Is Partnership for You?

You would be hard pressed to convince the ambassadors of the 99% currently occupying cities around the world that Bay Street lawyers are feeling their collective frustration and disenfranchisement. Maybe that’s a stretch. But many associates who hit their senior years just as the recession hit have also felt powerless and slighted at the hands of an elite. And it’s an elite that is becoming more exclusive each year.

Yet despite the hurdles in getting there, partnership remains the goal of many lawyers in private practice. If not to fulfill a bereft sense of belonging after not making any clubs or teams in high-school, then surely associates are enticed by the bigger paycheck, bigger title and bigger office. But how many of those associates understand what partnership entails and how to get there? To be fair, some partners admitted they aren’t sure how they got “there” either. But from those with a bit more clarity about their path, here are five things you should know about that exclusive club you’ve been dying to get into.

Grab the Low-Hanging Fruit

Not surprisingly, many of the partner hopefuls I speak with are most troubled by the prospect of developing business. After a few years seized by doubt in their ability to practice law, a new kind of uncertainty sets in regarding their ability to evolve into a business person.

One junior partner explained that the first step in developing business is to understand that the path to partnership is not the same at every shop. Some firms which boast the major banks and financial institutions as their stalwart clients may find your start-up tech client laughable in terms of their bottom line. Well maybe they won’t laugh in your face, but chances are you’ll be faced with a lack of enthusiasm and support in developing this business. For instance, some firms have a new client file opening protocol which will prevent opening files that don’t meet a certain dollar amount.

For those associates who have spent their careers servicing titans, developing a book can understandably be intimidating. But word on the street is, nobody expects or really thinks you’re going to land a big bank or a $10 million transaction.  Instead, associates have found success in finding new business right in their own backyard. That is, with existing clients.

For starters, junior partners explained the importance of getting to know the junior contacts at existing clients. If the senior client contact retires or moves on, you’ll be the one with the relationship. And it’s always better to start developing that relationship early on.

Another strategy is marketing oneself to under-serviced areas within the firm’s existing client base. A labour and employment lawyer I spoke with explained that he approached some of the firm’s corporate clients who weren’t already being serviced by the firm for their employment needs. And the contacts he was developing with the client were his own.

Even if these relationships are not paying immediate dividends, by all accounts the firm is watching and noticing, and not in a creepy Grisham way.

Self-Promotion is Not a Bad Word 

It seems the recurring theme from partners in terms of what it takes to make partner is to start early. So what does that mean for the mid-level associates who may not yet poised to develop business? Beyond building an early network with clients, another repeated bit of advice was to market oneself internally – that is to the partnership, but also the firm at large. But remember that while self-promotion is not a bad word, it becomes bad when it turns otherwise self-respecting lawyers into sycophants.

One newly anointed income partner explained how he found success in working for as many partners as he could. As a real estate lawyer, he attended the mining group and banking group meetings which led to work on the real estate aspects of these corporate deals. When it came to partnership consideration, he found himself with strong support across several practice groups and didn’t encounter the embarrassing blow of partners at the table who had never heard of him.

But marketing yourself internally requires more than doing work for different partners. It also means having a presence at the firm beyond your practice. Not only does it increase your exposure, but it also demonstrates an interest in the management of the firm and giving back in ways other than billable hours. For instance, one partner explained that getting involved with things like chairing charitable campaigns, student recruitment and mentoring as well as sitting on committees that affect the firm like the technology committee, opinions committee and standards committee goes a long way. Though these contributions are harder to quantify, it demonstrates an interest in the firm as a business which is a crucial component to partnership. 

The Next Big Thing 

While starting to mine the firm’s existing clients is a good place to start, don’t underestimate your ability to build your own network. Again, this may not be feasible early on in your career, but consider two things: 1) as you get more senior, so do your peers; 2) as you work towards partnership, many of your peers are going in-house. These two inevitabilities combine to give you good chances for developing your own client base in the next 5-10 years. The point is to start laying the groundwork early on with a network that is all your own.

One junior partner described that when a guy he went to school with went in-house to a large mining company, he made an effort to stay in touch by taking him out for lunches and drinks. Though his friend was only junior counsel and not in a position to throw him work, he knew that in 10 years he might be the general counsel at that company or somewhere else.

With a robust budget for lunches and dinners, another partner made the most of his existing contacts and described that some of his best clients became his good friends. He admitted that the best way to keep a client is to make them your friend. But in every case, the friendship has to be established years before it would actually pay off. Asking a client for drinks for the first time after they are promoted to general counsel is not the best way to create sincere and effective relationships. 

Act Like You Own the Place 

That title might be a bit misleading as I’d never encourage walking around the office like it’s your personal kingdom. Although some partners do walk around the firm with an obnoxious swagger and seem to have a despotic comfort in the bathroom. But there is a legitimate shift in thinking that should accompany partnership in that associates need to start thinking like business owners.

Thinking like an employer vis a vis associates does not mean you should now treat your not so distant peers like minions. Rather, it means having a stake in promoting the morale, retention and professional development of associates. As one senior associate became partner he became acutely aware of the importance of becoming a teacher. As he assigned work to associates, he would always try to feed them good work and ensure that they were not being overworked. As an employer, not only did these kinds of considerations ensure strong associates would stick around, but it also gave him a long list of associates who consistently wanted to work with him.

Thinking like a business owner also meant thinking of the future of the firm. One junior partner explained that the biggest transition for him was learning to have a voice within the firm. This is especially important for junior partners as many of the senior decision makers may not be thinking of the direction of the firm beyond their own retirement. While senior partners may take a short-term view, junior partners have to consider how decisions will affect the firm in 10-20 years. 

Of course, thinking like a business owner means that building and maintaining client relationships becomes even more important.  One female partner I spoke with explained that she took more of a stake in reaching out to clients once she became partner. She took simple steps to solidify her relationships including passing along articles that related to her clients’ business, taking note of personal items she discussed with clients like their vacation plans so that she could personalize the relationship, and keeping her contacts up to date with everyone down to an analyst she worked closely with on a deal.  

To Be or Not To Be 

Not to be overly dramatic, but the decision whether to pursue partnership can be tantamount to an existential crisis for some. You would be surprised to know how many successful lawyers willingly left private practice but still feel a sense of failure for not having reached the pinnacle of law firm hierarchy. For others, it was a question already answered before they articled. Either way, partnership is not something you should, or really can, fall into. And the decision should be made for the right reasons.

The most convincing case to confront this decision head on is that the earlier you do it, the better off you will be. The danger is that the more uncertain or ambivalent you are about partnership, the less effort you will put into getting there. In this economy, half-hearted efforts won’t cut it. In this economy, even whole-hearted efforts sometimes don’t cut it. With stretched partnership tracks and income partner limbo, associates may get to be very senior before they find out that partnership is not a real prospect. If you only get the message as a 7th or 8th year, the options for moving to another firm or in some cases, even going in-house, become a lot slimmer. Unless you have a book of business to market to another firm, or already have some in-house experience, you may find your marketability compromised. 

The earlier you decide whether partnership is for you, the earlier you can start working towards business development. These days, some firms are interested in any relationships you can build. That can mean that friendships with people from your undergrad may become relevant. More importantly, it is best to confront whether business development is something you even like early on in your career as most have an either allergic or addictive reaction to it.

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