The Five Stages of Every Legal Career

Learn the Five States of Every Legal Career

Summary: The five stages of every legal career are important to understand for every legal professional in order to discover where you are at and how you can improve.

1. Orientation: You figure out the rules of the game.

In the first phase, you engage in a variety of tasks for the very first time. As a result, you must act without always knowing what you're doing – an uncomfortable feeling if you're accustomed to competence and control. Simply living through the discomfort of feeling foolishly incompetent – getting to the point of doing something the second or the third time – will sometimes cure your career ills. To reduce your discomfort, identify sympathetic colleagues with more experience to turn to for guidance.

2. Challenge: You prove your competence.

During the challenge years, you operate along a stimulating learning curve, becoming more and more skilled. The challenge phase is particularly engaging and, as a result, little dissatisfaction emerges during this period. The risks, instead, are that you'll be assigned work beyond your expertise, or that you'll take on more work than you can competently handle. The key to continued satisfaction is to admit when you're in over your head and seek assistance.

3. Establishment: You climb the ladder.

In this phase, the goal is to achieve success, however you define it. There are three risks. The first is that you may let your desire for a good income and a stellar reputation control your actions to the point where you neglect personal relationships. The second is that you may drive so hard that, as anthropologist Joseph Campbell put it, you'll reach the top of the ladder only to discover you've placed the ladder against the wrong wall. The third danger is that you'll find yourself stuck on an intermediate rung of the ladder. Then, you'll face three options: move to new work, accept the situation or redefine success.

4. Cruising: You operate on a comfortable plateau.
This phase begins when you've mastered your profession and reached a comfortable prominence: a place where you know your job, can easily meet its challenges, and feel both personally and financially secure. Although some can cruise happily until retirement, many others will become restless or bored-especially those who thrive on the excitement and tension fueled by having to learn. You can improve your longevity while reinvigorating your career by adding an element of risk to your workday. You might experiment with new projects, branch into a related discipline, or strike out on your own.

5. Disengagement: You begin to let go.

If you believe you are in the cruising phase but have begun to question your attachment to your career, you may in fact have entered the disengagement phase. Disengagement can lead to retirement or a new career, or it can lead to procrastination, loss of interest, or depression. To avoid the pitfalls of the disengagement period, take action. Do something that exhilarates you and makes you feel a little bit afraid. That something new may just lead you to a new career, where the five-stage cycle will begin anew.

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