With the shadow of redundancy looming over the legal sector, many lawyers are facing the prospect of taking prolonged and unplanned career breaks.
As redundancies continue to sweep through the City, large numbers of lawyers are having to cope with unemployment for the first time since leaving university.
For most this is a daunting task. As one associate, speaking exclusively to The Lawyer, explains, the initial shock of being made redundant is one of the toughest things to deal with.
“My initial reaction was shock and surprise, but that turned to relief that it was all over as I’d been living in fear of redundancy for the past six to eight months,” explains Robert, who did not want his real name to be revealed. “I turned up at work after being on holiday and was told to pack my stuff and leave the office. That was it. I’ve been on gardening leave since.”
The sentiment is shared by Sophie (again, we have changed the associate’s name to protect her identity), who was made redundant from a City law firm last year.
“After the initial shock I accepted it, given market conditions and the drastic reduction in the volume of work,” confides Sophie. She says the most difficult part of coping with redundancy is the “loss of a steady monthly income” but Sophie does admit that lawyers are usually sufficiently well off to “survive for a little while”.
Associate Bill left a magic circle firm to go in-house at a US investment bank, where he was subsequently made redundant and found himself facing unemployment for the first time in his life.
Bill, as was the case with Sophie, does not want to disclose details of his redundancy package but claims that he has enough savings to live comfortably for at least 18 months.
But, as our interviewees show, there is life after redundancy. Bill stresses that he does not intend to sit around enjoying his free time for long.
“I’ve contacted recruitment consultants but I think it’s more beneficial to start using your contacts and friends,” he says. “I’ve had more leads that way because people are in the same boat and they seem to want to help each other.”
But the 33-year-old likens being made redundant to coping with bereavement, saying that “you have good days and you have bad ones”.
However, Bill admits that even though he did not choose unemployment, he felt a sense of freedom in being able to have the time to consider his next move.
“I’ve no idea as to exactly what I want to do, but something outside the law might be good. It’s actually very liberating not having that safety net. Once you step out of the rat race it gives you time to think about your future,” he explains.
Sophie is also using her unexpected spare time to re-evaluate her options. “It’s a good time to stop and think about what I really enjoy doing and what I’d like to be doing long term. Whatever I end up doing, I intend to do some travelling first,” she adds.
Indeed, many people are finding that there are careers that are just as fulfilling as law, such as teaching and journalism, even if they are not as financially rewarding.
A former Trowers & Hamlins associate who did not want to be identified decided to quit his job to retrain as a journalist and claims it is the best move he has ever made.
“I left because I didn’t like my job and it was making me depressed on a day-to-day basis. I looked at what I was doing and didn’t feel any job satisfaction at all,” says the associate.
He resigned last September and has since gained work experience at a number of newspapers and magazines until his course started earlier this month.
“I feel sorry for people who feel they can’t leave the profession because they’re tied into a lifestyle. I’m not driven by money but to be in the legal profession you have to be driven by something and I think mine was an intellectual vanity,” he explains. “I’m a much happier person now that I’m doing something I enjoy, but I’m still insecure as to where my career is going considering the economic climate.”
But what happens to people who have never thought about a career outside of the law before and what are firms doing to help those employees? Outplacement is increasingly trendy and a must-do for any self-respecting law firm.
The concept is basically a careers counselling service. Those being made redundant get to develop their CVs with the mentoring of professionals and receive coaching on what to do next.
Magic circle firm Linklaters, which is slashing 10 per cent of its workforce as part of its controversial New World programme, is providing outplacement services, including setting up a ‘resourcing centre’ in its London office to provide access to recruitment consultants and computers.
The firm has called in three different outplacement providers – the Professional Career Partnership, Drake Beam & Associates and Fairplace – to be on hand to give advice and help to every member of staff facing redundancy.
Linklaters HR director Jill King says: “We have a rota of legal recruiters coming into the centre as well as people to come in to talk about things such as visas and immigration issues for those who are from outside of the UK.”
The centre is available to all lawyers and business service managers for five months, while secretaries and junior business supervisors can make use of it for a total of three months.
“Unfortunately, we needed to make some redundancies but we wanted to be as supportive as possible to staff and we’ve done as much as we can to make that transition as smooth as possible,” adds King.
And with redundancy probably up there alongside divorce and moving house in terms of the stress it can cause, a positive nudge in the right direction is not to be taken lightly.
Oliver Gibbon, director of the private practice team at legal recruitment consultants Hays Legal, helps co-ordinate outplacement services for firms that are making redundancies.
“Many lawyers have been at the same firm for years and so haven’t had to think about putting a CV together. The advice we’re able to impart about CV and interview technique has proven to be invaluable for many of them,” he says. “We can also offer input about the opportunities available to retrain and whether they really exist in the current climate. For example, there are a number of lawyers who would like to retrain into insolvency and litigation but the demand hasn’t been there to make this possible.”
Gibbon claims he has also seen a few lawyers look outside the law when faced with redundancy. “One or two people have used redundancy as a time to reassess if they want to stay in law at all. Some are looking at commerce or industry or even going into teaching in schools, universities or law colleges,” he says.
Indeed, the Government has picked up on the ‘itchy-foot syndrome’ faced by many unemployed City high flyers. An initiative, which is part of Labour’s public service reforms, will from September halve the minimum time it takes to train as a qualified teacher in England from a year to just six months.
Whether or not Robert and Sophie decide to use redundancy as an opportunity to explore careers outside the law, and indeed outside the City, one thing is for sure: once people overcome the initial shock of losing their job, being laid off could provide people with the confidence to jump off the legal conveyor belt.
Opinion: Teaching – an easy escape from law? You’ve got to be kidding
As a lawyer/teacher couple, my girlfriend and I are always debating who has the toughest job. Harriet is a typical City lawyer. She gained top grades at A-Level and graduated with a law degree from a leading university. In stark contrast I studied Humanities at a former poly and then went on to do the PGCE (the one-year postgraduate certification in education) in Wales.
But contrary to popular belief I, like most of my colleagues, went into teaching to do something positive and not because we couldn’t get into more glamorous professions. Harriet, on the other hand, pursued a City career because that’s what all her friends were doing and, of course, for the money – her words, not mine.
I also love my job even though the bureaucracy can sometimes be a little bit tiring, whereas Harriet positively hates her job and spends most of her spare time plotting her exit from the profession. But that‘s where it stops – the plotting never turns into anything more than pipe dreams.
Harriet has come up with numerous ideas, including launching a horse riding centre for disabled children, but the one that keeps cropping up is teaching.
My girlfriend thinks that given her stellar academic background she could teach with her eyes shut, so welcomed the Government’s plan to enable the most able candidates (such as herself) to complete the PGCE in just six months.
However, fast-tracking people with industrial experience into teaching after six months of training is seriously flawed. Although I accept that UK schools would benefit from a fresh injection of high calibre candidates, to think that you can make the switch from boardroom to classroom in such a short period is plain stupid. In fact, the phrase ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ springs to mind.
There’s no denying that some lawyers will make excellent teachers as they have plenty of transferable skills such as the ability to work under pressure.
But delivering a lesson to 30 hormonal teenagers is much tougher than managing the expectations of even the most demanding client. For lawyers the client is king, while in a school environment it’s the pupils who wear the crown. That calls for a teacher to wear a number of hats, including that of role model, diplomat, policeman, social worker, confidant and, indeed, magician.
It’s like spinning 30 plates, each a different size, at different levels and speeds for 50 minutes five or six times a day. That’s a talent that even the most able candidates will struggle to master in six months. So if, like Harriet, you think teaching is an easy escape route, then think again.
The author of this article teaches at a state comprehensive in Kent