Career Planning in an Uncertain World
By Kwan Cheung
Think back. Back to when you were finishing your education and about to embark into the exciting world of work; applying your education, learning new practical knowledge, acquiring new skills and carving a name for yourself in your chosen field. You also probably had a rough plan in your head as to where you saw yourself in 5 years, possibly 10 years time. Maybe even to the point of retirement?
Then the global pandemic struck.
So what of those plans today? How has Covid, the enforced remote working and restrictive lockdowns affected these career goals or indeed changed them altogether? Well, that depends on a number of factors, amongst them are your profession, your age and the future world of work.
The Old World
Professions such as law have long held very rigid systems for career progression. Using law as an example, the ‘lockstep’ approach of many law firms has been the standard and expected model for its lawyers and the industry as a whole. It’s a tried-and-tested formula designed to attract and reward the talented, loyal and resilient to partnership but also has the effect of discouraging …discouraging skilled legal professionals for whom a potential range of mitigating factors prevent them from ‘putting the hours in’, causing them, or indeed, forcing them, to abandon their journey to partnership.
For some lawyers, the pandemic has been beneficial to their career progression towards the top, as many professionals have been working from the confines of their home, some dedicated professionals returned to their offices as soon as they were legally allowed to. It is already apparent that there is a trend of promotions being handed out to those employees showing their faces in the almost empty offices. Presenteeism is still very much present in the new world of work it seems. Commenters have already raised concerns that this puts those who are unable to return to the office so easily (workers with disabilities or children, and generally women) at a severe disadvantage to their more flexible colleagues.
Although the rigid promotion structure for law firms clearly has flaws, it also provides a sense of security for ambitious lawyers, they know exactly where they are in the pecking order and where they need to set their sights if they wish to climb to the top.
A New Way
As of writing this piece in late 2021, there’s never been a time that has seen so many workers come to the same epiphany that their current work structure was not working for them. Some workers experienced remote working for the first time in their jobs or even in their working lives. They entered a whole new way to work. And they liked it. They discovered the joys of reducing their commute to work to now walking into another room in their house, they now had more time to spend with their family, they cut costs overnight, they reduced their carbon footprint. The list of the benefits of remote working is a long one. A study by RADA Business found that nearly half of a surveyed 3,000 professionals wished to make remote working a permanent feature of their job.
Businesses have had to meet this new demand for flexibility. The ONS reports that 24% of UK businesses intend to increase the use of homeworking for their staff. It is partially a mutually beneficial outcome for employers too; they benefit from reduced office rental costs, lower running costs, and a more flexible, productive and happy workforce. A loss in centralised control, company culture and technical teething issues being part of the trade-off.
The same RADA study also suggests that Gen-Y workers were more likely to desire permanent full-time remote working than younger Gen-Z workers. A plausible reason for this is linked back to the previous point of presenteeism in the office; younger workers are keen to climb the corporate ladder and outshine their competing cohorts so want to be seen by seniors as much as possible. As a junior member of a team, it’s also a stage in your career where you are learning the trade and picking up valuable skills from others by shadowing them or being taught by them; difficult to do remotely. Gen-Y workers on the other hand are likely to have reached a more settled position in the hierarchy and their personal lives so a more flexible or relaxed approach to work is desired.
So with all this in mind, how have people’s career trajectories changed since early 2020?
As stated, younger Gen-Z workers are probably the greatest affected by the pandemic in terms of their careers. For young aspiring lawyers; jobs, promotions, training contracts and work experience were already highly competitive before Covid-19; they’re even harder to come by now. This uncertainty for young people extends beyond only those who have recently entered the workforce of course, students are also changing their career plans. In a survey by Prospectus, they found over a quarter of the students surveyed were changing their career plans as a direct result of the pandemic.
Future of Lawyers as a Profession?
So do these changed plans mean the end of Lawyers as we know them? Almost certainly not. Not in the foreseeable future in any case. Some potential lawyers may have been deterred or decided upon a different career for themselves during this transition period, however, the Prospectus survey highlighted training and development opportunities, career progression and better work life balance as the top three reasons for change in career choice. Given these reasons, many students and young lawyers in training will still see law as a viable future; leading law firm training contracts are still being offered and snapped up each year (Pinsent Masons offer around 68 UK places each year), this year appears no different. As stated previously, career progression is very robust and very well established, more so than many other professions. Work-life balance may be a factor for prospective lawyers choosing another field of work, given its notorious reputation for long hours and excessive work pressure, but with services such as Vario Flexible Services, successful lawyers are no longer faced with an ultimatum of choosing between a rewarding legal career or a life outside of work.
Vario Flexible Services team has in fact seen continued growth in the number of lawyers joining our freelance bench despite the pandemic and this has been met with a higher than usual demand in clients requiring flexible legal resource. Geraldine Kelm, Head of Account Management in UK for Pinsent Masons Vario Flexible Services comments on the current situation:
“In the current climate of recruitment freezes, budget constraints and heavy workloads, busy in-house teams are increasingly turning to freelance lawyers to help meet resourcing pressures. Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen greater acceptance of remote working, this is opening up both the candidate bench for clients, and the range of opportunities for our Vario lawyers, irrespective of their location. Market demand is exceeding supply and therefore it is an excellent time for lawyers at all levels to explore freelancing, whether that’s to achieve more flexibility or a better work/life balance, or to gain some top quality relevant experience to further develop their legal careers.”
So, has the pandemic changed plans for lawyers so far? For some, yes. The degree of this change varies greatly though. For some, the change will be dramatic; perhaps migrating to a new country, retiring from their partnership position or even leaving the profession completely. For other lawyers, the pandemic may just be a permanent move to hybrid working, moving to another firm which embraces remote working or a move to become freelance to have greater control of their career. Although for the individual, these changes may be small, if many other employees have similar attitudes across the globe, it may culminate into a significant culture change for businesses and their ability to attract the very best talent. How large this shift in culture will eventually be can only be determined over time. Terms such as ‘Hybrid Working’ and ‘The Great Resignation’ have already entered the public consciousness; so is this the start of a resourcing revolution or a temporary measure in response to a short-term global event? Time will tell.
Circling back to the title of this article, in terms of career planning, the goals we set ourselves all those years ago may have changed drastically in our post-pandemic world, but much like the exponential rate of technological advancement, we may need to change the way in which we plan our careers too; plans for next year may need to be adjusted every couple of months, 2 year plans may need to be changed on an annual basis, 5 year plans may need minor revisions regularly and 10 year plans? I for one, certainly won’t be spending too much time attempting one!