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INSIGHTS

How easy (or difficult) is it to be a successful lawyer these days?

By Gavin Ward, Emma Reavey and Emma Wyatt. 

With expert insights contributed from other leading lawyers and legal professionals. 

Key topics discussed

How easy (or difficult) is it to be a successful lawyer these days?

For many years, the legal profession has been linked with distinction, intellectual challenge, and financial benefits. However, in recent years, the legal landscape has undergone considerable changes.

Aspiring lawyers face new challenges, and the path to becoming a successful lawyer may not be as clear as it previously was.

In this insights piece, we’ll look at the path to legal success, including the education and training required, the competitive job market, creating a reputation, work-life balance, financial considerations, adaptation, and resilience. Let us go into the challenges of being a modern-day lawyer.

And following some great insights from lawyers and legal professionals who responded to our request for further comment on LinkedIn, we have some extra brilliant insight.

The changing landscape of the legal profession

The legal profession has experienced profound shifts over recent years.

As Lucinda Dore, a specialist Criminal & Road Traffic Law Solicitor, puts it, “these days there is an increased expectation for instant communication with clients (emails/WhatsApp’s/virtual calls) – I get it as I am the same myself but of course a good lawyer needs time to prepare, research and do the task in hand.

So, a constant balancing act to ensure on top of your game whilst also providing a high level of customer service and communication… in ‘the olden days’ we had the breathing space whilst waiting for post to arrive… nowadays as lawyer is frowned upon for using the post box!”

Kevin O’Keefe, LexBlog’s CEO, former leading trial lawyer in the US and celebrity of the legal blogging world advises, from his experience, that modern-day lawyers should “[f]ind a niche, maybe more so, an ultra-niche that you could love. You’ll be regional, and if you want, nationally known.

You get to make a difference while growing a business and supporting your family. The mechanics and business of running a practice will fall in place – you can learn those from anyone or attending, for learning/networking, conferences like Clio’s upcoming ClioCon”.

Michael Astle, an experienced Head of Legal and Data Protection Officer notes that “[f]or me, as an in-house counsel, it is having to pay a lot for a task I know is easy to do, just because I don’t know the local procedures. For example small claims in England I’ll often handle myself but end up shelling out a few thousand $ in other jurisdictions.”

Barriers to entry and inclusion

Marie Widmer, an expert in Legal Ops and Legal Tech, raises important questions about the legal profession. Marie says “There are some good discussions to be had about barriers to entry, inclusion/retention at firms or the lifestyle trade-offs that happen to achieve success (hustle culture, burnout) or how it works differently for mothers or fathers taking on primary (or single) parent roles.

Charlotte Smith & Omar Sweiss are great people to talk to about this! I also recommend following Julian Sarafian for ideas 💡”

Navigating social norms and expectations

Victoria Moffatt, a non-practising solicitor and founder and MD of LexRex Communications, underscores the difficulties faced by newcomers who lack direct experience in the legal profession.

Victoria says “One thing that I have observed is how difficult it is for people who perhaps don’t have direct experience of how the profession ‘works’. It can be very challenging to try to navigate how you should ‘be’ and how you should behave when you literally have no idea of the social norms and expectations of being a lawyer.”

“In ‘the olden days’ we had the breathing space whilst waiting for post to arrive”

Lucinda Dore, specialist Criminal, Road & Traffic Lawyer 

Changes in large law firms

A couple of anonymous contributors with extensive experience in larger law firms shed light on some of the new challenges too. They note that the traditional billing-to-salary ratio has shifted, demanding solicitors to work harder than ever before.

The constant barrage of emails and the need to be online around the clock add to the pressure. Furthermore, the journey to partnership within law firms has become longer, with a significant increase in the average time required to attain it.

This shift is accompanied by a growing trend of de-equitisation, where partners can be removed from the equity if profitability expectations are not met.

In their words, for some of these comments:-

The pyramid structure of large law firms – Essentially, though, from my experience, which is predominantly in larger law firms, is that a number of things have made it much more difficult to be a successful solicitor in the last 25 years they centre around the pyramid structure of large law firms and the growing expectation of profitability.”

Traditional billing-to-salary ratio has shifted: The traditional 3 to 1 ratio of billings to salary no longer applies I.e. a third of billings to go to salary, a third to go to overheads, a third to go to the profit pot It’s currently closer to 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 so solicitors are working harder than ever.”

“There has been an increase in emails and the constant need to be online

Qualification to partnership average period – The observation that the average period of time from qualification to partnership in a law firm in the UK has grown from about six years in the mid-1990s to about 11 or 12 years currently.”

De-equitisation and equity to salaried partner disparity- And it doesn’t get any easier as a partner. UK firms are adopting the American habit of de-equitisation, i.e. kicking partners out of the equity if they do not bring in enough money. And there is a proliferation of salaried partners over the last couple of years.

Making partner – men vs women – And even then, there is a gender distinction too. Professor Hilary Sommerlad, Professor of Law and Social Justice at the School of Law, University of Leeds, writes about law firm and lawyer stats and has pointed out similar stats before.

In her article “Minorities, Merit, and Misrecognition in the Globalised Profession” in the Fordham Law Review from 2012, she notes also that “Men are from two to five times more likely to make partner than women.”

The educational and training pathway

The educational journey to becoming a lawyer differs depending on jurisdiction, even between Scotland and England!

However, there is a notable difference between the UK and US pathways which are important to highlight, particularly the need for a purely post-graduate education along with a bar exam in the US, whereas in the UK Law can be studied as an undergraduate and the diploma (which is being phased out) studied as a post-graduate.  

Qualifying in the UK

In the UK, the standard route one takes is typically an undergraduate degree, known as the LLB. For those who already have a degree, there is also the accelerated LLB open to them as an option. In recent years, there has been an increase in Pre-PEAT apprenticeships, particularly in Scotland, to help more access a legal career.  

It is important to note, especially when qualifying in Scotland, that if you wish to practice across the UK, you have to engage in a Scots and English Law course, or convert later into your career.  

Beyond the LLB

There is a lot of change happening to the qualifying routes in the UK, with the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) looking to replace the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC).

However, once the chosen route has been completed, the final hurdle to becoming a lawyer is to secure and complete a training contract, which typically last for 2 years along with passing the Solicitor and Regulation Authority (SRA) or the Law Society of Scotland’s suitability requirements.

Qualifying in the US

A tough educational and training path is required to become a lawyer. To begin, you must get an undergraduate degree in a comparable discipline, such as political science, history, or pre-law. 

Beyond law school

After completing your undergraduate education, you will proceed to law school, which normally takes three years to complete. To become a licensed attorney after receiving your law degree, you must pass the bar test in your jurisdiction.

CLE - Continuing Legal Education

After passing the bar test, the learning process continues. Lawyers must participate in continuing legal education (CLE) to keep up with the ever-changing legal landscape. This entails devoting more time and resources to continual professional growth.

Overall, it is a long journey to become a solicitor no matter the jurisdiction. 

The legal job market

While there is still a considerable need for legal services, the legal job market is very competitive and saturated in many regions. Because of the development of law schools, there is an influx of law graduates, making it difficult for new attorneys to get attractive positions.

Technological upheaval

The legal profession is being reshaped by technology, which is altering the way lawyers do jobs ranging from document analysis to legal research. To remain competitive in this technological revolution, lawyers must adapt and gain new abilities.

The value of specialisation

In the legal profession, specialisation is becoming increasingly crucial. Lawyers who specialise in a specific area of law have higher work prospects and earning potential. This means that selecting the appropriate specialisation is critical for people seeking success in the legal profession.

Developing a reputation

Building a solid reputation is critical for any successful lawyer. This starts in law school with internships and summer placements, which provide practical experience and networking contacts that can be essential when looking for work after graduation.

The influence of networking and monitoring

Networking and mentorship are also important aspects of establishing a reputation. Relationships with experienced lawyers can provide insight and open doors to new employment prospects. Mentorship can assist new lawyers in navigating the difficulties of the profession and learning from those who have gone before them.

Credibility and expertise

Building a reputation requires establishing knowledge and trust in a specific area of law. Lawyers who are regarded as subject matter experts are more likely to acquire clients and job opportunities. This necessitates ongoing education and a commitment to staying on top of legal developments.

“Find a niche, maybe more so, an ultra-niche that you could love. You’ll be regional, and if you want, nationally known.

You get to make a difference while growing a business and supporting your family. The mechanics and business of running a practice will fall in place.”

Kevin O’Keefe, CEO of LexBlog, formerly a leading Trial Lawyer in the US 

Work-life balance in the legal field

Long hours and a difficult workload are common in the legal profession. The billable hour model, in which lawyers are required to charge a set number of hours each day, can cause stress and burnout.

The problem of work-life balance

Achieving a healthy work-life balance can be difficult for lawyers. Working long hours and meeting billing targets might have a negative impact on one's personal life and well-being.

Balance strategies

Lawyers must set boundaries and prioritise self-care in order to preserve a healthy work-life balance. This could imply learning to say no to more work when necessary or requesting assistance from colleagues and mentors.

Mental health in law

Elizabeth Rimmer, Chief Executive of LawCare – Legal mental health & wellbeing charity, says, “Have a look at our ‘Life in the law study‘, where we looked at the practice and culture in law and its impact on wellbeing. The conclusion draws together a number of themes.

Personally, I think a big issue is the lack of good people management in law. ie lawyers are not supported /trained to manage others.”

Some top tips and insights

From business coach and consultant to the legal sector, Murray Mathieson

I’m a non-practising solicitor and accredited business coach. My experience is working in law firms in Scotland and abroad; in house counsel in the aviation, football and construction industries; and 22 years as owner and operator of Positively Legal – training, coaching and consulting in the legal sector in the UK and internationally.

General point

I find that the challenges lawyers have around becoming successful in terms of knowledge, aptitude, behaviours and performance on ‘business’ ie non-chargeable issues, are broadly the same no matter the size of the firm. The issues just have different contexts and emphasis.

Junior Lawyers

Be present in the office as much as possible – the advantages over WFH for your development, performance and career are too numerous to mention here!

Understand that business development is much more than just networking at events. And try to get involved, whether it’s helping to write a tender or accompanying a partner to a meeting with a current client to get more business.

Be curious. Ask questions.

Find role models – be looking for behaviours, mindset, approach etc from senior associates, partners and clients that are effective. It might be how a partner speaks to a client or the way a client runs a meeting. It’s equally important to take note of bad or ineffective behaviour and make sure you don’t replicate it.

Senior Lawyers – Partners, Senior Associates, Legal Directors etc

My experience is that the areas that have high impact if done successfully, but  senior lawyers frequently find very challenging, are strategic planning, leadership, business development, financial performance and self-management.

Many lawyers are good or even great at some but very few are strong in all these areas – improved performance will make you more successful.

The underlying legal sector structure and culture of ‘producer-manager’ is inhibitive.

  • Aim to think and behave as a businessperson who happens to be a lawyer.
  • Don’t label billables as ‘work’. You’re relegating everything else to something much less important.
  • Try to break out of lawyer working habits – for example, why not do important BD during core hours (and not ‘feel guilty’ about it) and leave the non-urgent piece of client work to the evening or the weekend.

Strategic planning – have a written down plan with objectives and tactics. The format can be anything you want – felt tip pen on a piece of paper pinned on your wall or an Excel spreadsheet – it doesn’t matter as long as it works for you.

Content shouldn’t be just BD related, it should include the other areas I mention here, plus client relationship management, learning and development etc. You might want to base the focus areas on your firm’s competency framework if there is one.

Leadership – understand the difference between leadership and management and behave accordingly!

Financial performance – focus on WIP, aged debt, utilisation etc, not just hours and income.

Self-management – take time to organise yourself on a daily or weekly basis with lists, priorities, etc.  This will reduce your anxiety and improve your performance.”

Considerations for money

While the legal profession can be financially rewarding, there are major expenditures involved. The cost of legal education, which includes tuition and living expenses while in law school, can result in significant student loan debt.

The diverse financial environment

Furthermore, lawyer salaries can vary greatly based on criteria such as location, specialisation, and type of legal practise. While some lawyers earn significant salaries, others may find it difficult to reach their financial objectives.

Student loans and debt management

Student loan and debt management is a crucial factor for lawyers. Creating a strategy for repaying student debts while maintaining financial stability is critical for long-term success in the legal profession.

Resilience and adaptability

Lawyers must be adaptive and resilient in the face of change since the legal profession is continually evolving. New laws and regulations, economic upheavals, and technological advances can all have an impact on the legal environment.

Managing change

Adapting to these changes frequently necessitates lawyers learning new skills and staying current on legal developments. This could include taking more classes, attending workshops, or seeking mentorship in specific areas.

Managing stress and burnout

Furthermore, the legal profession may be extremely stressful, and lawyers may suffer from burnout or mental health issues. Developing resilience and coping techniques for stress management is critical for long-term performance and well-being in the legal profession.

“Aim to think and behave as a business person who happens to be a lawyer”

Murray Mathieson, business coach and consultant to the legal sector

Inspirations and success stories

It is vital to look at success stories and draw inspiration from individuals who have achieved greatness to demonstrate the route to success in the legal profession.

These success stories can demonstrate the various courses that lawyers might take as well as the various reasons that contribute to their success. Learning from others’ experiences can assist aspiring lawyers in setting realistic goals and developing strategies for reaching them.

Why have things gotten harder for lawyers in the past 20 years?

Several factors have contributed to the rising difficulties and complications that lawyers have confronted during the last two decades. These innovations have significantly altered the legal profession, making it more demanding and competitive.

Here are some of the main reasons why things have become difficult for lawyers:

Saturation of the legal market

The number of law schools and law graduates has increased significantly over the years, resulting in a saturation of the legal job market. Because of the glut of lawyers, it has become more difficult for recent graduates to obtain desirable positions, resulting in increasing rivalry for existing positions.

Disruption by technology

The rapid growth of technology has revolutionised the legal industry. Legal software, artificial intelligence, and automation have altered how lawyers undertake regular duties such as legal research, document review, and contract analysis. While technology has the potential to improve efficiency, it has also raised worries about job displacement and the need for lawyers to adapt to new tools and methods.

Globalisation

As law firms and legal work traverse international borders, the legal market has become increasingly globalised. This globalisation has brought new opportunities, but it has also increased competition, since lawyers may find themselves competing for clients and projects with colleagues from all over the world.

Speculation

As the legal sector has grown more complex, specialisation has grown in importance. Lawyers who specialise in a particular area of law have higher job prospects and earnings potential. This demands additional training and knowledge, making it difficult for lawyers to keep up with changing legal specialties.

Regulatory burden has increased

Regulatory standards for lawyers have become more complex and stringent. Compliance with ethical standards, bar association norms, and regulations governing client confidentiality and data security has grown increasingly difficult. Lawyers must manage this complex regulatory environment while providing good legal services.

Client expectations

Clients' expectations have become increasingly demanding and sophisticated. They frequently demand value-added legal services, fast solutions, and clear billing practises. Meeting these expectations while remaining profitable might be difficult for law firms and solo practitioners.

Student debt and education costs

The cost of legal education has risen dramatically, leaving law graduates with larger amounts of student loan debt. The need to repay this debt might have an impact on new lawyers' career choices and financial security, limiting their capacity to follow their intended legal careers.

Changing work environments

The conventional model of law practise, which frequently required long hours and hierarchical organisations, is changing. Lawyers' work-life balance and job security may suffer when legal firms implement more flexible work arrangements and alternative pricing structures.

Diversity and inclusion

Within the legal profession, there is an increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Law firms and organisations are working harder than ever to promote diverse and inclusive workplaces. While this is a great development, it also highlights the importance of lawyers adapting to changing workplace circumstances.

Adaptation to the new legal sector

To remain relevant in emerging legal sectors such as technology law, intellectual property, and cybersecurity, lawyers must constantly upgrade their knowledge and abilities. Keeping up with legal developments in these areas can be time-consuming.

The legal industry has changed dramatically over the last two decades, making it more difficult for lawyers to prosper.

Increased competition, technological disruption, increasing client expectations, and adjustments in the educational landscape are among these changes. Lawyers must be versatile, constantly learn and acquire new abilities, and find methods to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive sector to flourish in this changing climate.

The legal industry has changed dramatically over the last two decades, making it more difficult for lawyers to prosper.

Conclusions on legal sector challenges and the path to success in the legal profession

To summarise, the path to success in the legal profession is both difficult and rewarding. While the road may include high educational requirements, a competitive job market, and the need to establish a solid reputation, it is critical to remember that success is attainable with persistence and resilience.

Navigating the complexity of the legal industry necessitates adaptation and a dedication to lifelong learning. Achieving a healthy work-life balance and managing financial concerns are also important parts of a lawyer’s success path.

At MLT Digital, we help lawyers attract and convert the best types of enquiries for their legal practice areas and locations. As part of this we use state-of-the-art client intake software too.

All of this is designed to help the best lawyers to become more efficient and help serve their clients better.

Finally, prospective solicitors can forge their own path to success in the current legal world by learning from the experiences of successful lawyers and finding inspiration from their stories.

While becoming a successful lawyer these days is perhaps harder than it has ever been, it is a goal that is attainable for those willing to put in the effort and endure.

Gavin Ward

Gavin Ward

Projects Director, helping law firms prosper through AI enhanced digital marketing services.

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