“Inertia – noun 1. a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. (Oxford English Dictionary)”
Far be it for a recruitment consultancy to suggest that people stay in jobs too long. In fact there is a strong case to say that a long-term career in one firm, with the right levels of progression, consistently interesting work and annually increasing remuneration is the Holy Grail. But let’s be honest, it doesn’t often happen like that. For every Sir Alex Ferguson, still hitting new heights 25 years after taking over at Manchester United, there are numerous Arsene Wengers, once lauded as a great and successful innovator but now looking a bit past their sell-by date. I may be betraying my footballing loyalties, but you take the point!
Most of us would claim, at least sometimes, to be ambitious and hungry for the status and financial rewards of ‘success’, but the truth is we are also motivated by security and predictability, and nothing provides those like the comfort of being in the same place for years. The danger is that the decision to stay becomes unconscious and in fact isn’t a decision at all, it is just the status quo, and if this is not addressed, you could find yourself drifting, mid-career, into a period of stagnation that is hard to turn around, and even harder to convince others you have turned around.
Here is our advice on how to avoid this and what to do if you find yourself in this situation.
1. Act early. A positive, pro-active approach at the first signs of stagnation can eliminate the problem early and will help you to retain control of the situation. If you are bored on one project but generally fulfilled, live with it but if it is something more lasting, time to take action.
2. Apologies, straight from the text book this one – write a career plan or at least some goals. Make it an honest appraisal of what you want, not what you think you should want. Recognising this is a vital first step in determining (a) why you are not satisfied, (b) whether you can address this in your current role, and (c) if not, what next? Don’t underestimate how hard this step is, it requires a level of self-analysis that most of us struggle with, but done right it can be a defining moment in your career. Think about the relative importance of things like status; money; job security; being proven, trusted; challenging work; progression; work/life balance; good colleagues/culture; an easy life. And be realistic – we may all want more money, less hours and the status of gods but since it’s probably too late for a career as a premiership footballer, let’s keep it commercially viable!
3. Having identified what you want from your career you should get a better sense of where your current role is failing to hit the mark. Ask yourself if it is retrievable and equally important, do you want it to be? If the answer is yes to both of those, time to speak with your Head of Department, HR Director, Managing Partner… Going to them to say you are unhappy, unfulfilled, disillusioned is more likely to see you labelled as a whinger and gently side-lined than it is to have a positive result. But going to them with a carefully thought out statement of what you want and how they can help you get it is not only likely to get results but will also give you a big confidence boost as it puts you in control of the situation.
4. If that has gone well and your employer is addressing the points made, our work here may be done. We are not recommending moving for the sake of moving but keep an eye on it. It is easy to paper over the cracks in order to maintain the status quo but unless you have fundamentally addressed the issues, you will find yourself back here again before long.
5. If you can’t or don’t want to retrieve the situation with your current employer then it is time to do something about it. Let’s be honest – what most of us do is start to complain! Speaking to like-minded colleagues will probably make you feel better but it gets you nowhere and as those colleagues start to move on – internally or externally – it can really drain your confidence to realise you are still in the same place. What you do will depend on what you are looking to achieve but there are a myriad of options. Be open minded, be creative and don’t get tied down with concerns over status or what other people might think. Take a look at our earlier post (I'm a city associate get me out of here) for some ideas – it is aimed at Associates but would work equally for Partners and more senior lawyers.
6. Having decided on your preferred course of action, talk to experts in that field, ex-colleagues, recruiters with the right market knowledge, family and friends. Of course it may not be easy – finding a job these days is challenging and if you are looking for a change of direction at a senior level, all the more so. But a challenging job search is infinitely preferable to the stagnation and misery that come with being stuck in the wrong place and not knowing quite why or what to do about it.
7. Be patient, within reason. As soon as you start taking steps to change things you will feel better but beware. Recognising the problem is half of the battle, but it is only half of the battle so whilst it is sensible to avoid leaping at the first exit opportunity, it is also vital that you maintain your focus. We would recommend having a Plan B. If you have settled on a move in-house as the best way to achieve your goals, pursue that for six months and then review it. If jobs are few and far between and there has been little sign of progress, consider other options – you may need to take one step back to take two forwards.
8. It’s rare in our experience since good lawyers usually have various options, but if you find yourself ‘stuck’ you may need to take a longer term view. A typical scenario might be law firm partner who has no following as he/she always handles big ticket work for clients of the firm. You know you want to move to a smaller firm but they all want a book of business, so change your role to make sure you get one. Take on smaller matters for smaller clients who are more likely to follow you, throw yourself into business development activity, work on developing closer personal relationships rather than falling back on the firm’s relationships. It takes time of course but you are likely to find that the act of doing something to aid your departure will in itself make your current role more bearable.
9. When opportunity arises, be bold. You would be surprised at how many times people start the process desperate to get out at any cost and yet waver when that nice idea becomes reality. It is of course sensible to consider an offer carefully – you don’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire – but it is also true that the security of the old job never seems quite as appealing as when faced with the prospect of proving yourself all over again.
10. Remember that the vast majority of people find a new lease of life when they move on from a long-term role that has no longer been fulfilling them. You may lose some security, be testing yourself with new challenges, be taking yourself out of your comfort zone, but compared to the challenge of maintaining your enthusiasm and commitment for a role that long ago ceased to interest you, this should be a walk in the park.
We hope that you found this useful. Jason Horobin is a senior legal recruitment expert with fifteen years’ experience in domestic and international placements. He is happy to speak about career options, whether an informal chat or a proactive plan of action. He can be reached on +44 (0)20 7096 1681 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org