Switching from legal to commercial: Taking the plunge (Part 1 of 2)

A great many colleagues, friends and fresh graduates have asked me how I made the switch from in-house legal to "the business".  I can promise you, there is no magic spell, no secret formula, and definitely no one right answer. This post is meant for in-house and private practice corporate lawyers who want to transition out of the law at some stage.

Linear Progression

It helps to remember your career is your responsibility.  No one else is going to decide for you, nor can you expect that.  It's very tempting, for lawyers, to assume that sheer performance, will bring you the results you seek, the recognition you deserve, and predictable and timely career progression.  The law does, after all, have a very defined progression, particularly corporate law.  You start as an Articled Clerk, become an Associate, and after 5-8 years a Senior Associate, and typically after 10+ years you could very well be on track to make Partner.  Taking responsibility for your career as a lawyer is really a question of working really hard, making sure you get great quality work, or at least a great quantity of work so you can hit your billable targets, and then setting yourself up to be close to a partner, and their key associate. Then just hope there is no economic downturn that dries up incoming work. In time, you will make partner, especially if you have some passable client management skills and are not entirely impossible to like. By the end of law school you know the path that most lawyers follow. You also have a pretty good sense of what work lawyers at  the different stages do.
However, when moving into the business from the law career planning is trickier, as you have no idea what role would suit you, and you really don't have a deep understanding of what each role entails or where you could go from there. Titles often have little bearing to the day-to-day activities, or responsibilities.  Don't expect your new role to be the natural progression from your previous role in law. Acceptthat the first, and possibly second, role after making the switch are stabs in the dark, and are more useful to get you out of the law, rather than to set you firmly on your future path.  They are merely the exit doors, but not the floor you're heading to.

Keep your mind open and supple

 With all this uncertainty and ignorance, keeping an open mind is critical. It is very tempting to want to control the outcome of the switch even without knowing anything about the world outside the law. It gives us the illusion of control if we get to "design" the role we think we want to move into. But in hindsight I think this is a needless expenditure of energy, and a complete falsehood. We simply don't know enough of other roles to know whether we would succeed in them.  As with all things in life, there is a gap between what is perceived from the outside, and what is the reality.  Roles are almost always different from how you perceived them, and in that circumstance I argue that being too particular is just a waste of time. It is better to be clear on minimum criteria - pay, team culture, business function, and quality of management.  With that basic information in hand, it is best to then accept roles that align with those criteria, regardless of whether you think it is what you want to do.  By opening yourself up to possibility, and not allowing your prejudices and perceptions to dictate outcomes, you truly free yourself to discover the world outside, rather than struggle with its differences from your expectations.  It is better to discover the world afresh than to imagine it incorrectly.

It's all reversible 

What really helped me take the plunge was reminding myself that it is all reversible. It's not like tattooing your forehead.  A move into the business that doesn't work out is, at worst, a learning experience, and at best, an opportunity to understand more about the options lawyers have outside the law and that it’s not as hard as people tell you it is.  Going back into the law is also perfectly feasible because time in the business makes you smarter, more business savvy, develops really valuable relationships and overall, evolves you into a much more impactful lawyer.
 Some people have disagreed with me, and said that time away from the law, only to then return to the law, means that they lose seniority. That may be the case, in the sense your PQE number may need some adjustment. Then again, it's all 'experience', and losing PQE is only really likely to matter in your first 5 years of legal practice. After that, your seniority takes into consideration more than just your direct legal experience. Your ability to relate to, and partner with, the business matters more.
 So, why worry about a decision that has only upside?  And what is so precious about the law that makes you fear doing other things with your intellect? These are two questions that I had no good answers to. What few answers leapt to mind sounded suspiciously like excuses. And I absolutely loved being a lawyer. I just wondered if I could love something else more.
 Go ahead, and live a bit - put yourself in the way of opportunity, and you will find that your working life is enriched by a meaningfulness that will make you better at whatever you choose to do. There are no right answers, just wrong reasons.


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