Brand over substance: how good is your legal work experience, really?
This blog was updated on 30 Jan 2023
It’s a process that’s all so common among the legal profession every year, no matter which jurisdiction you practice in. After years of studying, internships, training and countless interviews, you obtain your legal qualification, and you celebrate a new chapter in your life with the dreams of becoming a well-respected, high earning lawyer involved in cutting-edge deals or cases.
Fast forward two or three years, and disillusion, boredom, unhappiness, self-doubt, or possibly depression set in. You may be fortunate enough to qualify in the department you wanted to specialise, yet there might just be something that’s affecting the fulfillment of your role since you qualified. Friends who qualified at the same time as you seem to be progressing faster or climbing up the career ladder faster than you, and you don’t understand how or why that is. You reflect on your own career and you feel frustrated as to why you’re not getting the job satisfaction you expected or hoped.
There are certainly some common reasons why that could be the case. As a junior lawyer, having the name of a high-profile law firm will only get you so far. If you don’t receive the training, nurturing and guidance in your early years, you may well struggle with the pressures you face the more experienced you become. Here are some of the warning signs.
1. You’re picking up bad habits early
Just as no two law firms are the same, no two individual lawyers are the same. When you reflect on your training period, you can probably identify which partners and senior lawyers you enjoyed working with the most. It’s typical for law firms to encourage their trainee solicitors to work for as many partners and senior lawyers as possible.
Yet, once you enter a department on qualification, the likelihood is you will work with one or two partners or senior associates more closely than others. With which senior colleague you end up working is more down to the needs of that department than your personal preference or indeed, the preference of your line manager or partner. If you get matched with a partner or Of Counsel who is inspiring, patient, and willing to mentor you with constructive feedback on your work, then the foundations of a talented and motivated lawyer will be developed in you.
However, if you get paired with a senior lawyer who doesn’t invest in your training and supervision, or forever keeps redacting or criticising your work, the seeds of doubt are laid in your mind. Clearly those doubts will grow over time. And to a young, up-and-coming lawyer, that can be soul destroying.
Whether this is down to having an 'old school' partner at the twilight of his years who has a very old-fashioned method of working, or an over-stressed, over-worked manager, then the alarm bells should start ringing for you. Your supervisor needs to invest time in you to explain where improvements are needed, why they are needed, and how improvements can be made.
"..you will get a gut feel as to whether your supervisor is the right person to learn from"
Likewise, bad habits can easily be picked up by simply not knowing the most efficient and productive way of doing things or assuming the habits of your superior as "normal practice". Every practice area has its own modus operandi when it comes to daily fee-earning work. Inevitably there will be some processes that need to be followed, drafting and negotiation styles to adopt, and even differences in the method of billing and chasing fees down in order maximise your fee recovery rate. Even though you may not know how to handle a case or deal matter properly and thoroughly, you will get a gut feel as to whether your supervisor is the right person to learn from, common sense should prevail (and if the situation is grave, refer to the Law Society's Guide to Professional Conduct).
Only in the most extreme cases would you need to reach out to the professional conduct rules, but your daily routine seemingly innocuous behaviour will give you some indicators as to whether you are getting the necessary quality of training. One sort of behaviour may not, in and of itself, be a cast iron basis for questioning the quality of supervision of your superior but a combination of the following, and other similar behaviours and incidences, might just be.
Examples could include your supervisor ignoring you when you have a question or request for clarification, being prone to violent outbursts and using passive aggressive communication with you daily and frequently, your supervisor often being shouted at themselves by clients, your supervisor turning on the charm with their clients and yet speaks to you in a brusque and impatient manner, your supervisor refusing to speak with you other than via email, text or telephone, blaming you when things go wrong, there being continual delays in producing documents, lapses in concentration leading to missing documents or procedures being followed, your supervisor often being away from the office without any updates as to where they are or when they will return, leaving you to answer to exasperated clients, or invoices frequently being issued late or not being chased for remittance.
2. Your team is too top heavy
Typically, the structure of teams within law firms are a pyramid shape. In other words, you’ll get a partner, an of counsel or senior associate, two or three junior-to-mid level associates, and several trainee solicitors and/or paralegals. That enables the work to 'cascade' down the team structure and allow junior associates to be exposed to a broad suite of transactions and documents.
If, however, the ratio in a team is 1 partner, 4 senior lawyers and a junior associate, guess who gets the raw deal? In this situation, typically the senior lawyers will be fighting for the best quality work available and push the quasi-administrative and routine work to the junior, every time. The first 3-6 months will seemingly be good for your work experience. Yet, there are so many disclosure bundles and witness statements that you can prepare, or so many verification notes or due diligence reports to draft or proof-read before you think, “hang on, this isn’t what I signed up for, I can't be doing this for the rest of my career!”. Should you decide to continue working in this team structure for several more years, you will realise that you haven’t really gained much substantive and quality legal experience over that time.
3. You don’t get on well with your partner or peers
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the primary cause for people to leave their job is because of a poor relationship with their manager. As a junior lawyer, you are likely to be reporting to, or working for, a number of peers, whether they are a partner, of counsel, or an associate more senior than you.
Sadly, stories of one-upmanship or bullying of associates who are only one or two years apart in experience are not rare. There may be any number of reasons why this might happen but it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of reality if the more senior associate sees you as a threat to their own status, or some insecurities lie deep in that person. Either way, you may find that your personal career development (and confidence) is stunted as a result.
4. Your partner is picking up routine work
If you’re working in an international law firm or top tier local commercial law firm, the chances of gaining exposure to ‘big ticket’ legal work are considerably high compared with a local or smaller law firm. If the work being brought in by the partner is routine, high volume legal work with little scope for your personal growth and development, you have to query where this career path will lead you and whether it is for you (cf note 6, below).
5. You’re caught in the middle of an almighty power struggle
Nowhere is a power struggle between members of staff more obvious than in a law firm (whether that’s between partners, senior associates or between you and similar level associates). And if you’re caught in that crossfire, no matter how you wish to keep your head down and ‘get on with the work’, you will find yourself having to pick sides.
If you do, you have a 50% chance that you’ll land on ‘being ok’. But if you make the wrong choice, chances are, you’ll probably be overlooked when the exciting, high-end work comes in. You may well see more mundane, low level fee earning work being handed to you at the expense of the partner’s ‘favourite associate’ or told by your partner to work till 2am everyday so that he can prove a point to his fellow partners.
Often, a lot of these situations are completely out of your control and your being ‘piggy in the middle’ is likely to have obvious detrimental consequences to your own wellbeing, self-development, and career satisfaction.
6. Your partner is struggling to win work
At least conducting routine, ‘vanilla’ legal work allows you to hit your targets. If your partner happens to go through a dry patch of winning work when you see your practice area thriving in different firms, you will naturally query whether your long-term job security is under threat.
The running of a law firm is by no means an easy feat. Of course, the larger the firm and more international the spread, the higher the number of reporting lines and chains of accountability. That puts enormous pressures on partners and senior lawyers in such firms and that can have both positive and negative consequences in your own career development.
If you're a junior level lawyer and you find that any one or more of the above factors apply to you, then a move to a different law firm, in an environment where you are nurtured in the best possible manner, is strongly recommended. Some lawyers prefer to stay where they are. After all, the money is good, the firm’s brand and perception in the market is excellent and, “it’s better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.”
Whilst they are feeling uncomfortable in their current habitat, it’s the fear of the unknown preventing them from making a bold choice. They are frozen by fear, like a rabbit in front of headlights. What they don’t realise is that keeping the status quo simply encourages the supervisor and other peers to think that all is well, and nothing needs to change. That obviously impedes the affected associate’s progress in the longer term – whether it be in salary, title, sense of achievement or belonging, or personal growth.
Whilst you may not have control of the circumstances giving rise to your unhappiness, self-doubt, or dissatisfaction in your current law firm, you certainly have a choice in moving to a platform that values your talent and attributes and will nurture you into being the lawyer you’re more than capable of being.