Navigating your private practice legal career in an ever-changing industry

Strategic advice for evolving legal careers: From student to senior lawyer, navigate the dynamic legal field with expert guidance for every stage.

Promoted by Kristina Steele, Director 27 February 2024 Big Law
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As experienced legal recruiters, we are often engaged to provide strategic, well considered, expert advice on career planning so that longer term career goals can be achieved.

We are frequently asked by lawyers of all levels: “What steps do I need to take to achieve X, Y and Z.”. Unfortunately, many lawyers do not become clear on their goals, or stop to re-assess their trajectory, until they are too far into their legal careers and by which time, these goals may be extremely difficult to achieve.

Here are some tips to consider throughout your legal career when planning your future in the profession:

Law Students

If you are someone that intends to “shoot for the stars, aim for the moon” in your legal career, your commitment to your legal studies could not be more important. Your suitability to work at a top tier or global law firm will start well before you are in practice and will largely depend on your academic performance in your LLB/JD. Your choice of university can also play a key role in your future career with some law firms preferencing some universities over others.

Where possible, it is also advisable to seek employment as a Legal Assistant and/or Paralegal during your studies, study time permitting.

Finally, students in their penultimate year of their degree are typically eligible to apply for clerkships. Some firms accept applications from students with less than two or more than four semesters of study remaining, but you should check with each firm. Therefore, you should start planning early!


As a Graduate lawyer, if you missed out on a clerkship opportunity or did not plan accordingly, the result often means you will be applying for a scarce number of graduate roles in the firms that do not offer clerkship programs. There is still huge value in joining a boutique law firm which offers training, but you should always keep the following in mind:

  • Be opening to learning – embrace every opportunity to gain experience through formal training, observing others or hands-on experience.
  • Building relationships – networking is crucial in the legal field so build strong relationships with your colleagues, mentors, and professionals within and outside your organisation.
  • Seek mentorship – finding a mentor in the legal profession can provide you with invaluable insights, advice, and support. A good mentor can help you navigate the complexities of the profession, offer career guidance, and introduce you to their network.
  • Specialise wisely – consider specialising in an area of law that not only interests you but is also in demand. However, remain flexible; your interests may evolve as you gain more exposure to different areas of law.
  • Be patient and persistent – building a successful legal career takes time and perseverance. You may face setbacks, but resilience is key. Learn from your experiences, and do not be afraid to take calculated risks.

Admitted Lawyers

Your hard work has paid off, you have earnt your right of passage and you are now an admitted lawyer, but what next? It is now time to work at your craft as the landscape of your professional journey shifts significantly. The most important advice is, pick your niche. While it is beneficial to start with a broad base of legal knowledge, developing expertise in a specific area of law can make you more marketable and allow you to provide more specialised services to your clients. Also, most of the large law firms in Australia have specialised teams for each area of law meaning you will also be an attractive hire to said firms if you are a specialist in one area of law, rather than generalist in many areas.

We often come across lawyers who have developed a solid niche in an area of law for say 3 years, seeking to change practice area. Although not impossible, it is extremely difficult to move to a new (particularly unrelated) area of law and you risk being hit with a reduction in your post admission experience in your specialism and the benefits that come with it (title, salary, autonomy etc.).

Senior Lawyers

Lawyers having reached Senior Associate title or above tend to now start planning where they want to be for the rest of their career, one option is reaching Partnership.

Now is the best time to consider undertaking a Master of Laws (LLM) to bolster your specialism, extend your network, improve your job search prospects, boost your earning potential and more!

At this level, the stakes are high, and the competition can be fierce. By focusing on the following areas, you will be well-positioned to make a compelling case for the next step in your career:

  • Demonstrate leadership - show that you can lead a team, manage complex projects, and mentor junior lawyers. Leadership also means contributing to the firm’s strategy and being proactive in identifying new business opportunities.
  • Build Your business acumen - understanding the business side of law is crucial. This includes everything from managing budgets and understanding the firm’s financials to being able to bring in new clients and retain existing ones. Demonstrating that you can contribute to the firm’s profitability is often a prerequisite for partnership.
  • Cultivate client relationships - strong, lasting client relationships are the backbone of any successful law firm. Work on expanding your client base and deepening existing relationships. Being seen as someone who can attract and retain clients is critical for those looking to become partners.
  • Show commitment to the firm’s values and culture - firms look for partners who embody their values and contribute positively to the firm’s culture. Engage in firm activities, initiatives, and committees to demonstrate your commitment and fit.
  • Seek feedback and act on it - regularly seek feedback on your performance and areas for improvement. Showing that you can receive constructive criticism and use it to grow is a sign of a mature and dedicated professional.
  • Mentor others - demonstrating that you can mentor and develop junior lawyers is important. It shows leadership, a commitment to the firm’s future, and the ability to manage and develop talent.
  • Be visible - make your aspirations known to current partners and decision-makers within the firm. Engage in discussions about the future of the firm and share your vision and how you see yourself contributing as a partner.
  • Prepare for the process - understand the partnership track and criteria in your firm. Prepare a compelling case for your partnership that highlights your contributions, client relationships, leadership, and vision for how you will continue to contribute as a partner.

Ultimately the message is: stop, reflect, repeat. Your career is a journey that you can navigate successfully by some timely and thoughtful introspection and conversation with a trusted advisor.

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