From Graduate to Partner

Last week I spoke to an acquantance from university I hadn’t been in touch with for over twenty years. I was calling her because she was the referee for a delightful candidate I have been helping move from private practice to a senior in-house role. Of course before launching into the reference check, we had a good chat about life, children, travel and who’s doing what.

We reminisced about when we left university to take up graduate positions with city firms: back then, everyone pretty much knew who went where and who was doing what.  Most of us were pretty naïve about the “law firm path” when we started, nonetheless we were both surprised at how few from our year were today partners with city firms. And, with only a few exceptions, not with their first firm. Doing a stocktake of our cohort, we were impressed that they are also university lecturers, government executives, barristers, corporate counsel, judges, headmasters, bankers, business owners…recruiters.

It is clear that there are more of our male than female alumni who are city law firm partners – but it’s still not a huge number. After the reference check, we mused about going back in time and trying to predict then who amongst us from that law firm graduate intake would go the whole way through to partnership.

We decided that a fundamental predictor is that you have to really enjoy the law and be good at it. Ambition and hard work were obviously also very important. But a lot of our university colleagues would have matched, or at least would have believed that they matched that description twenty years ago.  What was interesting was who actually finished the marathon.

With only a few exceptions, most of the graduates from our university year who have achieved partnership have had the benefit of two things. Firstly, a strong mentor during critical years of training and client development. Secondly, they each took the opportunity to make a strategic move to secure partnership or to grow their practice. In today’s competitive market this is truer than ever.

The most well-worn path to partnership for most of our alumni involved training with a top tier firm and at some point making the critical decision to move their expertise and network to another firm, usually a little further down the “top ten” list. For some this move was made as a senior associate and for others, it was as a salaried partner (and occasionally as an equity partner).  I can honestly only think of a handful of people who are partners at the same top tier firm they commenced at as graduates.

Changing law firms is a big step, and not one to be taken lightly. But in today’s legal market, there is less and less opportunity for progression in the higher levels of top tier law firms. In order to reach the ranks of partner, you have to create the opportunity for yourself. And that often means taking your skills to another firm, one that either values or has more of a need for your expertise.

It was great to reconnect with my university acquaintance and I offer her heart felt congratulations for her achievements. What’s really lovely is that I remember most of the people from our graduating year who are now partners as smart and modest. None of them matched the cliché of the legal “shark” too often presented by TV shows such as Suits. It seems that what you need for partnership is talent, ambition, hard work, and above all the opportunity to progress.

And there’s something very satisfying about that.

Jenny Sant, Executive Consultant, Mahlab (NSW)