During the 1990s, businesses, and in particular the professions, have had to confront dramatic changes in the business environment – from expansion to recession, from excess demand to over-capacity. Clients now look hard at legal costs and demand competitive pricing and quality of total service, not just technical excellence.
The impact of the recession on a personnel level has been just as profound. The career environment is changing too from jobs for life to portfolio careers, from reward for specialist skills to reward for flexibility, from vertical promotion to lateral movement, from planned careers to plan your own careers.
These changes have already begun to affect the professions and the legal profession is no exception. The simple aim of full partnership can no longer be the only career goal. Instead, self-development will be critical, not only as a preparation for partnership but also to provide the breadth and depth of skills required for satisfying roles short of partnership.
It may seem that with these changes in business life it will be difficult to define a precise career plan. In fact, those entering the legal profession do have options and should not just leave it to someone else.
So what can students do to take more control of their future careers? If they have yet to choose an employer, they might consider asking a few questions: Is there an appraisal scheme which will help them to regularly review career aspirations and plans? Does the organisation encourage not just the essential legal skills training but development in the necessary commercial and people skills? What is the approach to training and continuing professional development? How flexible will the firm be in giving breadth of experience?
Once someone joins a legal practice, they should regularly review career options. It also helps to build alliances with potentially useful mentors. If there is a dedicated personnel department then it should be used. It can give objective advice on development options as well as guidance on training methods and resources.
Everyone in a firm, no matter at what level, should be seeking opportunities to broaden their skills and add value to the business.
So what is the employer's role in all this? Undoubtedly, enlightened employers can greatly facilitate staff development by listening, consulting, allocating resources and by providing feedback, training and monitoring.
At the start a student will want to join an employer who will provide this framework, building from the technical grounding as a trainee and young solicitor into the broader skills needed as a senior solicitor or partner. There will be less and less room in the backroom for the specialist, so it is important to seek out a variety of work experience.
At most firms, training contracts consist of four six-month seats in property, litigation and company and commercial, with trainees returning to one of these departments for their final six months, or at Dentons in media and technology.
During the next two years trainees can develop technical skills, aided by further training, not just in drafting and negotiation success but in other
important skills such as presentation.
However, there needs to be a new dimension to this if the legal profession is to meet the combined challenge of retaining skilled and committed solicitors at a time when partnership opportunities are declining but client demands are increasing. The solution is largely to provide a more structured career framework for all solicitors and to provide opportunities for more experienced solicitors to take on business as well as legal
At Dentons, we have recently embarked upon a 'people plan'. In consultation with our senior solicitors, we are developing roles and responsibilities which will give them greater involvement in the management of our business and the management and development of our clients.
It is our belief that we have a responsibility for the development of our staff. It is sound business sense to make the investment in 'growing our people'. No longer can it be 'partnership or nothing' or 'sink or swim'. The recession has seen to that. Every solicitor has the right to development, if they are enthusiastic in generating and then seizing the opportunities for self-development.
Paul Green is head of personnel at Denton Hall.