Why strategic career moves are helping junior lawyers maximise their earning potential

Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment
Published on: 8 Mar 2021

Junior lawyers blog

Legal recruitment experts Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment share insight from their salary benchmarking survey, examining how strategic career moves are helping junior lawyers to progress quickly - without compromising their CV’s or damaging their personal brands.

Five years ago, according to research on salaries within the legal industry undertaken by recruitment experts Douglas Scott, solicitors were staying in a role for an average of 4 years.  The latest research from Douglas Scott suggests that the 2021 cohort of solicitors is nimbler, sticking in a role for just 3 years and 8 months. For junior lawyers (up to 5 years PQE), this figure drops to 2 years and 8 months; for those 6-10 years PQE it’s 3 years and 5 months; and for those 10-20 years PQE it’s 5 years and 1 month.

Too many moves in a short period of time, or “hoppiness” as it is referred to by hirers, is often the main reason why a CV accompanying a job application is dismissed at the first sift. But now, ambitious young solicitors and legal professionals are maxing out their earnings potential in the first 10 years of their legal careers, leveraging bumper pay increases by making three to four job moves without fear of damaging their personal brand - and here is what is motivating them.

Some learn a lot quicker than others

The period immediately following qualification is a steep learning curve, and some will pick things up quicker than their peers. Billings will accelerate and young lawyers may start to feel that their salaries have not kept pace with the value they contribute to the business.

Two fifths of junior lawyers believe they are paid below market rate, compared to a third of all solicitors. 50% of junior lawyers received a pay rise in their current role in the last 12 months, whilst 60% of 6-10 years PQE Solicitors were awarded a pay rise; 47% of 11-15 years PQE and 35% of those with 16 to 20 years PQE.

Junior lawyers are actively looking for development

Junior lawyers are more likely to make proactive career moves rather than reactive ones. By proactive we mean being motivated to change jobs to progress your career or looking for money. Reactive on the other hand would be because of job security fears, conflict in a workplace like office politics for example, or maybe the commute has just got too much and is affecting work life balance.

Career progression has always been the main driver for a job move in the legal sector. 21% of junior lawyers cited progression as the main reason they left their previous role. This rose to 23% for 6-10 years PQE solicitors, and 27% for 11-15 years PQE solicitors. It reduced in more experienced professionals, with only 15% of solicitors with 16-20 years PQE moving for career progression. But solicitors with upwards of 11 years PQE are twice as likely to change their job because of the commute than junior lawyers. They are also 4 times more likely to move firms because of conflict or office politics.

Graph for Douglas Scott blog

Money is important

Although not the key driver for solicitors to move roles, 8.5% of junior lawyers cited salary as the main reason they took their current role.

8% of 6-10 and 11-15 years’ PQE solicitors said money was their main career motivator, but that dropped to just 1.5% of solicitors with 16 to 20 years PQE. Junior lawyers are more likely than their more experienced counterparts to be paying city centre rents. Combined with the race to get on the property ladder, money becomes an important factor in salary negotiations.

What goes up might come down

Contrary to popular belief, a career move does not always result in a pay rise. People make career moves to lower salaries for all sorts of reasons, including Douglas Scott’s second most popular career motivator - job security. Although 78% of junior lawyers received a pay rise when they took their most recent job, 8.4% took a pay cut.

This compares to 15% of solicitors with 6-10 years PQE experience taking a pay cut, and the same figure for the group with 11-15 years PQE experience. However, over a third of Solicitors with 16 to 20 years PQE lost money when they changed jobs.

Ultimately, making proactive career decisions at the right time in your careers is going to help you max out your earnings potential in as short a time as possible.

The reward far outweighs the risk

Fortune favours the brave and although there has been a reluctance from some legal professionals to progress their careers during the pandemic, according to our research 28% of the legal talent pool will be actively looking to change jobs in 2021 which is exactly the same number as in 2020.

And some solicitors are securing twice as much of an increase in salary on a move than if they stayed with their current firm. Junior lawyers are averaging a 25% increase in salary on a job move, 6 to 10 PQE Solicitors 18%, 11 to 15 PQE 17% and 14% for Solicitors with 16 to 20 years PQE.

Junior lawyers who secured a pay rise from their current employer in the last 12 months received an average 11% increase in salary, for 6 to 10 years PQE Solicitors it was 13%, 11 to 15 it was 11% and for 16 to 20 PQE Solicitors the pay rise was worth 5% of salary.

Making tactical career moves

Clearly pay and development come hand in hand when influencing job changes. To achieve this desired career advancement, professionals should be receptive to the idea of tactically plotting their career moves in these crucial years.

To do this, junior lawyers should:

  • Make proactive career decisions based on factors such as career progression and increase in salary at every stage of your career
  • Maintain a dialogue with legal recruiters so you keep abreast of market demands and changes
  • Always be aware, no matter how comfortable life is, that things can change quickly through no fault of your own – so be prepared

If you need any more support or career advice, check out our resources: