A goldfish leaping from a small bowl into a big bowlWhen you work in law, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that you have a set career path that will progress smoothly. If you keep working, you’ll keep moving up the ladder and your salary will keep rising. And if you want to change your job, you can do that at any time.

But if you think you have all the time in the world to make that career change, you could be in for a nasty shock.

Perhaps you’d like to specialise in a different sector or are thinking of switching from private practice to in-house.

Whichever way you’re hoping to move, in my experience, there’s definitely a right time and a wrong time to leap. So here’s my advice on how not to get caught out.

A limited window of opportunity

“You’re at your most marketable when you’re 2-5 years PQE.”

In reality, there’s a reason why the demand for lawyers tends to be at the junior and mid-levels. You’re at your most marketable when you’re 2-5 years PQE. It’s a sweet spot for potential employers because you have a few years under your belt and have a solid foundation on which to build your legal expertise. You’re not a complete rookie, but you’re not set in your ways either, so you’re still willing to learn and flexible enough to adapt to a new work environment.

However, once you’re beyond the 5 or 6 PQE mark, employers may be more reluctant to take you on.

Money, politics and upsetting the apple cart

One obvious reason why it’s harder to market more senior people is that you’re going to be a more expensive hire. So if you want to make that move, the majority of firms in the market will expect you to bring a substantial, credible, portable book of business with you.

And if you’ve reached 8 or 9 years PQE, an employer might be worried that you’ll want to be made a partner immediately. It’s a big deal to bring in someone new as a partner when they have no track record with a firm.

“Some hiring managers have an informal policy of never hiring above 6 years PQE.”

Then there’s the concern about the impact a new external hire will have on internal politics. If other people 6 or 7 years PQE have spent all their working life at the firm and you waltz in above their heads, how will they feel? Your potential employer might not want to risk alienating existing mid-level people whose hopes for promotion could be dashed by your arrival.

No one wants to be second choice

Like all of us, employers want to feel that they’re an active choice rather than a last resort. If you’re 8 or 9 years qualified and looking to move from private practice to an in-house position, an employer might think it’s because you’ve missed out on partnership and that you’re applying as a fall-back position.

Often, candidates working at top firms in the City believe that they should be able to move in any direction they choose.

But the legal sector is a huge market and the key factor is not whether you can do the job you’re applying for, but what the competition is like. There are so many other candidates out there at different stages of their career, and if their story fits better for the interviewer, they’ll be the natural choice ahead of you.

How to make your move

If you leave things to chance, the opportunity to make the move you really want could pass you by. It’s not uncommon to see people become ‘career associates’ if they leave it too late.

So what’s the right way to go about it?

  • Start planning now. Moving job takes time, once you factor in the interview process and three months’ notice. So start getting yourself in gear for your move as early as possible.
  • Decide where you want to go. Have a clear view of the sector you want to work in, the sort of work you want to do and the type of firm or institution you want to work for.
  • Get the experience you need. Your cv must be tailored to the job you’re going for. If you’re currently working in private practice for finance clients but ultimately want to work in-house for a media company, you might need to work in private practice for media clients as a stepping stone on the way.

Ask us for advice

Alex will be happy to give you confidential advice on your next step. You can get in touch on 020 7400 2010 or reach him by email at Alexs@ejgroup.co.uk.