With the right mental preparation, adapting to a new career after the law can be a cinch, says Peter Barton
The law used to be a career for life, but for many senior professionals this is no longer true. Early retirement may sound attractive, but it can lose its appeal after a while. An increasingly popular alternative is a second career, and a growing number of lawyers have successfully changed profession, moving into business, industry, the arts, academia, and even taking on a plural portfolio. But for those who are unprepared, making the transition can be difficult.
Life beyond the law
When lawyers move out of legal practice into the corporate world, they can find it takes time to live down their lawyerly past. A senior lawyer is generally regarded as ‘Mr Small Print’, while senior businessmen and investment bankers are expected to see the big picture, leaving detail and technical knowledge to junior staff. It is important to remember that your legal experience, knowledge and training are invaluable.
When assessing lawyers’ attributes, anyone considering moving out of legal practice must distinguish between the ‘policeman’ aspect (knowledge of regulation and compliance), which may not enthuse your new business colleagues, and the high-level advisory aspect. For example, the lawyer’s powers of analysis, articulation, judgement, problem-solving, anticipating the unexpected and transaction experience, as well as advising in the broadest sense, are all key assets, but are not always valued in the corporate world. Regulation and compliance is now arguably the biggest growth industry and lawyers should not overlook the opportunities this offers.
Preparing for life beyond the law
When preparing for life after law, consider doing the following:
• boosting your numerical, accounting and financial skills, particularly if your area of practice has been outside mainstream company or corporate work;
• marketing yourself and your skills – tell people you are interested in new roles, put your name down with headhunters, but remember they work for employers, not employees; and
• take advice on your CV before sending it out – it may look boring and it could underplay your strengths.
While you are looking for new roles, try to stay with your full or part-time job as it looks better on your CV to be currently active, it gives you the necessary infrastructure to assist your search for new roles and, most importantly, it keeps you paid. But be disciplined about shedding your existing workload to make room for seeking and taking on new roles.
Go for one or two prestige appointments initially, as one job may expand substantially beyond its initial ambit. Charitable and other pro bono jobs may be as time-consuming as paid ones. One sizeable charitable role helps you fend off other requests with a clear conscience. But also be ruthless and leave room for what you really want to do, remembering that opportunities may not come along immediately. And remember to leave room in your diary for holidays. Non-executive directors, committee members or trustees really are expected to attend every meeting except in emergencies, unlike full-time executives.
Individuals should be prepared initially for a culture shock and possible emotional destabilisation when they change career and change gear. If you feel less in demand than before, uncertain how to pack all those hours with gainful or worthwhile occupation, or impatient for the interviews to pour in, then you are probably going through what most people do at these times. Do not become depressed or daunted. Be patient and stay engaged.
Peter Barton is a former partner with Travers Smith. He holds several non-excecutive directorships, including with Alliance & Leicester and the Guinness Trust Group