Law opportunities: the bigger picture

Part two of Sue Eccleston’s report on the career options for lawyers who opt for something different

Most lawyers’ career paths are plotted out as early as their second year at university. Yet for all the wide-eyed graduates embarking on a career in the law, few will achieve their original dream of partnership. Some, for example, may opt for a less time-demanding occupation allowing a better work-life balance.

However, the attrition of would-be lawyers does not preclude their involvement in the legal profession. Such has been the expansion of support and business development roles within major firms that to turn away from the practice of law nowadays is not necessarily to turn away from the business of law.

A prime example is the opportunity to move into a training role within a firm. From an employer’s point of view, it makes good sense to retain staff with actual rather than theoretical experience for the training of new solicitors. For the employee, it presents an opportunity to remain exposed to developments in the law as well as best practice in the running of a firm, but without the hours of corporate finance or tension and deadlines of litigation.

Yet training is not the only route. Those firms that have ‘quality’ departments, which ensure that the highest standards of professionalism are retained across a firm’s business, benefit enormously from having legally qualified staff within their ranks. From compliance to business development, client engagement through to product development and delivery, lawyers add value to
this central function.

Equally, HR departments profit from ex-lawyers with an outstanding knowledge of employment law issues (and, indeed, it spares them taking up the time of employment fee-earners). It is now not uncommon for lawyers to take advantage of their network of contacts and to act as headhunters for their firm (whereas previously, they would go on to set up their own recruitment firm).
Indeed, some firms have gone further with their lawyer-led HR functions, offering a recruitment service to their clients to fill in-house legal roles.

Most firms have technology partners who have overall responsibility for their firm’s website, intranet and IT infrastructure. Elsewhere, former fee-earners are turning their hands to full-time IT roles.
Marketing and communications is a similar area. A cursory glance around leading PR and lobbying agencies testifies to the number of former lawyers earning a crust by running promotional activities, while many firms employ legally qualified staff in their press offices.

A common thread runs throughout these career paths: each task has traditionally, to some extent or another, been assumed by partners in addition to their fee-earning duties. However, with partners across the profession having refocused minds on individual billings, those functions traditionally viewed as support have come into their own, creating demand for cutting-edge expertise that does not take up valuable fee-earning time.

The fact remains that those fee-earners who care about a project or area extraneous to their fee-earning responsibilities will never be allocated adequate time to fulfil that role as long as their legal duties remain. But if lawyers do decide to turn a part-time passion into a full-time career, they might just find they can do so with the blessing of their employer.

Sue Eccleston is head of learning and professional development at Hammonds