Five years ago, as a 33-year-old senior banker of public school and Oxbridge education, possessing a Legal Practice Course (LPC) distinction and 12 years relevant banking/banking law experience, I embarked upon a second career as a finance lawyer with some optimism. Today, three years qualified by conventional standards, treated in most respects as four years senior to that and with a salaried partnership from a top 20 UK firm in the offing, some might say that my optimism was justified.
But if I’m honest and I had my time over again, I would think long and hard about making the transition. The problem, of course, is that the profession doesn’t quite know what to make of us. It sees that we have a maturity about us, that we have commercial acumen and that we have diverse, and in some cases highly relevant (often paralegal) backgrounds, but it can’t quite make the leap of faith required to sever fully the cord that traditionally ties lawyer status, remuneration, progression and gravitas to the number of years of post-qualification experience. If it could, I, like most of my single-career, Oxbridge-educated, late-30s lawyer brethren, would no doubt be well into the equity by now, as opposed to champing at the bit at the senior associate level. But enough of me – let’s have a look at how you, as a second-career lawyer, can reasonably expect to get on at the various stages of your own development.
The Law Society
I’d be surprised if you didn’t enjoy the course – at least parts of it anyway. If, as I did, you take the evening course over two years, attendance at college will be a welcome break from the daily grind (even if you do, occasionally, have to go back to the office afterwards), and you are also likely to feel a close affinity with your co-students, many of whom will be of like age, mind, background and disposition.
The downside is that there are no exemptions, so you will be required to undergo tuition in basic meet-and-greet, negotiation and letter-writing skills – skills that are already held and well-honed from your previous life. (Actually, and truly ironically, you will probably have to work hard at dumbing-down your existing skills set to deliver what is expected of you. So, deliver an overly eloquent letter and you will be penalised; employ a walkout strategy at a negotiation, and you will probably fail, and so on.) And, whether you are the company secretary of a major plc or an experienced criminal law caseworker, you will have, respectively, to sit through courses on shareholder meetings and prepare for criminal trial mock-ups. It doesn’t really make sense. (As an aside, I often ask myself how many lawyers considering a second career in, say, banking would make the transition if they were expected to have to cash cheques for six months.)
Bless ‘em. They have enough trouble trying to stem their own political in-fighting and holding together a profession fragmented into commercial/City player “haves” and legal aid/high street “have-nots” to give any real thought to the concerns of a small group of mature students seeking to do something different with their lives. And the sad fact is that mature students/entrants (in contrast to, say, female solicitors or young trainees, into which category you will be lumped) are, to my knowledge, completely without formal representation at the governing body level (yes, I know but I’m just too busy). On the positive side, you can expect to be considered sympathetically for some remission on the standard two-year training contract, particularly if you have a paralegal background.
In my experience, however, the award process is a little arbitrary and will depend on whether your previous experience is in an area of law with which the Law Society is familiar. A fellow student of mine, for example – a clerk to the justices – obtained a full two years’ remission, leaving her free on passing the LPC to advertise herself as a qualified lawyer and, in theory at least, to begin practising in any area of law she chose. As a banker of 12 years experience, the last two of them as head of documentation at a major City bank (and with two qualified lawyers working under me), I obtained only 12 months remission. Thus, had my court clerk peer and I joined the same banking department of the same firm on the same day, she would have begun life as a banking lawyer a full year ahead of me. Again, this doesn’t really make much sense.
Qualification and the route to partnership
Let’s be positive. You may have been awarded some remission and, in negotiating entry into your chosen firm, should have been able to secure some uplift on the standard trainee salary (on the basis that you will be able to make an immediate contribution to the firm’s profits) – some compensation, at least, for the salary hit that most of you will have suffered to make the transition in the first place.
On a day-to-day basis, you may, if you keep your head up and make judicious use of the word “no” (or Anglo-Saxon equivalents), be treated differently (ie better) than your younger trainee brethren. In that sense, I suppose, I was lucky. I had a fair-minded boss who respected and valued me – so that most of my 12 months in “training” was spent on high-level fee-earning work, leading deals and supervising a team of lawyers who were already qualified – albeit that I was, by any reckoning, underpaid for the contribution that I made. By and large, however, you will be treated as just another trainee and, incredible as it seems, intelligent co-professionals will ignore your maturity, self-assurance, ability and knowledge, and instead base their perceptions of you almost entirely on your label. Once again, it doesn’t really make much sense.
Qualification and the route to partnership
When finally you do qualify, you should be looking for some degree of immediate career acceleration (and again it’s a discussion you should be having at the pre-trainee interview stage). I was deemed four years post-qualification experience (PQE) – generous in the absolute, but nothing special given the 12 or so years of relevant experience that preceded it. Whether you can negotiate an acceleration or not, the issue that will trouble you over the ensuing years will be the lack of dynamism, in terms of career progression, that exists within most law-firms – so that once you’re on the PQE conveyor belt, it’s near impossible to get off and overtake those younger lawyers ahead of you. The rule (seemingly set in stone) is that you just have to wait – associate, senior associate, salaried partner, equity partner etc.
As a late entrant to the profession – a fortiori if you have made the transition from a meritocratic background – you’ll find such rigidity is hardly the greatest motivator. Moreover, it’s a criminal waste of any management skills that you possess. (Apologies in advance for the sarcasm, but in the legal profession it’s near axiomatic that you can’t possess such skills until you’re made up to partner; whereupon, despite for example the lack of an MBA or other formal management qualification, the wand of partnership automatically bestows them upon you. Which is why, as a general rule, they are notoriously badly run). Returning to the theme, your only real choice, if your ambition is to make up the “lost” years of your first career, is to keep building the CV, keep changing firm (giving you the opportunity to reopen the debate on your deemed PQE) and all the time, of course, keep outperforming those ahead of you on the belt.
It’s a tall order, and you’re going to need stamina, fortitude, patience and a sense of humour. I wish you luck. I will leave you, first to translate and second to keep you company on your journey, with my old school’s unofficial motto: nil illegitimis carpendum (or something like that). Enjoy. n
Gary Walker is a former banker turned finance lawyer