The track to the top is getting tougher

The key message from the latest Michael Page/The Lawyer recruitment survey is very clear: career planning is essential from day one of a lawyer's entry to the profession. No longer can lawyers sit idly by and simply hope that they make the partnership grade or get into industry if all else fails.

On the partnership front, firms are much more choosy, and now demand not only expert legal technical skills but also evidence of marketing ability. Furthermore, they are taking longer to make partnership appointments. It is proving very difficult to get partnership in some areas, such as litigation, at the moment, with reports emerging that some top firms have not made up litigation partners in the past couple of years.

On the industry front, meanwhile, competition has never been tougher. There was a time when a job in industry was regarded as the soft career option for lawyers. Now it is seen as premier league, with the number of applicants looking to go in-house doubling.

Whether lawyers wish to remain in private practice or go into industry they need to think two moves ahead. For private practice, the trends are cyclical. So while banking, corporate and property lawyers are most in demand at the moment, four to five years down the road, perhaps in more recessionary times, litigation will once more come into its own.

It is a difficult market to forecast but no longer can lawyers coast along. Planning is a necessity. For those lawyers intending to go into industry, a more generalist background is called for, and lawyers minded to go this route must also look ahead, taking care to pick up as much commercial experience as possible.

The signs are that the market will become more competitive and getting ahead can no longer be taken for granted.