Career Progression for Lawyers – Transitions and Reinventions

For many associates there isn’t a great feeling of career advancement. One senior L&D director describes it as more like a process of walking across a barren desert with tumbleweed blowing across a poorly defined track and occasional signs that turn out to be mirages!

Professor Ibarra tracked the development of 39 professionals over a 3 year period and wrote up the findings in her book called ‘Working Identity’. The transitions weren’t just related to legal practice, so I have attempted to take her principles and apply them to the development of careers for lawyers.

Having worked for 30 of the top law firms, I reviewed the career frameworks or competency frameworks that these firms have in place. There are some interesting differences – some firms place much more emphasis on being entrepreneurial or innovative in their behaviours. But overall it is striking how similar they are. Also it is clear how steep the career transitions are and, in some cases, how little support lawyers get to make the progressions firms are looking for.

The big picture way of describing the changes firms seek is the need for lawyers to move from a technical and operational perspective to a commercial and strategic one.

The transition of skills for lawyers looks something like this:

  • Technical mastery – lawyers need to start off being good at doing the work. They obviously need to know the law and have technical skills.
  • Practice mastery – lawyers then need to start thinking about more efficient or effective ways of working (what I call ‘process’ skills).
  • Client mastery – lawyers need to develop relationship skills and the ability to impress clients with their insights and build rapport
  • Leader/manager mastery – as a senior associate, lawyers need to be good at delegating and supervising others, and doing this in a way that mitigates risks to the firm as well as motivating the junior lawyers
  • Business mastery – to be able to be an effective partner, lawyers need to understand the market for legal services and understand how firms make money

My way of showing the transitions for lawyers that Professor Ibarra describes is shown in the diagram.


So what can be done? There are actions that firms can take and actions for the individuals as well.


  1. Those of us specialising in the field of learning believe that firms need to consider the support they offer to lawyers in transition. To learn well, people need to experiment. It’s not easy to do this in a legal context, because of the inherent risks. But opportunities do exist and firms need to allow juniors to try things out in a risk-controlled way.
  2. Partners need the skills of delivering constructive feedback. I hear that on occasions, partners vent their frustrations rather than provide helpful feedback for the good of the junior.
  3. Firms will benefit if they develop in-house coaching or mentoring skills. By doing this, senior lawyers can support the learning better – rather than simply telling others what to do.


  1. The lawyers themselves need to take their career progression seriously. It can be tempting to coast. You need to recognise that to get on you need to move out of your comfort zone. Set yourself stretching goals.
  2. Lawyers should seek constructive feedback. Ask how you’re doing. I recognise that this takes courage. We tend to live by the mantra that ‘no news is good news’. Sometimes that’s right. Sometimes it isn’t! It’s better to know if there’s something to work on to allow your career to flourish.

For more information about Prof Ibarra’s work at INSEAD on leadership transition, see

To sum up, here are her words:

‘What has made you successful in the past won’t make you successful in the future’.

Prof Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD

For further insights into new roles for plateaued partners, see

This entry was posted in Coaching and Training, Leadership and Management, Managing Change and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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