The art of reinventing yourself

Peter Barton, a former partner at Travers Smith, who now holds several non-executive directorships including with Alliance & Leicester and the Guinness Trust Group, recently offered some sound advice to lawyers considering a career change. He was generally upbeat about their overall chances of success (The Lawyer, 1 May). While I agree that change comes easily for the lucky few, for most it is seriously hard work.

In fact, not all lawyers can make the shift into another career. And for those who do, not only is it hard work, but it is also challenging. For a start, they have to battle against the stereotypical image of their profession. Despite living in a modern and apparently open-minded society that talks a lot about diversity, we are still suspicious of people reinventing (or rebranding) themselves.

To illustrate the point, many lawyers seeking a career change are too quick to redraft their CV and shoot it off to all and sundry. They overlook the fact that most headhunters act on specific mandates that are agreed with their clients and then are carefully planned and researched. The process used to define their ‘ideal applicant’ also reduces the opportunity for lateral thought on a wider range of candidates. So, if you do not immediately fit the bill because your CV has ‘lawyer’ all over it, you are not going to get a look in. Far better to spend time and effort on influencing and changing the perceptions of those who have to assess you.

Reconstruction and reinvention takes work. The first step is to understand very clearly who you are beneath the lawyer’s gown. You may find it helpful to look back over your career as if it were a house you have been building and making additions to over time. By deconstructing it and examining its components, you will see how many other structures you could make with those same parts. In addition, you will understand what has underpinned your career success and this will also give you greater insight into your personal motivations, passions and needs.

The exercise of reinvention is a serious business exercise that requires its own business plan. It never fails to surprise me how many people develop intricate business plans for their practice, but fail to do so for themselves. After all, we would not go on an important journey without a travel plan that recognises where we are now, confirms our destination and identifies other options – so why do that with our career?
As many lawyers view their careers in the context of ‘I’m only a lawyer’, they can find it difficult or even impossible to see their strengths and inherent skills as others see them, and thereby make the necessary links to other careers.

Everyone plots their life and career in their own way, but there are some general guidelines that can and do help. As with any new practice, launching a clear road map, with options and contingencies is crucial, but of all the activities necessary to achieve the right outcome, the most critical is networking.

Networking is by far the most effective and successful method of changing career. It provides a safe opportunity to talk with others to gain personal feedback and insight into the careers of others and their businesses. It can, crucially, be used to ‘market test’ your own value and personal proposition and to learn how best to respond to the market’s expectations and existing perceptions of the ‘box’ you’re in.

As with any marketing document, you can change the way you present yourself to emphasise or de-emphasise specifics, as appropriate, just as an artist uses colours, shadow and light to change the viewer’s perception of the picture. The way in which you present your information, as well as the language you use, will change how people respond to you.

But for those who wonder, given all the difficulties, whether they can change tack or go plural and develop a portfolio career after a lifetime in law, there are countless examples of people, including Peter Barton, who have successfully done just that.