Publish date: 18 August 2022
Trent Johnson

I’ve had a few different titles in my career.  In the last year I’ve changed from being a Salaried Director in a law firm with multiple practice areas to Special Counsel and, more recently, Partner in a dedicated personal injury practice.  

I was initially hesitant to move into the role of Special Counsel.  If I’m being honest, I was concerned about what my colleagues in (as well as those outside) the profession would think of my new title given my time in the game and whether it was a move in the “right direction”, irrespective of the actual requirements of the role.

It got me thinking about the perception of titles and the meaning they hold in modern legal practice. 

With so many titles for people who seem to be doing the same (or similar) work, it must be confusing not only to non-lawyers but also to the emerging generation entering our profession and how they plan and track their career progression.

When I started my articles, there was a relatively straightforward career trajectory for young, determined lawyers – Articled Clerk, Lawyer, Associate, Partner.  Not being from a legal background, I didn’t initially realise there were both Salaried Partners and Equity Partners, nor other senior roles such as Special Counsel and Consultant.  Around that time the role of Senior Associate was also emerging.

It may have something to do with the ever-increasing numbers of new lawyers entering the profession, the evolution and growth of contemporary legal practice areas and possibly the changing demographic of those in practice; but one thing is certain, and that is the proliferation of new titles in the legal profession has continued to evolve at a rapid rate over the past few decades and seemingly is not slowing.

For what is a handful of different roles, there are now numerous permutations of what are otherwise fairly standard titles:

  • Law Clerk/ Senior Law Clerk/ Managing Clerk/ Senior Managing Clerk;
  • Law Graduate/ Graduate/ Graduate Lawyer;
  • Lawyer/ Solicitor/ Senior Solicitor;
  • Associate/ Senior Associate;
  • General Counsel/ In-House Counsel/ Special Counsel/ Legal Counsel/ Senior Legal Counsel/ Executive Consultant/ Consultant/ In-House Advocate;
  • Partner/ Principal/ Principal Lawyer/ Supervising Principal;
  • Director/ Executive Director/ Non-Executive Director/ Managing Director/Founding Director.

Whilst these may be considered traditionally hierarchical titles, it becomes a little confusing when you consider some of the other, modern titles now used both on their own and in conjunction with those above:

  • Legal Executive;
  • Chief Legal Officer;
  • National Litigation Specialist;
  • National (insert practice area here) Strategist;
  • Legal Practice Manager/ General Manager/ Senior Manager;
  • Team Leader/ State Team Leader/ Practice Leader/ Senior Practice Leader/ State Litigation Leader/ Practice Group Leader/ Office Leader/ (insert practice group here) State or National Leader/ National Practice Leader/ Regional Office Leader/ State or National (insert practice area here) Leader/ Industry Leader;
  • (Insert geographic region or State/Territory here) Head of (insert practice area here);
  • 2IC.

Whilst the desire to identify a lawyers’ particular area of practice, geographic region or speciality is understandable, it isn’t always clear where some of these roles would meaningfully fit in the career trajectory of a young lawyer.

In view of this, how do our emerging lawyers identify a career path or determine how they are progressing towards their career goals at any particular point in time against whatever organisational chart (factual or fictitious) they are mapping themselves upon?

Are the changes we see in keeping with other professions?  Are they driven by modern market (i.e. legal consumer) demand or expectation?  Are we genuinely adapting to a changing demographic within our profession?  Or are we introducing change merely for the sake of change or some other reason?

I hope, for the sake of the next generation of lawyers making their way through the ranks, there is still a clear path to their end goals, whatever they may be.

Trent Johnson
Trent Johnson
Partner & Brisbane Leader
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