Taking an alternative route

Ivan Jackson discusses the career options available for lawyers who don’t want to become partners

If you are an ambitious lawyer who enjoys the practice environment, but does not want the pressure involved in reaching partnership, you may be surprised to find that there are not many alternatives available.

The career path for the lawyer that, either through choice or circumstance, does not become a partner is one of the most fiercely debated topics in most firms today. Few alternative career paths exist. The interesting roles are small in number and often take the employees away from the very thing they enjoy – practicing the law and dealing with clients.

The professional support lawyer (PSL) role, for example, is beginning to be seen as increasingly important to the success and efficiency of the law firm. It is not client facing, but still suitable for a lawyer with good technical knowledge and research skills. The role of PSL will vary according to the size and requirements of the firm, but it is questionable whether the role can offer a defined structure and career route. Increasingly there will be flexibility over working practices and many PSLs are offered part-time positions and home working as an option, which is advantageous if lifestyle and flexibility are at the top of your priorities.

Typically a PSL’s basic salary may be 10 to 20 per cent less than a fee-earning lawyer, however, as firms begin to recognise the PSL’s importance, this potentially will start to change.

One thing to bear in mind is that if you decide to move back to fee-earning or even in-house from a PSL role, you will often be treated as the level that you were when you moved into that role, causing you to have unwittingly slipped behind your peers.

Another career option is the training role, which is being given greater emphasis by firms that see staff development as key to business growth. If you have good communication and management skills, this may be a consideration.

Again, working hours for these roles will be fairly regular and predictable, but could be longer than in PSL roles, as trainers often have to put a large number of hours into preparation and research. Salaries will be mainly 10 per cent less than a fee-earner, but, again, this is more of a lifestyle role than a tangible career ladder for the ambitious mid-level lawyer.

It is likely that firms will begin to create new job titles that will enforce a sense of achievement and direction in their employees, while delivering increasing responsibilities that stop short of partnership. This is starting to happen already with firms promoting lawyers to consultant or counsel roles. This alternative to partner allows lawyers to take more responsibility for areas such as client relationship management, people development, training and business development, but removes the ‘buck stops here’ responsibilities of a partner, as well as ultimately the rewards.

For the ambitious mid-level lawyer it is an interesting time. There is a change of sentiment in many firms, and alternative career paths are beginning to open up. However, concern remains over whether these options will deliver what they promise.

For some that have already taken on counsel roles, the feedback is mixed. At the end of the day, a lawyer’s value is ultimately tied to their fee generation, which is intrinsically tied to the needs of the client and their perception of the consultant or counsel role and the value it adds to the business.

Options are developing for mid-level lawyers and there is a desire and a need to make it work. Hopefully this will result in that which most people crave – a sense of belonging, progression and achievement, while not necessarily having to go in-house to get it.

Ivan Jackson is a director at consultancy Law Professions