Not feeling the Magic or is the Silver losing its shine? Options for a top tier Associate

It’s Friday, 10:30pm and you are still in the office feeling tired, bored and guilty for cancelling dinner with friends for the umpteenth time. This has been a common theme for the last four years. Having spent the first two as a trainee you expected a fair bit of donkey work, though assumed you might get treated with a fraction more dignity upon qualification. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being abruptly told to research an obscure area of law that might as well be from the planet Klonk and then being treated like the village idiot every time you ask a question – all whilst becoming the most antisocial person you know - has finally taken its toll.

It’s time for a change, but what exactly are your options?

Assuming that the demo tape you made aged 14 does not suddenly get picked up as the fresh new sound that will carry you to stardom, and your lottery form doesn’t dramatically improve, you are looking at the following options:

Leave the law – You wouldn’t be the first and you certainly won’t be the last. It’s not for everyone and what’s the point of being miserable. However, if having worked your ass off throughout university, law school and the last four years, the prospect of doing something completely different doesn’t sit comfortably - and standing in a classroom having chairs thrown at you is equally unappealing - then perhaps it’s worth staying in the law.

Try and move in-house – Your option on this side will largely be dictated by the area of law that you work within. The majority of positions will be contracts based, so if you happen to be working within commercial or corporate law then you are in luck. Non-contentious banking and finance will also give you a reasonable amount of options and experience of a secondment will also help, though outside that will be a struggle. Added to the fact that it is a popular option, competition is fierce. For many, the move can offer exactly the quality of work and lifestyle that they are looking for, but sometimes a lack of career prospects or less varied work. Generally you will find more interesting positions occur at the 5yr+ level, so beware moving too soon.

Move firms – Seeing that you seem to spend half of your day fending off enquiries from head-hunters, this should be a doddle, though it has been a good 5 years since you did any research into the City firms and half of the names don’t mean anything to you. As you are probably not blessed with spare time during the day, a decent recruiter will be a useful resource, though it is worth considering the range of options. The good news is that if you are working at a top 10 firm then it is highly likely that your academics are mightily impressive and you will have had exposure to decent work. This means that assuming you are at the right PQE level for a given vacancy then 9 out of 10 times you will be exactly what they are after. Broadly speaking, if you are staying in the City then you could go to a US firm, another top 20, mid-tier or West End and each will offer something different:

  • US: Your friends from law school are working just as long hours and getting paid £30,000 more. If you can handle the lifestyle then this makes a lot of sense. Not all of the US firms are sweatshops and many would provide a considerable reduction in hours, though broadly speaking if they are offering a hefty salary then your will be expected to work for it. If money is a big driver and you are happy to work in a more autonomous manner then this is your best bet.
  • Another top 20: If you enjoy the work and are happy with the hours and salary, though can’t stand your team or the firm culture generally then a switch to a competitor might be your best option. This is a rare move as most people will think it pointless swapping like for like, though the people you work with make a huge difference and one person’s hell can be another’s paradise. Be warned that anyone thinking about this for a better work/life balance will be in for a rude shock. Yes, the magic circle probably do more on average than the silver circle firms, though not by much and you aren’t suddenly going to find yourself making it back in time for Neighbours each night.
  • Mid-tier: This would usually mean top 20-60 and not classed as Silver Circle. The main motivation will be for a better work/life without wanting to sacrifice too much on the salary or quality of work. You will certainly experience a reduction in hours and generally speaking a more relaxed atmosphere, though many firms in this category will have aspirations to break into the top 20 and as a result you could soon find yourself getting busier and busier. Something that is for certain is you will get much more hands on experience and increased career prospects, which is never a bad thing.
  • West End: If obtaining a good work/life balance is your main aim then this would be your best option. Whilst you would have to take a hit on the salary front (roughly £55,000 at 2yrs PQE), if you put it into an hourly rate you would actually be much better off. You will expect to finish by 7pm most days and in transactional areas can only expect a late night every three months or so. The quality of work is often surprisingly high and you will stand a considerably better chance of partnership than anywhere else. A concern is often that if you go too small then you will not be able to get back to a more prestigious firm, and whilst the magic circle might be out of the question, there would still be interest from the mid-tier firms should you look to return to larger surroundings.

Stay Put – The grass isn’t always greener and unless you are about to get the chop then there should not be any huge rush. If there are positions at a range of firms then look at a cross spectrum (within reason), even if you think some look like outside bets. You will learn a lot more in a face to face meeting than you can glean from a job description and even if it tells you what you don’t want to do, it will help in the decision making. Unless you think that somewhere else will make you happier then stay put and wait for the right option, which will invariably arise.

A Quote to Note

"Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character."

Robert E. Lee

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article or would like to talk about your career and potential options elsewhere then feel free to contact me on 0207 400 2050, 07912 742 004 or andrews@ejgroup.co.uk

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About Andrew Smallwood

Andrew studied Physics at The University of Liverpool, although it soon dawned on him that attempting to grapple with quantum mechanics was not his future career path. After spending six months... read more