5 Things to consider before joining (or ruling out) the law partnership track

As it’s the season for some firms to announce promotions to partnership, you may be wondering whether this is the right route for you.

A number of lawyers I speak to about this topic are ambivalent. They like the work they do but they are not sure whether they want to aim for partnership or bind themselves further to their current firm. They wonder whether they’ll be able to flourish in their environment and, quite frankly, they just aren’t quite sure whether partnership is as good (or bad!) as it’s rumored to be.

It doesn’t help that the internal workings of a law firm partnership are often shrouded in mystery and it is certainly intriguing how many detail-oriented and thorough lawyers are working towards (or actively avoiding) a milestone they don’t know much about.

A few years back I had to decide whether partnership was something I wanted to pursue, so I’ve put together a list of things I was either pleased I knew before being promoted, or wished I’d considered more before taking the plunge.

Image by Adam Cao

You must LURVE your niche:

Unless you’re a generalist, inheriting a practice from a retiring partner, or have some other form of strategic promotion case, you’ll have to be clear on how your promotion will provide that “something extra” to the partnership, whether this involves bringing in new clients or expanding a practice area.

Common advice is to look for gaps in the market, carve out a specialty and build a business case around a niche area of practice. I would add that in order for you to reach your potential and feel fulfilled in this demanding role, you will need to sincerely love and be inspired by the clients you are working with, or the sector you are working in. Don’t pursue something that bores you merely because you think no one else is doing it and it might get you over the partnership line. Your days (and most often your nights) will be consumed by talking to clients, prospective clients and your team about matters relating to your practice and the relevant market. To be perceived as a trusted advisor in a competitive environment, clients will need to feel that you genuinely care about them and the work – that it is not just a means to an end. Passion is therefore important. If you want to excel and have a fulfilling career as a partner, a general interest in your clients and sector is unlikely to suffice. You need to be so passionate about it that you want to marry it – and have its children.

Show me the money:

There are a number of different partner remuneration structures: lockstep, eat what you kill, ad hoc, founder patronage systems and, perhaps the most common, the modified lockstep. Understanding the model that operates at your firm is important. You might also want to start noticing the impact the remuneration system has on firm culture. What do you notice about how people at the firm speak about and market to clients? Do clients “belong” to a specific partner or practice group? How is work resourced? There are varying arguments about the type of system that fosters the most collaboration, or which is the most effective, but what you need to determine is whether that system will work for you. Do you think the system is fair and can you live with the impact you perceive the system has on firm culture?

Aligned values and mission statement:

Are your work-related values and mission statement consonant with your firm’s? If your employer has a ubiquitous mission statement (such as being “firm of choice”) consider whether the culture and accepted behaviour at your firm is consistent with what is important to you.

The why:

It is no longer realistic to assume that everyone entering the legal profession is doing so with the hope of one day making partner. So why are you keen to put yourself in the running for this title? What are you yearning for that you hope will be satisfied by partnership? And once you are a partner, will the reward you are seeking be enough to sustain you throughout your career? Whether you are after financial gain, status, validation, stability, autonomy, to shape a new generation of lawyers or something else entirely, be honest about why you want this position and whether getting it will be enough to sustain you through this tumultuous role.

Test your expectations:

Once you know “why” take stock of all the expectations you have around partnership. Do you expect that partners:

  • receive remuneration well in excess of other lawyers within the firm?
  • can operate autonomously?
  • are not expected to clock as many chargeable hours as associates?
  • are on their own, receiving little support from others?
  • have to know the answer to every question?
  • have no free time or have more free time than associates?
  • will or won’t be supported by other partners after promotion?

Every partner you speak to is likely to have a nuanced experience, so pay attention to the trends and patterns developing from your conversations. For example, if you are being sold the dream of “autonomy” but you often hear partners lamenting the “good old days” before the firm became more corporatised in managerial structure, you might want to be curious about that. Is autonomy (as you understand it) likely? And if not, how might that impact you and your “why”?

While I talk about testing your expectations, you can’t rely on all of your carefully tested expectations proving true. As with becoming the owner of any business, there remains a degree of uncertainty so being clear about your purpose; confident that you’re in the right place; and sure that you’re serving the right people, is key.