Ambition and satisfaction in your (legal) career

by Ricardo Cortés-Monroy

During the period covering the middle Republic and the Principate, the Roman ruling elite had established what is known as the cursus honorum. A mostly unavoidable sequential order of public offices to be held by aspiring politicians informally called ‘the ladder of offices’. It would start with a quaestorship (by the time you were 30 years old), followed by an aedileship at c. 36, then a praetorship at c.39 and, finally, the consulship at minimum 42 years old. Pliny devotes some memorable lines about the cursus honorum in some of his letters.

Now, let’s swap ‘ladder of offices’ for ‘corporate or lawfirm ladder’ and quaestor for ‘legal counsel’ or ‘associate’; aedile for ‘senior legal counsel’ or ‘senior associate’; praetor for ‘associate general counsel’ or ‘partner’; and, finally, consul for ‘general counsel’ or ‘senior partner’. I apologize for my lack of subtlety but the analogy is quite evident, isn’t it? My first reaction would be concerning how little human nature has changed during the last two millennia. The great lenghts to which many would go to achieve a consulship rings familiarity to what we see in modern corporations and law firms. For good or worse.

If that is your ambition, please allow me to humbly suggest a couple of things. First, as discussed in modern philosophy of history, there is nothing inevitable in [your own] historic developments. Your own professional history will ultimately be determined by your own free will and the choices you make. Luck, destiny, fate, circumstances beyond your control, all play a key role for sure. But, how you react to them, how you ‘seize an opportunity’ or ‘walk away from it’ is largely dependent on your own judgement and the call you finally make. I have mentioned in a previous blog the importance of mentoring. Few occasions than a career move are more obviously ideal for seeking advice; if you are fortunate enough to have a mentor then do not hesitate to discuss it with her/him.

Second, easier said than done, do not seek progression in the cursus honorum for the sake of it. Be sincere with yourself. Your motivations must go beyond a larger paycheck, titles, perks and a sense of accomplishment (all very valid reasons!). Long term professional satisfaction rarely is linked to those. A cliché I used a lot during my 20 years as a General Counsel was ‘these roles are for serving our people, our clients and the communities we operate in’: in consequence, you must deliver accordingly. And, guaranteed, it is not a bed of roses.

Thirdly (and this was a great advice from my then mentor), set a time limit for holding any big role. For big jobs like a General Counsel or a Senior Partner? 10 years maximum. I know it sounds a bit categorical. But maybe knowing that the average tenure of a General Counsel has dropped from 7.4 years in 2010 to 6 years in 2020 will help you to reflect about the reasons for this (source: headhunters Stuart & Spencer).

Careers in Legal should NOT be only about progressing in the corporate ladder; actually, that would be a source of frustration, guaranteed. Most people will not achieve the summit, it is simple mathematics! Au contraire, growing your personal and professional potential is limitless. It rests mostly on your own control, it is a source of permanent satisfaction. I am saying this from a privileged viewpoint, I know, after having been a a General Counsel in one of the largest companies in the world. Yet, precisely, I have witnessed hundreds of times what I have described above. Let me finish thanking LC Inhousecommunity and ACC for the award they granted me last week i.e. ‘Inspiring Career’. It really touched me, especially now that I am in the ‘twightlight’ of my legal career and the ‘sunrise’ of my beloved Classical Antiquity chapter at the university. Best wishes to all, may you succeed in your ambitions: espice, adspice, prospice.

To read other blogs by Ricardo Cortés-Monroy, click here.