Early career pathways in Professional Service Firms

How do you engage professionals by developing their core skills early?

Oxford Saïd Business School and Meridian West have published the third in our series of research papers aimed at those holding senior leadership positions in professional firms such as Senior and Managing Partners, Practice Group leaders, Heads of Learning and Development (L&D), and HR.

Our first two papers in this series highlighted the challenges faced by leaders in designing their ‘firm of the future’ and explored how they could successfully lead their organisations towards this new vision for a successful future enterprise, minimising the barriers to change. For both areas we considered how Learning & Development (L&D) can be used strategically to support leaders in this work: how best to align L&D activity so that it underpins strategy development and provides tools which will help the leaders with their strategy implementation, building momentum towards the chosen future model.

In our next two papers we now move on to consider the implications of this changing environment for career paths in professional firms.

This Paper considers the changing patterns and needs at the early career stage: a time when young professionals are fashioning their careers and when firms are considering not only how to attract and retain the best talent but also how to build the skill-sets and knowledge-sets of these high-potential recruits.

The paper comprises four topics from our research across professional firms:

  1. Drivers of change: the factors which are affecting early career pathways and leading to the creation of new development routes.
  2. Skills for future success: which skills we see as becoming key for professionals to develop if they are to succeed on these new career paths.
  3. Early career pathways: examples of what these new pathways are beginning to look like and how the pathways might continue to evolve.
  4. L&D strategies for the career paths of the future: how professional firms can best support their talent on less linear career paths, with L&D working closely with the firm’s leadership team to implement effective talent strategies.


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The changes to the early career phase sit within the context of rapid evolution of the overall career path in professional firms. On this broader topic, the contrast is increasingly drawn that past career paths in professional firms typically progressed in a linear format from trainee/consultant to Partner, via a series of transitions (Associate, Manager, Director, Counsel), often within the same firm. External influences are disrupting that linear progression and the old-style career ladder is being converted to something akin to a jungle gym (or, more elegantly, a ‘career lattice’). In this new model, one strategic challenge becomes how the development inputs can be structured to support an increasingly agile and flexible pathway model.

Please download the full Paper to continue reading or get in touch if you would like to discuss this further with us.

Paper 4 will be published shortly, but please get in touch if you would like to learn more.

Additional papers in the series are available below:

  • Launch paper: Creating competitive advantagedownload
  • Paper 1: Designing your firm of the futuredownload
  • Paper 2: Leading strategic change download
  • Paper 4: Career pathways for senior leaders – not yet available