area you want to practice when undertaking your training contract. You can then sway your training contract in that direction, perhaps doing a double-seat or taking control of your training contract to get the best experience so you are in the best position to sell yourself.

Taking control of your career internally

Career planning doesn’t necessarily mean you need to move jobs – you can take responsibility for your career internally. What do I mean by this? If you want to progress to a particular role or specialism, I would suggest having open dialogue regularly with your line manager. Keep a log of achievements and use this when it comes to appraisals. Think about your own development – do you want to go on a course to achieve extra credentials? Do you want to deal with more significant and bigger ticket work? Whatever it may be, put yourself in the driving seat and steer your career in the right direction – this will reap more rewards than waiting for an opportunity to come knocking at your door.

Selling yourself

Selling yourself and building your personal brand shouldn’t just be left to job interviews and appraisals, it should be something that you are always building. Speaking from personal experience, building a personal brand has changed my life. The work now finds me, rather than me having to go out there always finding the work.

I have spoken to hundreds of law firm owners over the last year, and they all agree on one thing: it isn’t enough these days in legal to just be technically and academically good at your job. You need to have the ability to build credible relationships (both internally and externally), bring in work, and become a brand in some senses. This is especially true if you want to reach Partnership. Getting involved in marketing and business development at a junior level of PQE has massive advantages. Firms that promote this at a junior level, I often find have younger Partners and a more dynamic workforce.

I would recommend that any professional these days has a LinkedIn profile. The power of LinkedIn should not be underestimated. It isn’t enough to just be on the platform; you should put out content regularly.

Tailor your CV

Many lawyers turn their CV into a roles and responsibilities list. Whilst the responsibilities of a role are important, you need to remember that this purpose of a CV is to sell you, and open doors. This is your platform to sell yourself and talk about your achievements. You should always keep your CV updated and not leave it for when you come to look for a role. You never know when the perfect opportunity might come around, so you should always be “job interview ready”.

When it comes to selling yourself for a particular role, I always encourage candidates to tailor the CV to the role you are applying for. If you read the job specification and what the position requires, you can then ensure that highlight the experience that lends itself to that role, which in turn will sell you into the role.

Looking for the right role

When looking for your next role, it might seem like an overwhelming task. The days of opening up the Law Gazette and having all the opportunities neatly in one place are long behind us - although it's still a good place to start! With the evolution of the internet, the perfect role could be hiding anywhere! With this though does come advantages for the savvy job seeker, in the sense of more opportunity.

The key to finding the right role is being organised – obviously, by this stage you will have your career plan ready to go. Keep a record of what positions you have applied for, dates and what feedback you have been given. Always press for feedback if you can as this will offer a valuable insight and allow you to change tact perhaps when applying for other roles moving forwards.

I would suggest candidates register for job alerts when searching to get real-time opportunities emailed to you – you can sign up for job alerts here.  Be careful when signing up to job boards as often when signing up your CV could be made visible to recruiters and you could find your phone ringing off the hook within hours of uploading your CV. You also want to be careful about your CV being visible to one and all – check the privacy settings on each site.

Working with recruiters

A recruiter comes with many advantages; they will come to you with opportunities and sometimes have roles that never appear on the open market - this is especially true at senior/partner level. A good recruiter will know the market well, they will be able to often negotiate a better salary and guide you through the recruiter process.

It is important to find a good recruiter - like anything there are good and bad agencies out there. A bad agency can cause more damage than good if they do not sell you correctly (which can be due to not having a good level of competence) a law firm might reject your profile. Then due to the introduction period being 6-12 months, you will be unable to apply for this period. I would always suggest a candidate does some due diligence before signing up to a recruitment agency:

  • Do some research online
  • Look at Google reviews
  • Ask the recruiter some questions to test their knowledge about the legal market
  • Follow your instincts.
  • It is also important to ensure you are a good personality fit. If you do not gel with the agent, you need to ask yourself, will they get on with, and find the right cultural fit for me?

I think chemistry is key and often overlooked. At JMC, when working with a candidate we go into a huge amount of detail to fully understand a candidates aspirations both short and long term, personality and we dig deep to understand how to sell them to their full potential – find out more.

If you’re ready to start career planning, you can view the latest legal vacancies at Gazette Jobs, where you can sign up for job alerts and upload your CV.