• The lifespan of an attorney’s career is dominated by two stages – apprentice and builder.
  • The apprentice learns, observes, accrues goodwill, and learns the finite details that make for a strong attorney.
  • The builder stage of an attorney’s career is when an attorney is building a business, especially as they bring in more business to the law firm.

Understand the Two Stages of a Law Firm Attorney’s Legal Career

In law firms, there are two stages of an attorney’s career.
  • The first stage is the apprentice stage. An apprentice is exactly what it sounds like: Someone who is there to watch people with more experience, learn a craft, build up goodwill, and learn the intricacies of how to be a good attorney. Most people fail as apprentices in the law firm system because, among other things, they are impatient, want too much too soon, and are controlled by their egos. An attorney needs to be an apprentice for at least five years in the legal profession before the attorney can consider transitioning into being a builder—and at that point, the attorney must give everything he or she has and go all in. See Why Attorneys with 5+ Years of Law Firm Experience Are in Serious Trouble (and Seven Steps They Need to Take to Save Their Legal Careers) for more information.
  • The second stage is the building stage. The builder is someone who has crossed the chasm from being an apprentice to someone who is now building a business. Builders are doing things that are likely to bring clients to them—and gradually they are succeeding at their rainmaking efforts. Instead of doing work assigned by others, they are getting their own work and also getting work to give to others. They are contributing by training other attorneys, by doing their own work, and by bringing in work for others to do. Most attorneys never make it to the building stage because they are either (1) not successful apprentices, or (2) do not lay sufficient groundwork in their careers to ever become builders. An attorney should always try and transition into being a builder after practicing for five or six years with a law firm—and go all in.
A. Harrison Barnes

Most attorneys in large law firms do not have the long-term vision or staying power they need to become truly successful apprentices or builders. As a result, they get chewed up and spit out by their institutions without succeeding at either two stages. If you want to succeed in a law firm, nothing is more important than understanding where you fit and doing everything you can to succeed in each stage.