Since 2008, tough markets, cost cutting and pricing pressures have all conspired to squeeze law firm finances. Meanwhile, the negative effects on headline profit per equity partner (PEP) figures have led many firms to simply reduce the number of partners. Despite an upturn in the economy, firms have continued to limit the opportunities for senior associates to be made partners without a client following. Therefore, associates looking to be made partner in today’s environment must be politically savvy, plan long-term and take positive steps in order to win this increasingly elusive prize.
Having a Clear Career Focus
Long-term career planning is necessary for any lawyer but it is especially important for those that intend to become partners. Junior lawyers entering the profession usually have a clear picture of the career path ahead of them but it is essential that they understand how to navigate it successfully and to set goals with specified (but flexible) time frames. This means regularly allocating time away from day-to-day fee-earning activities to plan, implement and monitor a personal career strategy.
Applying a Career Strategy over the Long Term
A long-term mindset and a strategic approach should include putting in place several fundamental building blocks as lawyers progress their careers. Initially some elements might be difficult for junior lawyers with limited autonomy to assert control over. However, as you reach associate and senior associate level you will need to build confidence and take the initiative in all of these crucial areas to lay down the partnership track for yourself.
Demonstrate a sincere commitment to the firm and the legal profession as a whole. Genuine passion must be there for any lawyer wishing to be made partner; ambitions cannot just be limited to more money or the kudos of partnership. Senior associates must be seen to value the benefits and responsibilities of making partner such as helping junior lawyers prosper or they will be vulnerable to the threat of more sincere colleagues gaining an advantage. Staying committed for the decade or more it normally takes to become a partner will also be very challenging if you do not have genuine passion.
Seek out a mentor and start to build a strong working relationship with them as soon as you can. A partner that is a mentor can help improve technical skills and, more importantly, help you build soft skills such as management, business development and political aptitude which are essential to becoming and remaining a partner. Having a senior person within the firm on your side when the time comes can also be a critical component in convincing other partners of your abilities and persuading them to bring you on-board.
Take on the right kind of work to demonstrate your strengths and steer you in the direction of partnership. Increasingly, associates focused on partnership side-step work of a quality which might not be seen as outstanding enough for a future partner to be taking on. This must be done judiciously though as such a strategy may backfire, especially in more collegiate cultures where team play and leading by example may further partnership prospects better than any other strategy. Remember that a good mentor can provide access to great work.
Bringing in your own work by winning new clients and winning new work from pre-existing clients. This is increasingly a pre-condition for being made partner. Indeed, a strong focus on yours and the firm’s financial goals and building up contacts within key industries is likely to help sway partnership decisions, especially in tough economic conditions and a competitive market. Secondments in industry are a good way to build a better network of contacts for the firm as well as gain commercial experience. Additionally, participating in activities beyond day-to-day fee earning and attending events outside the firm will help you build your networking and client development skills.
No two firms are the same so networking internally, becoming a familiar face around the firm and promoting your image as a can-do person will open doors and give you an opportunity to find out how things really work and how decisions are really made. Associates that feel they have the right attributes for partnership but have been overlooked or marginalised at their current firm should consider the possibility of moving to a smaller or more niche practice to secure partnership. More over organising some of your own client events and winning new work as a result will get you noticed and earn you those much needed brownie points.