The Prestige Trap

I was a lawyer for a long time, and now that I look back on my time in practice I think - gosh, that was a round hole and I am a square peg. The things that appealed most to me about practicing law - working closely with clients, making a tangible difference in their lives, and making clear, persuasive arguments on their behalf - were only a tiny proportion of the job. So why did I stay in practice for 9 years? The short answer is inertia. The force behind you - keep doing this thing, you've pushed so hard to get where you are, where you are is objectively good and respectable - is a powerful beast.

I think the same people who are drawn to the law (type A achievers) are very susceptible to just keep going through any measure of pain, singularly focused on a goal. I'm here to tell you to stop.

As lawyers we're quite status-conscious. Our firms are our brand names. I talk to lawyers all the time who are reasonably happy at work but want a "prestige bump" at their next role. I get that; I had the same goal. In some ways it feels hard-wired.

So it can come as a real shock when we get where we want to go - whether it's to a Magic Circle firm or a US firm on a New York pay-scale, and we find we hate it. I met someone recently whose professional life-goal was to get to one firm in particular. He got there. Spoiler alert: he's miserable. He got his "prestige bump" and found that it comes with a toxic team and a tyrannical practice head. He may have been so blinded by the name brand of the firm that he didn't ask the right questions at interview or ignored his gut instincts.

As lawyers we're programmed to want to be in the best possible firm. It's a badge of honor. But what we're missing in that analysis is something very important: ourselves. I jumped between two of the most prestigious firms in San Francisco for my practice area, and was no more or less happy at either one. I was good at my job but my job wasn't good for me. No higher status firm was going to change that. In fact, if anything, I would have been happier in a totally different environment (my move to recruitment has confirmed this). It's about fit, not status. Sometimes they coincide - I've worked with associates who are happier at their more prestigious firms. But prestige is not a guarantee of professional satisfaction.

My memo to you is this: don't just keep going on the same track, from a regional firm to a City firm to a Silver Circle firm, if it isn't working for you. Consider a radical move, and don't count out the little guy. Some of my happiest candidates are at much smaller firms than they were when I met them.

A candidate moved between two tier one practices, though she couldn't be having a more different experience at her new firm which is only in London and not an multi-national powerhouse like her old firm. You don't necessarily have to sacrifice quality of work to make a move like this. You may, however, have to let go of having that fancy firm name embossed on your business card. It's up to you to either let that go, or not. But I would urge you to think carefully about not just what you're doing, but why you're doing it. If it's inertia pushing you from one career decision to another, take a breath. Try to think about what makes you happy at work, and how to find it. Don't blindly keep going.