Your Long-term Game Plan Should Include Three Parts
You know that making partner in a law firm will take time. You know that you must have a long-term game plan. There are lots of articles that will tell you that. But how many articles will tell you that your long-term game plan for making partner at a law firm needs three parts? Well, this one. Making partner is about playing the long game. It's about development in three areas:
Understand the Law Firm’s Expectations to Refine Your Long-term Game Plan
- Your legal skills. You must show throughout the entire long game that you are growing into an irreplaceable asset to the law firm.
- Your business and leadership skills. You must show throughout the entire long game that you are growing into an excellent business expert and leader who understands what it takes to run a business and how to manage a team.
- Your ability to network with others. You must show throughout the entire long game that you have what it takes to establish and nurture new and existing positive relationships that can bring in business and breed goodwill for the law firm.
Because making partner in a law firm involves playing the long game, you must understand the law firm’s expectations so you can refine your game plan. You can think you have the best-laid plans in the world about your legal skills, business and leadership skills, and even a plan for networking. However, if they don't align with the law firm's culture, mission statement, and the law firm's future vision, your plan will not do you any good. Your supervising attorney or hiring partner may view it as if you're working against the law firm's overall goals. And that won't be good for your future professional goal.
Ensure that you understand the law firm’s expectations of you as an associate. You need to understand whether they even see you as partner material. Is partnership an option for you? Is partnership an option for anyone? If it isn’t an option for you at this law firm, and you making partner is your plan regardless of whether it’s at this law firm, you need to refine your long-term game plan.
Consider a Lateral Move
Finding out that law firm partnership is off the table at your current firm is generally disappointing. If this happens, it may be time for you to consider a lateral move. A lateral move is a job search that refers to looking for law firm openings that match your current experience level. Since you’re interested in partnership, you look for law firms that offer a partnership track.
Before you accept a new job at a law firm that offers a partnership track, you’ll want to ensure that you understand their expectations. You should also engage in a discussion about the type of partnership opportunity offered. That brings us to our next point.
Know Whether the Partnership Is Equity or Nonequity
Law firm partnership comes in two flavors: equity and nonequity. An equity law firm partner receives no more than half of their compensation on a fixed income basis. They have the right to share in the profits of the firm. They own part of the law firm. A nonequity law firm partner is a salaried partner. They do not share in profits. They are essentially a partner in name only. They may still have management responsibilities and may still make some substantive decisions. They may still receive bonuses.
The significant question you must ask yourself is: Does it matter to me whether I am a partner in name only? Of course, you may also wish to ask yourself: Do I want to worry about sharing in both the profits and the losses of a law firm? It’s easy to consider the positives associated with the economic times when business is booming. However, consider recessions or times when certain industries affect certain legal sectors. Take COVID-19 as an example. Many big and small law firms are furloughing lawyers. Pandemics don’t happen often, but they do (apparently) happen. Both equity and nonequity partners (as well as associates) will feel the pinch. It’s something to consider. How risk-averse are you?
Speaking of pandemics…
Take Care of Yourself…Starting as an Associate
Being a lawyer is a high-stress job. It has a high burnout rate. It has a higher rate of substance abuse than most other professions (ranked right up there with the medical profession). Self-care isn’t something that’s taught in law school. Or in law firms. Most law firms preach at associates to bill, bill, bill…especially to those who want to become a law firm partner.
Equity law firm partners share in both profits and losses. Although nonequity partners do not share in profits or losses, they are paid well and still expected to bring in substantial business. Because partners are expected to be the financial pillars of the firm, starting as associates, you must create the habit of taking good care of yourself. And the sooner you create this habit, the easier it is to do it. You’ll be a better attorney, better manager, and better human for it.
Focus on Building Your Book of Business, Not on Networking
Most “how to make partner at a law firm” articles tell you to network, network, network. We already mentioned that networking has its place in your long-term plan. Sure, it’s important. It isn’t the end-all, be-all of making law firm partner. Equity law firm partners share in law firm profits. Nonequity partners do not share in profits, but they still get a great salary and bonuses because they still play an integral part in the law firm's bottom line. What's more important than networking? Building your book of business.
Law firms survive on profits. Don’t confuse the importance of networking with other associates with the importance of building your book of business. The more you’re able to bring in qualified clients into the law firm fold, the better. Consider the law firm’s most KPIs and which types of cases are most valued and most profitable. If necessary talk with your mentor or supervising partner about this to consider the best ways to build your book of business for the benefit of the law firm.
Help Without Expecting Something in Return
While it is important to not get taken advantage of or lose all of your time in the projects of others, you can make a lot of headway on your road to law firm partner by helping others without expecting something in return. Consider the importance of this concept in culture. Younger lawyers want to work for law firms that give back to the community in some way. This is a way to put it into action. This could be volunteering for legal aid clinics, food banks, or any number of community organizations. It could also be helping within the law firm itself with other projects not directly assigned to you…and not expecting anything in return.
Helping out helps you develop a positive reputation. While that isn’t the reason you should help, it certainly is a reward. A positive reputation can help you in the law firm. It can also help build goodwill for the law firm.
Be Accountable in All Things…Even If You Don’t Think It Matters
Professional responsibility is an important concept on the road to law firm partner. It isn’t just in the big matters. It starts with the little things that you think don’t matter. Even the things you do as an associate that you may not think should count. Think about it, though. If you cannot be trusted with the small things that you may think are unimportant, should the law firm trust you with bigger things that are truly important? This is a long-term plan. You must prove that you are trustworthy. Show that you are accountable in all things…even if you think those things matter. If the current partnership doesn’t think you can be trusted, you will not be considered for the partnership track.
Focus on High-Growth Practice Areas for Business Building
We’ve discussed the importance of building your book of business. We’re taking the concept a bit deeper when it comes to law firm partnership by considering the high-growth practice areas of the law firm. What are the practice areas of the law firm that are currently growing? Are these areas that see sustained business or do they come and go? Are there practice areas that may grow in the future?
Focusing business building on high-growth practice areas for the law firm in which you’re interested in making partner can help show that you are, indeed, partner material. But what if you do not have the experience in the high-growth practice areas? That brings us to our tenth critical consideration for making law firm partner.
Continuous Development of Professional Skills
You know that you shouldn’t fall behind on your CLEs. There can be serious repercussions (especially since you have the goal of becoming a law firm partner) for neglecting your obligations. The good news is that you can take your obligation of keeping your legal education up-to-date and use it to your advantage. If you aren’t particularly skilled or experienced in certain high-growth practice, focusing some of your required CLE time could be a good way to gain basic knowledge (although you should still gain practical experience as well).
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