Why You Haven’t Made Partner

I was recently talking to a Senior Associate who couldn’t understand why they had been passed over for partnership. Sure, they had been told they failed to create a convincing business plan. But this was not the real reason.

When we shop – whether it be for groceries or a new watch – we are always looking to obtain the best value for money. Admission to partnership is no different. Law firms look to get the best value person they can, and that means a lawyer who has demonstrated they will be an assist to the firm. For all their upset, the Senior Associate I spoke of before did not possess this value.

So, as an aspiring partner, how do you demonstrate to the key decision makers that you are a valuable asset to the firm? The criteria for partnership vary, although most law firms look for the following personal characteristics:

  1. Be knowledgeable – knowledge is power. To work towards partnership, you will need two very valuable types of information. The first is knowledge of your firm: its policies, procedures, and the general qualities management looks for in a partner. This should be readily available on the firm intranet, but a mentor or supervising lawyer will be able to supply this information. Secondly, you must become aware of the political realities in your firm. This is the information you need to play your cards to the best advantage on the road to partnership.
  2. Master your basics. Without good technical skills and practice habits, it is unlikely you will succeed in a position of seniority. Go back to basics. Research skills, drafting, advising, receiving, negotiating, written and oral communication skills are all required. Remember, a partner is responsible for overseeing allaspects of a transaction.
  1. Be prepared to put in the hard yards. Partners must have a strong work ethic. This is mainly demonstrated to management through billable hours, but don’t ignore other avenues. Participating in training and mentoring, practice development and management contribution all help to show you’ve got what it takes for partnership.
  2. Be an “ideas guru” for your clients. Business development should include not only client management skills, but an entrepreneurial attitude. Lawyers need to be able to establish effective working relationships with clients and be seen as a trusted advisor. You should be able to show not only that you receive repeat work from existing clients, but that new clients seek you out. You should be able to get in to the head of your partners and think like them, offering new and innovative solutions. Be willing to invest your energy and ideas in the firm.
  3. Remember: there’s no “I” in “Team”. Clichéd, but the most important consideration when determining candidates for partnership is whether the lawyer is a supportive team member. This means being able to positively contribute to the atmosphere of the office: a profile or reputation that reflects well on yourself and your law firm is important. Be involved outside of work, whether that be within the profession or community. Offer your skills as a mentor to junior lawyers or students, join a committee that you are passionate about. Having maturity and behaving in a mature, professional manner not only indicates you are in control of your career, but also earns you the respect of co-workers and partners alike.

Even if you can demonstrate all of these characteristics, skills and behaviours, your timetable for making partner is ultimately controlled by the needs of the firm. You cannot create water in a drought. Promotion depends on there being a space for you at the top. Partner defections, retirement, industry trends (and client’s reactions to these trends) can all create or eliminate needs. The prosperity of a practice will most often determine whether partners are willing to let you sit by their pie with fork in hand.

It is important to understand your firm’s structure and growth policy. Is partnership single or multi-tiered? Is full, equity or senior partnership tightly held? If so, you may be waiting a long while for promotion – or it may never come. The firms that place you in the best position for partnership are those that have a plan in place for achieving growth. This means taking full advantage of training and development opportunities, so as to position yourself as a “home grown” candidate above any lateral hires.

Lawyers considering partnership need to be aware of spaces available and be ready to move when they arise. Pay attention to how partners retire: does your firm have a mandatory retirement programme, or do partners hang around until they are ready to go? Your best chances for promotion will arise in an environment where partners systematically retire and leave, as this creates space.

Remember, in the end it’s a numbers game. Only you can prove your worth as an asset to the firm, and even then, partnership can only be offered when there’s space.

Lisa Gazis, Managing Director , Mahlab (NSW)