The many career paths of the modern lawyer

Career Paths of a Lawyer
04 Aug 2017

There is no doubt that earning your Law degree is an admirable achievement and worth doing no matter which direction your career takes you, whether working in-house, in a law firm, or maybe even starting your own business. However, transitioning from a law firm where you initiated and developed your career into an alternative environment can be as challenging as it is potentially rewarding.

Let’s face it, the world has changed and the days of someone becoming a practicing attorney because their ancestors did, are all but over. These days, entrepreneurship is not only encouraged, but is becoming a more popular option, especially in a country like South Africa where the job market can be so tough. It would be interesting to know just how many attorneys in the past have gone to work in law firms as it seemed to offer the only viable option at the time, even though their hearts were set on a different route.

Not everyone is suited to pursuing a partnership in their law firm or managing the pressure of delivering on their billable hours. Even working in a highly formal legal environment can make some attorneys feel uneasy. Nowadays, with the increasing variety of opportunities outside of the law firm, changing your career path is becoming more and more commonplace.

Speaking to some lawyers who have made the change after spending a few years in corporate law, the biggest adjustment seemed to be deviating from the level of formality that was previously expected in their work interactions. One attorney commented that she “took some time adjusting to being able to be more creative in her thinking and not as rigidly formal”. Of course this also depends on which firm you were previously employed at as many are more relaxed these days; nevertheless, there is still a formality that exists in most law firms and certainly remains in legal communications.

One lawyer who has made a fairly dramatic change is Darius Zeederberg, recently appointed Head of Legal Recruitment, Africa at GRM Search, a specialist recruitment company with offices in Hong Kong and Africa. GRM focuses on senior roles and Darius is a perfect fit given his understanding of legal firms and their requirements.

I have always felt that the law and business do not exist in isolation from one another. While I completed law school and my articles, I also started my Master’s degree in Mercantile law to educate and place myself within a niche legal market.

As an attorney, every day was exciting and challenging but my internal drive for commerce and business started to resurface and I joined one of SA’s largest legal services. This experience taught me that people are the most important element in any business. I came to the realization that people cannot be trained into a culture, and after being approached by GRM Search, I saw that senior legal recruitment ticks all the boxes for the culmination of what my experience has taught me. I understand the bigger picture having had all forms of experience and I’m excited by the work I am now doing.

There could be more synergy in switching from law to business than many attorneys realise, especially for those in commercial/transactional law, and those who structure and finance deals for their clients. To successfully do this, lawyers need to have a clear business understanding to ensure success for their clients and, should they themselves move into business, this experience will only add to their credibility in their new environment. As Zeederberg mentioned, entering the business world is of course made easier for those with direct experience in commerce, finance or operations.

Moving from a law firm to an in-house position is a great way to transition and can offer the best of both worlds.  Being in-house means the ability to play more of a business partner role while gaining experience in necessary operational and business skills. It can be seen as the perfect stepping stone between law firm life and an entrepreneurial venture, or a position in a business outside of the legal sector.

Practicing as an attorney before switching to the business world means coming to the new role with credibility which is essential in any career. Leveraging off your experience as an attorney and gaining skills in this new business environment can mean not only great success, but a fascinating and stimulating working life with new challenges and diverse opportunities.

Above all, making a lasting career transition from law to business requires goal setting and focused career planning. Bypassing law firm opportunities and making it in the entrepreneurial or commercial realm means having the necessary inner-drive and passion, as well as the courage or ability to take a chance by foregoing the financial security of working in a law firm. For those who itch to branch out of the law firm to pursue alternative careers, rest assured that your legal backgrounds and expertise can contribute immensely to your future success.

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