Making partner in your law firm is probably the most critical hurdle in a young lawyer’s career. Yet so many attorneys don’t have a strategy for how to make that happen. I have touched on this subject before on my website and in the Lawyers Life blog.
I was interviewed by Law 360 last week and my comments about making law firm partner were included in the article they published on this subject on May 27, 2014. I hope the article is helpful to those aspiring partners out there.
Why You Haven’t Made Partner Yet
Law360, Dallas (May 27, 2014, 4:38 PM ET) — If you’re a senior associate and still haven’t made partner, it might not be the quality of your work that’s the problem — it could be weak connections with partners and clients, or the fact that you’re not bringing enough business to the table, experts say.
Hiring partners and career coaches say associates risk being left behind if they haven’t demonstrated a commitment to long-term engagement with the firm or built strong client relationships. But even well-liked attorneys who consistently deliver strong work product aren’t likely to make the leap to partner status if they can’t show a history of generating business.
“The most common issue law firm partners complain about as to why they don’t promote associates to partner status is because they don’t have enough business on their own,” legal consultant Joel A. Rose says. “They’re dependent on others to fill their plate with work.”
Peter Spirgel, managing shareholder and chief operating officer of Flaster Greenberg PC, says in today’s world, business generation is clearly a factor in determining which associates should be elevated to partner. He says it’s essential for associates to understand how to market themselves and to spend the time necessary to develop strong relationships that show hiring committees you’re committed to going the extra mile.
Michael Allen, managing principal at Lateral Link Group LLC, says large firms understand associates may not have as much business of their own and instead look for an “X factor” that shows the associate will perform well as a partner.
Some law firms, like Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Gibson Dunn and Latham & Watkins LLP, have the kind of institutionalized business that allows them to promote new partners who are trusted, diligent and good with existing clients, Allen says. At law firms without institutionalized business, the X factor an executive committee wants is typically an entrepreneurial spirit.
Proving that X factor means associates need to make themselves a known entity among the firm’s decision makers. Blending in with the crowd doesn’t work in the long haul, and it won’t win associates the kind of advocacy they’ll need to win over a partnership committee.
“The people who are the real superstars and the real losers stand out, while the rest of us fall within a gray area,” Rose says.
That means a seventh- or eighth-year associate who’s a very good lawyer and well-liked at the firm might take a back seat to a younger associate in the same practice group who’s seen as a potential superstar. Equity partners are looking down the line not only at candidates eligible for partnership slots in a given year but also at the associates coming behind them, and if partnership spots are limited in a practice area, they may choose to keep space open for a standout candidate.
Spirgel says he advises young lawyers to never be passive about figuring out where they can shine and to take an active role in understanding where a partnership opening may lie and what opportunities they need to take to position themselves for those spots.
“They can’t wait for the knock on their door,” Spirgel says. “They have to go out and make it happen. If they’re relying on the firm to identify the right niche for them and make sure they fill it, they’re doing so at their peril, I think, and really putting their career in someone else’s hands.”
Associates who pigeonhole themselves into a practice area that’s not profitable — and which the firm may jettison in favor of more lucrative work — may face disaster at partnership evaluation time, experts say.
It’s crucial to get to know your firm well, to understand which practice areas the firm plans to focus on in the long term and to figure out how to stay part of the firm’s growth plan — or if you realize your niche isn’t the right fit for your current firm, to build your expertise in the industry enough to support a lateral move.
Experts recommend talking to friendly senior partners, young partners who’ve just made the transition, senior associates who left the firm because it wasn’t going to work out, and anyone else who has insight into the firm’s hiring plans to understand what’s expected to make partner.
Of course, some market factors are beyond anyone’s control.
During the recession, successful real estate associates were unlikely to make partner because of declining work, while bankruptcy and litigation groups grew their partnership ranks in reaction to the increased demand for their services. In those scenarios, associates should have conversations with firm management about the potential to make partner when work resumes instead of simply waiting it out.
“If it’s just not going to happen, you may need to look somewhere else or be willing to take a lesser position as of counsel,” says legal career coach Daniel Roberts.
Roberts also says it’s important for associates to understand and master their firm’s concrete criteria for partnership eligibility. If a firm requires a litigation partner to have sat second chair at a given number of trials, conducted a certain number of depositions or filed a certain number of appellate briefs, senior associates don’t have a chance of rising to the next level if they haven’t checked those boxes, he says.
“You need to know and master the tasks you have to perform in your practice area to be considered seasoned enough to be a partner,” Roberts says.
Setting quality of the work and firm economics aside, associates can also get tripped up by navigating difficult personalities and law firm politics. An associate who unwittingly earns an enemy playing a powerful role in making partnership decisions needs to mend his fences or find an exit because a voice arguing against promotion carries a great deal of weight.
And the jockeying for power among different offices and practice groups within a firm can also shape which associates rise to the partner ranks. Profitable and influential practice groups and leaders can secure more partnership slots for their favored associates, leaving lower-earning groups in the dust.
The bigger the firm, the more difficult it can be to make connections with the partners who have that influence, particularly if they are spread between multiple states and countries, but determined associates need to lay the groundwork necessary to connect with the decision makers and present themselves well, Roberts says.
“You just have to get them to like you,” he says. “You have to know people in the position to offer you partnership or not, and you have to get them to like you.”
–Editing by Jeremy Barker and Edrienne Su.
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