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Prepare your legal career for a changing future: insights from experts at the upcoming the Law Society Conference.

Futureproofing your legal career will be a key focus at the Law Society of NSW’s Annual Conference on 5 and 6 October.

LSJ offers a look ahead at some of the sessions in this area on Day 1, and a session on Day 2 by a career coach on how to manage career development in the digital age.

Trends, friends and maintaining your passion

What will the tech-driven future look like for the legal profession? In the session ‘Five trends that are shaping our future world’, global futurist and lawyer Anders Sörman-Nilsson will explore what’s shaping the future of the profession: the digital growth mindset, with its ability to enhance productivity and impact in legal practice; AI, with its ability to transform; and the ongoing search for a balance between technology and human insight.

A panel discussion titled ‘Friends, foes, allies’ will address the importance of embedding diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Law firms and legal organisations have become increasingly diverse, and the effective workplace in the future will be one where minorities in the profession feel equal, included, and supported where required. Panel members will discuss how lawyers can be effective allies to their colleagues to achieve a mutually beneficial future in the law.

The closing session on Day 1 will explore how lawyers working in all areas of the legal profession can find and maintain passion and purpose. Experienced practitioners will recount how they found personal purpose and aligned it with their professional journey, and will share tips for maintaining motivation and enthusiasm.

No longer a clear career path

LSJ caught up with career coach Stacey Back, who will be addressing early career lawyers on Day 2 on how to manage career development in the digital age.

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Stacey Back, career coach and legal recruitment specialist

Back said, “Career paths were once very defined. Lawyers had a very clear career path mapped out: from law school, to professional training, to being admitted, to restricted and supervised practice, and then to senior associate level.

“But that’s changed with the emergence of technologies and other global factors, such as the pandemic. Lawyers can now take ownership of their own career planning and development.”

Back has had considerable experience in legal recruitment. She has been a career strategist and leadership coach since founding her own self-titled company in April 2018. Before that, she was the founder and director of Profile Legal Recruitment in Perth for five years, and the Business Manager for Hays, leading its specialist legal recruitment division between 2008 and 2013.

“Over 15 years of working with lawyers,” Back said, “I’ve recognised that there’s a crossroads moment for lawyers where they ask: do I want to go in-house? Do I want to continue working towards partner?”

While Back is presenting to early career lawyers at the conference, most of her coaching clients are mid-career senior lawyers who are seeking solutions to improve their work-life balance, and address issues like imposter syndrome and burnout. Back suggests these issues could be avoided or resolved through establishing goals and plans, and setting aside time for reflection and appraisal, right from the early days of a career.

“It’s never too early, nor too late, to work on a career plan,” she says, “in other words, to futureproof your legal career.”

‘It’s never too early, nor too late, to work on a career plan – in other words, to future-proof your legal career’

Back says the legal profession has always been short on candidates.

“So organisations are wanting to invest in and develop their [legal] people, but many organisations that I’ve spoken to have found their employees don’t have a clear vision of what they want for their careers. There are new types of law firms, new career options, and so many avenues now open. My suggestion is to know what you want, then identify what career pathways are out there.”

Taking individual responsibility

Increased automation of tasks using artificial intelligence, video conferencing, new and niche areas of law, and remote work are all changing the nature of the legal profession.

“With all of these changes going on, your employer can’t direct your career development completely,” says Back. “You need to take individual responsibility for that. Without doing so, you’ll potentially be left behind and you may experience burnout, and a lack of satisfaction. And that crossroads moment will come where you’re asking, ‘what now’?”

For those who are freshly out of university, she says, or a few years into their career, it’s important to understand what they want and how to go about making it happen.

Back’s presentation will address practical tools early career lawyers can use to assess where they are and what they want: “how they create a career plan, what their transferable skills and strengths are, and how they go about bridging any missing skills or experience.”

She advises that a good starting point is “to revisit that motivating reason for studying law. Typically, lawyers I meet are driven by fairness, justice and making a difference. If the reality is drafting documents and research, and you’re not getting that sense of fulfilment day to day, that’s not motivating.”

When lawyers are feeling a disconnect between why they chose law as a profession and the work they’re doing, Back asks them to evaluate: “what are your values, what are your priorities and your unique strengths?”

Back says it is essential for early career lawyers to be versatile as far as a career plan and objectives are concerned, because often job opportunities arise that weren’t in the plan, and priorities may change over time. Perhaps the dream firm or dream job doesn’t end up being the perfect fit after all. Knowing how to pivot, and being prepared to do so, can help an individual to avoid “landing at that crossroads where they’re struggling with burnout and imposter syndrome”.

‘Knowing how to pivot, and being prepared to do so, can help an individual to avoid ‘landing at that crossroads where they’re struggling with burnout and imposter syndrome’

A long-term view from the outset

Back advises a long-term view for early career lawyers.

“I’d suggest you consider whether you want to be in-house or developing a niche specialty. If your current role isn’t at all the right fit, then my advice is to test things out and to talk to litigators or barristers that you know, seek out a senior in the firm and ask if you can shadow them for a day, or volunteer to help a litigation team if that’s an area you want to work in.

“Ask yourself, is the job that you’re in giving you the skills for where you want to be in three to five years? If it’s not a job that will prepare you for this, be clear about what you want before you quit. What does your ideal day at work look like? Talk to friends and colleagues within the same field about their work, to understand whether their daily work life is something that appeals to you.”

Back advises that the early career stage is the best time for trialling ideas, investigating different work options, and moving from a boutique firm to a large organisation or vice versa. By mid-career, priorities often shift for lawyers so that their concerns might centre on having an income that sustains their lifestyle, family, and mortgage obligations, and on finding a balance between work and personal life.

Building networks online

One way early career lawyers can investigate alternative career paths or build their networks in the legal industry, Back says, is via social media. And just as there are general rules of etiquette with networking and building relationships in person, there are best practice standards for communication online.

She says, “Firstly, be clear on your intention: why are you networking? Are you happy in your role, and do you want to grow your network to support your future career? Is it to build your clientele, or are you connecting with potential hiring managers? If you’re looking for a job and targeting hiring managers, partners in law firms, or HR directors, then those people will mostly be active on LinkedIn. It’s likely that you won’t be using Tik Tok or Instagram in that circumstance. If your intention on social media is more about generating clients, and sometimes in the more creative industries this is the case, then it may be more useful to be active in engaging with potential clients on Instagram.”

For early career lawyers hoping to build their networks via LinkedIn, Back says, “My tip would be to connect with people you’ve previously met at events or professional meetings. When you send an invitation, reference how you know that person or where you’ve met them and when, and be clear about your intention. That might be as general as ‘I’d like to stay in touch’, for example.

“To use your network to find a new job opportunity, you may want to reach out to a senior partner or manager, and you could send a request via a common connection to make that introduction. Make sure to personalise the request though, ensuring you express your intention in a friendly, professional manner instead of just sending an invite without context.”

The support of a mentor

For early career lawyers, Back says, mentors can be trusted guides as they plan their career paths, whether the mentoring is done via a formal or an informal arrangement.

“A lot of early-stage lawyers might have been assigned a buddy at university, or might be assigned one when they join a workplace.

“When it comes to choosing a mentor, be clear about your intention: what do you want to get out of that relationship as a mentee? For example, are you a commercial litigator and do you want to excel in that particular field? If so, identify someone who is working in a career that you aspire to and then your intention will be clear: to understand how that person got to where they are, and to be introduced to people within their network.”

It might also be the case, Back says, that the qualities sought in a mentor are not technical legal skills, but ‘soft skills’ or ‘transferable skills’. In that scenario, a mentor does not necessarily have to work in the same field of law in which the mentee is aspiring to build their career, or even in the legal profession.

If the qualities sought in a mentor are not technical legal skills, but ‘soft skills’ or ‘transferable skills’, a mentor does not necessarily have to work in the same field of law or even in the legal profession

Back says, “There might be personal skills that you’re seeking to develop, like negotiating, communication or leadership, and you’ve identified these skills in someone at another organisation or firm; in that case, your mentor might not be in the same field. It comes back to intention, and identifying someone within your network. A mentorship doesn’t need to be formal, but it pays to build a relationship with that mentor. Make time to get to know them, offer to take them out for coffee and ask questions about their career or their expertise. That person will become a mentor naturally, without a great deal of formality.”

An ongoing practice

For lawyers at all stages in their career, the opportunity for change may suddenly arise. Back says, “I’m often asked about how much of career development is planned versus organic. It’s important to know what you want, what your goals are, and the time frame around those. It’s also really important to remain flexible and adaptable in case an opportunity arises out of the blue, or a client says, ‘come and work in-house for my organisation’. It’s important to be able to consider it and identify if that is the right opportunity.

“At that point, identify what motivates you at work, whether the role on offer aligns with your strengths, and whether the opportunity still directs you to where you want to go. Do as much research as possible before jumping – do you know anyone who has worked there or still works there? What is their experience of daily life in that organisation?”

Planning your next steps, at any stage in your career, Back says, “comes down to asking yourself, ‘what are the skills that I need to be successful in my career in the future?’ Understand your career now, and what it takes to be successful today, but also map out where you are going, and what it will take to be successful in that career. What skills do you need, both in terms of technical legal skills and in human skills of communication, leadership and negotiating skills?”

Early career lawyers, she says, should “take the time to sit and assess what your next 12-to-18-month plans are, and check in with your line manager about skills you want to develop so that they can be considering you in succession planning. This will also ensure you’re front of mind when they’re considering their budget towards training and development.

“Having an informal check-in once a month with your manager is a good way to stay on track. Be intentional about planning, so maybe you book times into your calendar to reflect on your development.”

All lawyers, Back adds, should keep in mind that “you don’t future proof your career once and forget about it; it’s an ongoing practice. The pace of change will become faster and faster.

“My suggestion is to ensure that you’re being consistent about checking in with your own plan and assessing where you are in your short-term and longer term goals.”