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Planning your law career path in professional services

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator


The professional services sector encompasses those organisations that provide various forms of support to other businesses. These organisations include consulting companies, financial organisations, accounting firms, and, of course, law firms. Some of the best-known names in professional services include McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, PwC, Deloitte, Accenture, EY, Bain & Co., and KPMG.

While these organisations exist outside of the legal sector, they have a history of attracting talented lawyers who wish to put their analytical skills to use in a non-legal context. Indeed, lawyers, having been trained to think critically and explore solutions to complex problems, are well-placed to succeed within the world of professional services.

Entering the professional services sector

Most high-profile professional services organisations run competitive graduate recruitment programs. The application process for these programs is rigorous and highly competitive. For example, at McKinsey – perhaps the world’s best-known consultancy firm – applicants who make it past the initial CV evaluation are expected to complete up to six 50 minute interviews, during some of which they will be required to solve hypothetical business problems on the spot. They are also given a multiple-choice problem solving test. If candidates are unsuccessful, they must wait for up to eighteen months before applying again.

Graduates may, of course, decide to gain experience in the legal sector before transitioning to a professional services provider. While this can help you to submit a more competitive application, bear in mind that many professional services organisations require graduates to apply within a certain period of time after finishing their undergraduate degree. Otherwise, it’s not unusual for them to expect candidates to have a second degree or evidence of impressive professional experience.

What’s involved?

Professional services employees serve two bosses: first, there is the company that employs them (for example, BCG or Accenture); and then there is the ‘client’, an external organisation that comes to the professional services organisation because it has some sort of problem that needs to be solved.

If you’re working for a business consultancy, you’ll be required to address a range of challenges, from navigating a complex merger to providing strategic advice on how best to launch a new product. It’s not unusual for employees dealing with such challenges to go on secondment, or, in other words, be based at the headquarters of their client, rather than their primary employer. It is essential that they can create productive professional relationships with confidence and skill, as they will often need to work with external teams and other stakeholders to complete important projects.

Advantages and disadvantages of working in a professional services organisation

Employment at a professional services organisation offers several advantages. First, the more prestigious providers aim to attract and retain standout graduates by offering lucrative salaries, appealing conditions, and a range of perks.

Second, you will be exposed to a variety of organisations, from profit-driven organisations to governmental bodies, giving you the opportunity to expand your understanding of non-legal service providers while developing numerous marketable skills.

Third, professional services employees enjoy variety in terms of where and with whom they work. Indeed, it’s not unusual for consultants to travel interstate to work directly with client companies.

Finally, in addition to providing an unparalleled opportunity to network, employment at a professional services provider prepares you to pursue a range of subsequent careers if, for example, you choose to move in-house with a client or change careers entirely.

Unfortunately, a career in professional services is not without some drawbacks. The travel can be relentless, especially when working for large national or multinational companies. You may also be expected to work long hours and sometimes into the weekend. Furthermore, the culture can be intense. Several professional services companies take an ‘up or out’ approach to employee development – that is, one is either promoted or asked to leave.

Career progression

The most prominent professional services organisations are global entities that employ thousands of employees across the globe. They are also hierarchical, which means that your career trajectory within a given company is usually quite clear. For example, at Deloitte, graduates usually spend their first year as an associate, become a ‘senior’ in their third year, a manager in their fifth or sixth year, a senior manager in their ninth year, and a director or partner in their twelfth year.

You may, however, decide to advance your career outside of the professional services organisation. In this case, you’ll likely benefit from an impressive client portfolio as well as evidence that you’ve been able to supply effective solutions to a range of business challenges.

Employer examples:

Job title examples:

  • associate
  • consultant
  • engagement manager
  • business analyst
  • case manager
  • digital implementation manager
  • risk manager.