‘It’s hard to score without a goal,’ is a well-rehearsed saying and, as a coach, one with which I couldn’t agree more. Having been that pupil, entering the Bar fresh-faced at 22 years old with the most obvious and tangible next career goal being one year hence – to secure tenancy – I know how rare it is that junior barristers formulate any longer-term, post-tenancy career strategy. From the moment tenancy is secured, however, without a plan of action, it can sometimes feel like a vast 15-20 year void before serious consideration can be given to taking silk or applying for a part-time judicial appointment.

What’s the one- to three-year plan?

Things are getting better. With more training for clerks, the appointment of practice managers, and the increase in mentorship programmes to highlight the inspiring career progression journeys of others, the Bar is opening itself to conversations about career planning. People are starting to think strategically about the more immediate goals – what they want from their careers in the next 12 months to three years – and how it is they go about it, whether that’s applying for the next CPS Grade, exposing themselves to the rigours of the Attorney General’s Panel monitoring or otherwise devising a tangible strategy for career development.

Playing the long game

According to The Lawyer portal, it takes an average of 13 years’ experience before barristers are appointed to Queen’s Counsel. Important for longer-term planning is to know what exact experience is required before then, and addressing the question of how to go about acquiring it in the more immediate term.

Even if a goal is years off, it is better to identify it now, own it, then break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks to create an action plan of how it will be achieved.

Navigating the road to leading counsel

The silk application process is notoriously rigorous, as you might expect. It requires not only evidence of a vast array of deep experience but also support from referees – judges you’ve appeared in front of, or those, like instructing solicitors or recent opponents, who can speak to the five competencies the application demands to be met. As a result, it’s frequently said that a three- to five-year plan is necessary to network and develop the experience required to support a successful application.

Pandemic impact

Perhaps you’ve been left feeling a bit stuck of late and haven’t been able to think of your next steps? For many, the pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of priorities and their future at the Bar. Your goals may have shifted so much as to be almost unrecognisable from when you last reviewed them.

By way of reassurance, that’s a perfectly natural response: goals inevitably change with age and life experiences. You certainly won’t be the first, nor I’m sure the last, to experience this. I’m noticing this trend with clients a lot – so many of whom are reassessing what truly is important to them in both their careers and personal lives, and discovering things monumentally unexpected and different from before.

Big goals, hard talk

So, whether it’s short-term career planning, or longer-term strategising for the bigger, more audacious goals, be prepared to have honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations – firstly with yourself, and with those around you on a need-to-know basis – about what it is you want. Then look at the ways you will get there. Invite the support you need to help you to do so.

Goals conversations should be closely followed by a discussion around your values and beliefs. How do those values and beliefs align with your career ambitions? If there is an incongruency, how can things be tweaked to create better alignment?

Taking control of your practice strategy

I’ve long been an advocate for the importance of a career strategy. Without it, it is so easy to feel out of control, that your practice is a thing being ‘done to’ you, as opposed to something over which you have input or control.

The long-term effects can be a sense of frustration, despair even, if your practice is being steered in a particular direction, and one that you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself.

As an antithesis to this, here are five strategies to become the mistress or master of your own destiny at work:

Five career leadership strategies for leaders in waiting at the Bar

  1. Find your voice. Lead. And by that, I mean, lead yourself first by identifying your goals, after which you can make sensible plans to achieve them. Then, most importantly, communicate those goals to the people who need to know them – those who will support and empower you to succeed.
  2. Be honest. Start by asking yourself, and visualising, ‘What does success look like?’ Success means different things to different people, so spend time thinking about your own definition of success, no one else’s. Get a very clear picture in your mind’s eye as to what it looks like to help support you achieve it.
  3. Then work on your confidence to get to where you want to be. I was always fascinated by the statistics that in silk applications, men would apply when they were only 50% confident of success, while women would wait until they were 90% sure of success before taking the plunge. With record numbers of female silks in the 2021 cohort, it may be that confidence in silk applicants has levelled out between the sexes now, but it does make a good point about how, in order to succeed, ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’. So, I always encourage people to get out of their own way and apply.
  4. I’m not saying it will all be plain sailing. You may receive feedback – whether sought or uninvited – which is hard to stomach. The sign of a good leader, in my view, is to be sufficiently self-aware to take the useful bits of feedback and disregard the rest. It’s not arrogant, it’s just a sensible way to be.
  5. And as part of the journey, be prepared for setbacks: undoubtedly resilience is a useful and important skill for a leader to possess.

Take action, on purpose

It’s all about being purposeful at the end of the day. Firstly, know where you are heading, then make a plan to get there. Finally, of course, take action – because, as I often say in webinars: ‘Positive intentions without positive actions lead to positively nothing!’ These things won’t just fall into your lap, after all: ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.

I wish you every success in taking those first positive steps and look forward to reading of your achievements further down the track. 

In Part 2 of this series we discuss how to find strategies for developing resilience through overcoming rejection.