There’s more to life post-law

A career outside the law is a daunting prospect, so early planning is crucial. By Gary Sharp

Nothing, they say, lasts for ever, but until recently the position of a well-established partner in a successful law firm seemed to embody a good working definition of permanence. A lifetime’s devotion to the firm would eventually be rewarded with a comfortable retirement, the transition possibly eased by some gentle consultancy or a couple of non-executive roles gifted by grateful clients. The world is no longer this simple.

Greater life expectancy has combined with poor pension fund performance and high lifestyle expectations to increase substantially the age at which many can stop worrying about producing a monthly income. At the same time, commercial pressures and unrelenting competition have generated new headaches for senior and managing partners, who need to balance the demands of their highest income producers with obligations towards those whose financial contribution is declining.

So as working lives lengthen and partnership tenure becomes less certain, lawyers increasingly find themselves needing to plan for and develop a post-partnership career. From the firm’s viewpoint, increasing acceptance of the fact that partnership is not necessarily for life increases flexibility and offers a different approach to the issues of de-equitisation.

The concept of moving on to a second career, typically in one’s 50s, is well established across much of the commercial world and has proven to be a highly rewarding and fulfilling strategy. But it is a step that lawyers, as a group, seem to find particularly difficult to take.

Behind this difficulty are two related misconceptions: that lawyers can only be lawyers and that permanent devotion to the partnership is the only viable professional life. The professional tendency to put client demands first, often to the extent of losing sight of one’s own objectives, and the wholehearted acceptance of an ‘all or nothing’ partnership ethos combine to prevent many giving any thought at all to longer-term career planning. For those who do think about the long term, the prospect of moving beyond the law is often discouraging. It is quite remarkable that, while senior executives from the corporate world will analyse their skills and experiences and find new ways to apply them, lawyers will simply say: “I am a lawyer.”

The solution lies in taking a long-term, broader perspective. Many lawyers are pleasantly surprised by the breadth of activities that a second career can encompass, and by the number of these to which their own strengths and qualities are relevant. Some build a non-executive portfolio, others develop a consultancy practice, build a business, enter the academic world, answer the call of a charity, or tackle a corner of the public sector. The keys to success in this transition are a thorough self-understanding – both in terms of what you have to offer and what sort of environment sees you at your most effective – and of the realities of working in each of these areas.

The earlier a start is made in thinking about the possibility of a post-partnership career, the easier the transition will be. One highly effective approach, borrowed from a major accountancy firm, is the introduction of ‘rest of your life’ seminars, or one-to-one sessions with an appropriate adviser, for all partners of a specified age, typically 45-50. This inclusive approach negates the risk of a partner thinking that they are being specifically targeted to move on, but at the same time encourages a broader, more imaginative approach to career planning, which benefits both the individual and the firm.

Garry Sharp is a mentor with career counselling service IDDAS, which specialises in supporting senior executives in transition