Law: Looking out for individuals: Sharon Wallach on how people can reverse out of the career cul-de-sac

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The Independent Online
THE proliferation of the megafirm has thrown up the side effect of the career cul- de-sac. If you become a partner in a City firm by the age of 30, what is there to look forward to except more of the same for another 30 years?

Stella Abrahams was faced with this choice, and left her firm to set up in business. She was joined a few months later by former co- partner Richard Ireland, who felt that he had done all he had set out to achieve.

They now run a human resources law firm with a consultancy operating in tandem to advise other law practices on management, training and human resources issues.

'I see the establishment of a niche firm alongside a consultancy as the way forward for many who feel that their individualism is stifled by the environment of large law firms,' says Ms Abrahams.

The decision to move on was not unusual, says Ms Abrahams. 'There is a lot of dissatisfaction among professional people who have achieved the apparent hallmarks of success. There is a definite trend of moving on.'

The partnership - Ireland Abrahams - and the consultancy - Lawyers in Mind - run on two tacks. 'We felt that as consultants offering services to law firms, from the point of view of our own credibility, we had to emphasise the fact that we had experience as practitioners,' Ms Abrahams says.

She says that lawyers can no longer provide legal advice in a vacuum. 'Pronouncing on the law is a luxury we no longer have. We have to have a wider perspective, and take into account all the commercial considerations and how matters of law have an impact on a whole practice.'

It is a truism, as Ms Abrahams points out, that lawyers are reluctant to buy in services. But, she says, she and Mr Ireland were surprised and encouraged by the level of interest their venture has attracted.

'I have always been optimistic, but I didn't think we would get assignments so quickly,' Mr Ireland adds. 'And no one has said they thought it was a barmy idea.'

'If we speak to individuals - who are, after all, the focus of the whole enterprise - what we hear back is 'yes, this is exactly what we need',' says Ms Abrahams. 'A lot has been written about corporate identity and so on, but the truth is that it is individuals who are important, and they are the way forward.'

One of the difficulties, Ms Abrahams acknowledges, is marketing their business in what she calls 'bite-size chunks'. 'We have to try to identify the commodities people can relate to. Concentrating on, for instance, practice management standards or training is a useful way of introducing the company to firms.'

There is, however, a danger that the emphasis is misplaced. One of the strings to Ms Abrahams' bow is a British Psychological Society qualification in the use of psychometric testing. Some early publicity for the company focused on this, misleadingly. 'It is difficult for lawyers to take a holistic approach,' says Mr Ireland. 'But we are getting over that difficulty now.'

Their type of enterprise is the way forward, she believes. 'The pendulum has swung from the megafirm towards networks of small, niche practices. Firms say they want individuals who are innovative, looking for challenges and so on, but in fact they stifle those qualities.

Historically, the law has attracted independent personalities. And yet, Ms Abrahams says, they are no longer being provided for. 'Where,' she asks, 'is the challenge for the next generation?'

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