Solicitors – stuck in a rut?
in Careers Advice, Changing Jobs

Solicitors – stuck in a rut?

You are a solicitor who has been in your job for at least 3 years. You completed your training contract and then found a permanent job to move into. You may have moved once or twice since then and perhaps if you are on the high street you are probably earning between £30,000 and £45,000; if you are working in a commercial or commercially orientated practice you are probably earning between £45,000 and £65,000.

At some point in your legal career you’ll probably be thinking “what else is there? Is this it? Am I destined to work at this level for the rest of my career and does anything ever change? Is there something I should be doing and how is it that my boss owns a law firm, seems to drive a nice car and own a nice big house, whereas if I stay on this salary for the rest of my career I’m not likely to emulate him or her?”

This is the sort of thinking that occurs goes on, on a daily basis with professionals in all industries and trades and not just law.

The simple fact is that if you are an assistant or associate solicitor, or even a salaried partner, the way anyone profits from employing you is to take a large chunk of income you generate.

Is this fair? Almost certainly. The employer is the one taking the risk every month in continuing to trade, whereas you just turn up, do the work and get paid on a monthly basis.

It is common to find professionals in all sectors between 3 and 6 years post qualification that they feel as if they are stuck in a rut and don’t know where to turn. Very often this is caused by financial issues because sooner or later one begins to realise on a salary that things are never going to change, particularly in terms of future income, and whilst this may be acceptable to a reasonable proportion of people, there are a good number of professionals out there who start to think how they can take a larger share of any income they are generating.

So if you are on a salary of £35,000, wondering how you’re ever going to buy a house, settle down, have children, go on a few holidays each year, pay university fees and eventually retire, there is no simple answer. A good number of people working on these sort of salaries aren’t very happy, and in fact research has been done on numerous occasions over the years showing that someone on a salary between £35,000 and £50,000 is usually happier than those on salaries of higher than this or lower, because they are often in jobs where those around them are on similar levels and everyone’s circumstances are the same. The more money you earn, the more money you’ll want above this level, and the less money below this, the more you’ll look enviously at others earning in this pay bracket. So firstly if you are in this pay bracket of £35,000 to £50,000 and are happy in your job, enjoy life and have a comfortable existence that you are content with, you are not stuck in a rut. You may be experiencing an early midlife crisis or be having a flash of envy towards your boss in his nice house, but will you be any more happy if you change anything?

For most people the way to earn more money and progress a career is to change jobs, and this is not without its risks in lots of different ways. It may be you can change job, get a 20% pay rise, not have to increase your commute and be very content in a new position. But you will be risking your current levels of contentment and satisfaction with life just to see if you can get more. This is not necessarily a good idea, and although it will work for some people it definitely will have adverse effects for others.

If you are being paid more in a new job, then chances are you will be expected to do more. Higher salaries almost invariably include longer commutes, because firms paying higher salaries tend to be in areas where houses are unaffordable or difficult to come across. Take London for example. You may well be able to earn £55,000 in Central London whereas in East Kent you are only taking home £35,000, but at the same time you will be commuting for many hours each day and spending a small fortune on travel cards. Is the trade-off worth it if it means you do not see your family from Monday to Friday simply for an extra £20,000, which when you think about it is actually around £1650 per month (even before tax)?

Think carefully about what you actually want out of life before you make any drastic moves like this one. Our experience of solicitors stuck in a rut and looking enviously at others in different locations is that if they make the move, a good number of them will be back in the same area within a few years, thoroughly dissatisfied with the life changing decision they made at that time.

If you are someone who does not like taking risks, you also need to think very carefully about whether you really are stuck in a rut or just looking enviously at others and their income.

There are plenty of options out there to change your circumstances, including setting up your own law firm, moving out of law completely, developing small businesses on the side to increase your income, and making a geographical move to get paid higher amounts. All of this requires you to take an element of risk, and for a good proportion of the population this is not something they are prepared to do.

If you decide you hate your job, have a think about exactly what it is you don’t like about your current working environment. Is it a bullying boss, petty minded colleagues, a seriously crazy member of staff, a freezing cold office, a horrible commute, difficulties with parking or the type of work you are doing? Do you feel undermined by others, bullied by your boss, permanently stressed out by the type of work you are expected to do, or simply fed up with the whole thing?

You must have an idea in your head as to why you are not happy with your job at the moment. If you do not think this through then it is difficult to make career decisions as you will make the decision for the wrong reason. For example if you hate your commute and change jobs into something with the same commute, you may as well have stopped in your current role. If you find your boss to be a complete nutcase and someone you really strongly dislike and don’t want to be in the same room as, then it’s no good moving to another company and finding that you are in the same position. If you are someone who doesn’t like being told what to do and is really geared up towards working for yourself and not as part of a team with a boss above you, then changing jobs and moving into the same environment would be a seriously bad idea.

This is why you need to go through in detail exactly why you think you are stuck in a rut.

Get a pen and paper and brainstorm it. This may seem a little bit odd but it isn’t and it is the best way of making career decisions that are done for the right reasons.

Firstly write down all the things you like about your current job. The people, the location, the money, the type of work, the clients, your boss, the working environment, the future and any career plans. Now write down all the bad things about your job. Think very carefully about this and think of everything you really don’t like. Once you have done this look at the two lists and make a decision to evaluate your position at the moment and see exactly what it is you need to be doing.

Secondly, write down your income and then do a quick mental calculation on paper of your expenditure each month and what you would like your expenditure to be. How much money would you like to have available to do the things you want to do? How much are you short?

Next write down the time you would like to have in order to do the things you want to spend money on. If you decide you want to learn to sail, how much time will you need to do that each week and when will you do it? If you want to spend more time with your family, what days will you need to take off in order to be able to achieve this, and how many hours a week will you need to devote to this rather than to work?

Now put all three things together. You should have a list of why you don’t like your job compared with why you do like it, whether you are earning sufficient money or whether you need to earn more, and whether you need to find more time or whether the time you have is satisfactory. All of these things together will give you an idea as to what you need to do. Stick in your job, twist and change jobs or throw everything in and start again doing something completely different.

The final point about being stuck in a rut is that if you decide to go down the route of not working for someone else and develop your own work or business, you need to be aware from the outset that this requires work. Lots of work and effort. It does not matter how you look at it, but if you decide that you’ve had enough of working for someone else and want to run your own business or take control of your own destiny rather than being employed, you are going to have to put a serious shift in.

Most would-be entrepreneurs work between 70 and 100 hours a week for the first few years of their existence, whether they like it or not. There is so much to do when you first start in business that you have to accept that your life is going to be taken up by work. Becoming an entrepreneur or working for yourself or running your own business is not an easy solution. It requires hard work and dedication. You can never phone in sick, take time off if work needs to be done, or get down about your work and not be bothered. You have to put in 100% at all times even if you don’t feel like it, and of course there is a huge element of risk.

Usually the best way of going down this route if you fancy working for yourself and sparking an interest in something you’ve always wanted to do, then it’s best to start small in your spare time and build up. I speak from experience on this because many years ago I was a practising solicitor, employed by a firm in Nottingham undertaking litigation work, and I set up my first company on a part-time basis. My wife and myself spent hours each evening working on developing our client base, contacting candidates, building a website and online presence, and dealing with the work that was coming in during the day. The following day I would be at work all day before coming home and doing the same thing again. Weekends were also spent working.

Setting up a business takes over your life if you want to do it properly and make a success of it. There is no-one there to hold your hand and you have to make your own decisions. It can be stressful, you may find your sleep interrupted and the future may not be where you see it as things change all the time.

The next time you look at your boss enviously and think about his or her nice car, big house or the imagined money you think they earn, think about the time investment he or she will have put in (and quite possibly still be doing).

 

Jonathan Fagan

Jonathan Fagan LLM FIRP is Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment. He has been recruiting solicitors and legal support staff for law firms and in house legal departments for over 17 years and handles roles from junior fee earners through to partners and law firm sales/purchases. A non-practising solicitor on the Roll since 2000, he is also the author of a number of legal career books, which are available at www.legalcareercoaching.co.uk. You can contact Jonathan at cv@ten-percent.co.uk