5 Phases of your Legal Career


A legal career doesn’t simply stay the same from go to woe. It’s a fluid, dynamic thing to which you need to adapt as you move along. Let’s take a look at how that might be.


A Legal Career isn’t Stagnant

Many young lawyers treat their careers like this:

  1. Graduate
  2. Do Law
  3. Retire.

As I’m sure you suspect though, “Do Law” can be broken down into a lot of different pieces.

I’m going to break it into 5.

Phase 1 – Even Looseleaf Filing is Exciting

In my first job (which I got because I was available to work on a Thursday) my initial task was to catch up the firm on looseleaf filing.

Lots of it.

If you’ve grown up entirely with digital media, this is Looseleaf:

Looseleaf (1)

And, each month, the editors send you updates.

Your job is to find the page that got updated. Take it out, and replace it.


Sounds fun, right? Well – for me, in my first job in an office, learning the ropes and being a law student – it was awesome.

I even took the old pages home to read them in my spare time (I don’t think I did – but I MEANT to).

This is the first stage of your career – you’re excited about everything, learning the ropes and generally doing your best to keep up with the pace.

Your job in meetings is to be quiet and take notes.

Your job in the office is to do what you’re told and make sure you ask lots of questions without annoying people.

Phase 2 – Found your Sea Legs

After a couple of years, you’ve got a pretty good handle on what you’re doing.

You know how to use a photocopier.

You understand office politics a bit better.

You are getting a good grounding in your particular legal niche.

This is the part of your legal career where you also might be thinking about specialisation, or respecialisation. Should you specialise or change area?

Phase 3 – Expertise

Here is where the chances are high that you’ve pretty much nailed your area of law.

You’ll be considered a “safe pair of hands” by your partners and supervisors, and you can largely function through a file without too much supervision (other than what’s required by your supervisor’s ethical obligations!).

At this point you’re wondering if you want to aim for partnership.

You’re wondering what you need to do to get there.

You’re wondering how to go about building a practice, capturing clients and generally making yourself so valuable to your firm that they can’t help but invite you to partnership.

There’s a good chance here that you’ll also be answering more questions from junior lawyers, and have an opportunity to invest into them with mentoring and generous productivity.

Phase 4 – Team Leader

Your practice has caught up with your expertise, and now you lead a team of people to serve your clients.

Although you have the expertise, your focus here will be on learning how to leverage your team, minimise costs and deliver massive results to your clients.

You’ll be working on consolidating your practice and ensuring that you can meet budgets, manage your team and continue building.

However – what you’re also going to find is that your time spent on legal services decreases, while your time spent on management, administration and HR increases.

For many senior lawyers this can be a source of frustration. Some enjoy it, but others don’t.

After all – we were trained as lawyers, and most of us have no real inclination towards or expertise in managing people.

Over time within this phase you’ll find yourself more and more needing to leverage your team – especially if you have highly expert young lawyers in your team who can deliver the same technical results, you’re doing your client a disservice by doing the work yourself.

Phase 5 – Shifting towards Retirement

Yep – there comes a time when you should retire.

But before that, there will be a period where:

  • you’re not necessarily inclined to stay up to date with every single legal development
  • your team is highly expert and can do the technical side of things for you
  • your job will morph to be largely management, client relations and administration.

Interestingly, this phase isn’t a function of age – some people will experience it at 45, others at 75, and others might never get here.

What will happen though is that many lawyers will resist this phase.

Often this is because of a lack of self-awareness – they refuse to accept or admit that their technical skills are now lacking, and that their focus should change to be delivering more value in other areas, rather than attempting to hold on to what they did previously.

It helps greatly during this time to spend a bit of time reflecting: have you achieved what you wanted to achieve, done what you wanted to do – and why are you still trying to do the same thing?

So many senior lawyers have opportunities to serve their firm better if they would accept the nature of the change and embrace the new kinds of value that they can bring.

Unfortunately, many traditional firms have a “one size fits all” model and may not be geared up to allow a partner level individual to operate in any way other than “ensure your team and yourself are billing high”. That’s a bit sad, because it means that the huge business level contributions that some more senior lawyers could be making are tied up while they still try to keep doing a job they might no longer be suited for or passionate about.

What Phase are You In?

So what’s your experience been – are you in one of these stages? Which one? How are you going to adapt over time?

Happy Lawyering!


  • I am in the sour, elbows phase. I resist authority while creating my own. Winning work has become as or more important than actually doing it.

  • Good day Chris,
    I am at a point where I don’t know whether I want to stay in practice or go to corporate, very confusing stage.

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