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The Only 7 Reasons a Law Firm WIll Ever Make You a Partner

published July 29, 2021

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Almost all law students and younger associates strive to become a partner in their law firms one day. This article will uncover the seven main reasons why law offices make someone a partner and give you tips on how you can make a partner. If you are in the legal profession and this is something of interest to you, continue reading.
 

As a legal recruiter and the founder of BCG Attorney Search, I talk with many attorneys from large law firms and smaller firms, which all usually have one main career goal in mind - making partners. I often like to use the example of Navy Seals when I talk to them about making equity partners in law. Countless documentaries follow hope-to-be Navy Seals that depict the excruciating pain, and exhaustion recruits feel during the long weeks of training. The physical and psychological pain is often so unbearable that the trainees give up. When the training intensifies the last week before it ends, during what is called "hell week," many more recruits put down their helmets, even though the finish line is almost in sight. Only the strongest and most determined people achieve the status of a Navy Seal, so they wear it as a badge of honor and consider themselves elite. And they deserve it. They are not just Navy, but they belong to Navy Seals.


Making an equity partner with the law office is a similar accomplishment to making it to Navy Seals. Making partners is a big deal, and not a lot of people can do it. Many attorneys and law students give up on this path too soon, and only the most committed ones succeed. That is why telling someone you are a partner has a completely different ring than simply saying you are an associate or counsel in many firms.

But making a partner is not always about being the best. Sometimes, it is just about sticking around and doing what you can. Just as in Navy Seals training, the obstacles are often psychological or physical but not impossible to overcome.

I have worked with many attorneys in my career and seen many of them get to partner positions. However, the vast majority of them never became partners and got stuck as an associate in some New York office, chose a different legal profession, such as going in-house, or quit practicing law completely, just as a lot of the Navy Seals recruits quit the training right before the end.

You can do it as well. You can stop your drive toward making a partner and enjoy free time, less stress and pressure, and it's easy. A lot of people do it.

However, if you are really convinced that making a partner is the right thing for you, you need to commit. Continue reading and learn some basic rules that will help you on your way to your goal and success.


Most Law Firms Do Not Want to Make Equity Partners


An important thing you should understand at the beginning is that regardless of your practice area or where you are in your career, law firms really do not want to make partners. They love it when you give up and quit on your way to achieve the goal of making a partner.

The more attorneys that quit their efforts, the better it is for the company, as fewer people are competing for the money the firm is bringing in.

It also makes the existing partners feel better about themselves, as having the partner title becomes more prestigious. They are considered more respected and accomplished than if more people made it to equity partners. There is also much more money leftover if a law office doesn't make other partners, as they don't have to share profits.

Once they make someone else a partner, they have to share the firm's profits with them regardless of how much money they bring in. So, more firms often do not promote anyone to "real" partners for years.

They like to keep employees as associates as long as possible, which can be years. However, being an associate for 15 or 20 years in one company doesn't look good for the company. As a result, firms often opt for making their attorneys counsel or non-equity partners avoid sharing the profits but still believe that promotion and making partners is possible.

And because making a partner becomes such a big deal and such a hard thing to do, many attorneys think it is normal to give up and change the course of their life for something else. While there is nothing wrong with quitting once you realize that this is not what you want, if you believe that becoming a partner is your main aim, you shouldn't give up just because it seems too difficult to achieve.

Rather, you should learn how the world of equity partners works to increase your chances of getting there. And the truth is, law firms will usually not make you a partner unless they have to. Why would they? There is nothing in it for them. However, there are several situations in which they do not have another logical choice to make you a partner.


The Seven Reasons Why Most Law Firms Make Their Associates a Partner:

 
  1. You have or seem like you will have a ton of business for the firm.
  2. You have connections with a partner with a ton of business.
  3. You are connected to an influential client.
  4. You are hard-working and perseverant.
  5. The firm needs to set a good example because of low morale/employee fluctuation.
  6. The title doesn't mean anything in the firm.
  7. Your expertise and skills cannot be found elsewhere.


Have (or Seem Like You Will Have) A Ton of Business for the Law Firm


The first thing firms look at is their ability to generate business for them. If you have enough business to exploit, they will have no other choice but to make you a partner. You usually only get a fraction of the money you bring in. The rest goes to the firm and those above you. Therefore, successful rainmakers make partners in most law firms.

So, if you can bring in two million dollars with your business, you would probably get a quarter of it, and the rest stays for the firm, for its expenses, and for the people that rank higher than you. Now, that is quite a good reason for them to offer you an entire partnership. It will keep you in the firm, and you will keep bringing in money.

Of course, not all firms are the same, and not everyone makes partners. In some, it will be enough to make a partner if you bring in one million dollars. In others, especially if it is a large firm, even three million might be too little to make you a partner. If you are in a big firm in a massive market, making partners by bringing in enough business might be too ambitious. But you can always move to a smaller firm with higher chances of fulfilling your partnership goal and making a partner.

If the business you are bringing in is not in these numbers yet, but you have been consistent with attracting enough clients and business, AND your numbers have been steadily growing, there is an assumption that, in time, you will be able to bring in enough revenue. In such a situation, the law firm would be considering you for partnership despite not being "there" yet. They will see your potential, and it will be enough to make you a partner.

The more money (or potential of money) you bring in, the bigger your chances of becoming a partner are. Law firms are just businesses looking after their own benefits. They want to generate profit and keep up with the expenses. If you are only taking money, you are not a good soldier for them. So, if you want to make a partner, make sure that you always have enough business to show for it. Make connections with people and possible clients, and develop your business network early on.


Be Connected to a Powerful Law Firm Partner With a Lot of Business


Another great way to convince your firm to make you a partner is if you are connected to a potent partner or group of partners bringing in a lot of business for the firm.

It would be best to try to get close to the more powerful partners in your firm when you are still an associate because it can increase your chances of promotion. The more business and money they bring, the more say they have in what is going on. They are paying for the normal expenses and keeping the firm afloat, but they are also the reason other partners can have all the luxuries there are in the world. If someone like this puts in a good word for you, it bears a lot of weight. The firms don't want to lose all the profit they are bringing in, and they do not want to upset them, so if they want someone to become a partner, the firm will stand behind them even if you don't have enough business to make equity partner on your own.

When partners change firms, they often do not feel appreciated and supported in their decisions, including who to offer a partnership to. Firms cannot afford to lose these big fish because apart from money from their own clients, they also bring in more work for everyone else, which increases their paychecks and the firm's profit. So, in the end, it is much more profitable for the firm to make you a partner even if you do not yet have the record.

There is always a lot of politicking behind the scenes with these powerful partners, and if you get intel about it, you can use it to your advantage. You should find a powerful partner with a lot of work for you, work hard, do everything to impress them and stick to them. They will supply you with consistent work, and your chances to make an equity partner gets really high if they are satisfied with your work and attitude. And even if they decide to change companies, these big names often take their best associates with them.


Be Connected to Important Existing Clients


Connections with a powerful client, or group of clients, can also help you on your path to a partnership. Of course, it is not as usual as getting partners through a powerful partner. Still, many attorneys are offered partnerships thanks to their connections to influential clients. Those clients give the law firm a lot of business and money, so their word also matters. Firms do not want to risk losing their bigger clients.

If you get an opportunity to work for a big client as an associate, you should go above and beyond to try to impress them. Anticipate their needs and do a perfect job. Be on the call 24/7 and answer all of their questions. Be the best attorney they ever had and form a close professional bond with them. They will notice. And they will tell your boss about it. Or you can even ask them to put in a good word for you if your professional relationship is close enough.

However, you have to be careful how you go about getting close to the client. If it is too obvious, everyone in your firm will notice, and they might get suspicious that you are planning to steal the client for yourself. So you have to be subtle and consistent, which can sometimes take years. But when you do it right, you become the confidant and point of contact for this client in your firm. And the company will not be able to do anything about it because once they realize that you are close to this client, your relationship with them will be so strong that the firm would be risking losing the client.

You should become indispensable for them, make them money wherever possible, save money where money can be saved, and bill their hours fairly. They should be able to trust and consider you their right hand completely. They will be happy to mention your name for a partnership offer.


Work so hard, That They Have to Make You Partner to Avoid Demotivating Other Associates.


Another common reason associates make equity partners is that they have worked so incredibly hard to completely demotivate others from trying if they weren't offered partnerships.

Billed hours are what matters in law firms because they mean money for the company. So, every firm needs an attorney that will set a good example and bill as many hours as possible. In addition, an employee like this has to eventually make partners because if they didn't, it would tell the other attorneys that no matter how hard they work, they will never get to the next level in this company.

If you become this person, you get on the path straight to a partnership offer. It is hard work, but there is no better way to show your value to the firm than this. And how many hours should you bill?

As many as possible! However, it also depends on your company and colleagues, because what is enough in one firm doesn't have to be in other. If the average attorney in your firm bills 1800 hours, you should bill 2,500. If they bill 2000 hours, you should try to do at least 2,800. If 2,200, then you go for 3000, and so on. You need to look like the most profitable investment for the firm, so use these metrics and become the best.

You might think, Aren't these expectations crazy? I don't think so. It's just the way it is. If you want to get ahead and there is no other way for you than to work hard, you have the choice to either give up or really try. If you want to become an equity partner, you have to do a lot for it. You have to look like the absolute best person in the pack, and you need to really stand out with your numbers when they look at the performance sheet of all associates.

Most young lawyers give up at this point. They want to have a life outside of work or do not want to spend their evenings, weekends, and holidays buried in work. And there is nothing wrong with that. But most young attorneys do not have other means of becoming an equity partner than to work extremely hard, so if you are not willing to put in this amount of work, you have to either move to a small law firm where it is not as competitive or forget about becoming an equity partner.

If you are convinced that this is really something for you and you are ready to put in the hours, show your firm how dedicated you are and what the job means. Once the company sees this, it won't be easy to justify not making you an equity partner.

However, even if you are prepared to put in the time and effort, not every associate can bill that many hours. It would help if you were talented and persuasive enough to convince clients to spend money and create work. Such skill is indispensable to a law firm, and if you have it and can bring in business and money to your firm, you quickly get ahead of other attorneys.

And all of these other attorneys see how many hours you bill and spend at the office, and view you as an example, a positive role model. So that is another incentive for you to get offered a partnership. If the firm does not reward you for all this hard work and hours, the associates see no point in trying hard when it doesn't lead to anything.

This is probably the most common way of making partners in large firms - you work extremely hard for several years, and the closer you will be to being a partner, the harder it will be. Just like it is when you want to be a Navy Seal.


The Firm Needs to Set a Good Example Because Numerous Attorneys Quit


When a law firm is shaken by several departures in a short span of time, it usually negatively affects the entire firm. Most associates lose morale, which can easily worsen client relationships, influencing the firm's partners and paychecks. It is not uncommon for a company to lose top partners and senior associates. To avoid this disaster, most firms decide to make partnerships with those trying to leave.

However, you still have to remember that firms will only make partners when they have to. So, if the situation is not that bad, this might not work.

Some law firms look like they are going out of business but then start making partners and asking for buy-ins, which might look odd. But it might be an excellent thing for you to make a partner when the law firm is having a crisis. Most law firms that go through crises recover. The law practice is a very old business model, and its costs aren't that high, so even when the firm is having problems, they are usually not liquidating.

So, it can be a great thing to stand behind the firm if you have such an opportunity during the issues. But very few people do that. Instead, most people get on a bandwagon and go against a firm when it is having problems. Most attorneys are not that happy with such a position and take the chance to change companies. So, if you have the chance, take it.


The Title Doesn't Mean Anything in the Firm.


In many firms, the title "partner" doesn't mean that much. It is something in the name only.

Most attorneys start their partnership track as non-equity partners. This is a salary position for the most part. Many law firms automatically promote their associates to non-equity partners after a certain number of years or generate new business. For other firms, it is more serious, and it cannot be easy to make non-equity partners.

While the position of non-equity partners is not that different from an associate apart from the salary, it comes with a substantial amount of pressure. Some of these firms offer to be a non-equity partner and expect the employees to generate a certain amount for the firm. If they fail, they might lose their status or even search for jobs because they completely lose the current one.

In many current firms, when someone makes a partner, even if it is with shares, the system works to get less than some senior associates still. This makes the title a bit meaningless, as most legal professionals work toward partnership in hopes of getting more money.


The Law Firm Would Not Find Your Expertise, Skills, or Connections Elsewhere


If you have some special expertise, skill, or connections that the law firm needs but cannot get elsewhere, it can help you immensely on your partnership track. For example, some attorneys count on their ability to write such motions that they win almost all of them. Other attorneys might be extremely skilled in a niche area of law practice, making them indispensable for any law firm, whether big or small firms. Other legal professionals in your law firm might be great in generating business or persuading the jury for a favorable outcome. If you have something valuable for the law firm, they will not want to lose you, and the best way to keep young attorneys is to offer them a partnership.

So, being exceptional at something can really be meaningful, whether it is a large law firm or a small law firm. Likewise, having expertise in practice law can make any young lawyer indispensable to a law firm. And one of the ways to make such an attorney stay is to make them a partner.

The same thing that's also important is any special connection. If you know people, for instance, in the government or are close to someone important from your law school, it can really help you. Likewise, if your family works in the industry and if they own firms or have already made a name for yourself with a case and became well-known in your area, it could be beneficial in bettering your partnership ranks. This may be an unpopular opinion, but not everyone is created equal, and if you have the benefit of knowing someone in the industry that can help you, you should take advantage of it and take your chances.


Conclusion


In law school, all every student is usually talking about is how they will get hired in a major law firm right out of the law school and then work their way up the ladder to make partners. However, when you meet at your law school reunion 10, 15, or even 20 years later, most of your former schoolmates won't be in that position. They might still be associates, counsel, non-equity partners, or even currently searching for jobs. You might be the one that makes it. But you need to understand the game first.

The only way you need to think about increasing your partnership ranks is by securing that the cost of making you a partner outweighs the cost of not making you a partner. But, of course, you have to offer a lot of value to the law firm for them to do that.

Consider all of the above reasons why a law firm will offer someone a partnership and try to fit into any category closest to you. If you are skilled in creating work and are willing to put in hours upon hours, beat everyone else in the billing clients. If you can get close to a particular client or a senior lawyer that is a powerful partner in your law firm, make a partner through that. If you have many potential clients or new clients, you can get to your law firm, sign them in the law firm, and watch how all this generated business helps you make partners in any major law firm.

Whatever the method is that you use to get the partner title and regardless of whether you are in any of the large or smaller law firms, making a partner depends on the associate's ability to persuade everyone above you that profit sharing with you is more beneficial for the big law firm than not doing so.

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