These days, with law firms tightening their belts and keeping them that way, you may consider the prospect of making partner at a law firm more farfetched than ever. If you plan ahead and implement these 7 tips, though, you will greatly increase your chances of being the lawyer who makes it:
Take on greater responsibility. There’s a big difference between a superstar associate and someone who is considered “partner material.” I once knew an attorney who was considered a top-notch junior associate. Her career stalled, however, when it became obvious that she would never grow beyond that description. She rarely sought out challenging work, never took the lead on a major deal, and continued to ask for permission and approval for most decisions she made. While no one is expected to know everything, you must establish that you are a leader capable of handling responsibility and making recommendations and decisions. What got you here won’t get you there — you must grow in your position so you can move to the next rung on the ladder.
Make yourself indispensable. Your law firm won’t make you partner just because they like you and you do good work. They are much more likely to make you partner, however, if they make a determination that they need you. Become the firm’s expert in a specialized and marketable practice area, become the go-to person (or one of them) for a key client of the firm, or bring clients into the firm (especially if you are at a small firm).
Think and act like an owner. Whether you realize it or not, the job you want is qualitatively different from the one you have. You are now an employee. Your job description mainly consists of doing quality legal work and keeping clients and senior attorneys happy. The position you want is the job of owner. Among other things, owners must keep a close eye on the bottom line, ensure that there is a steady stream of business, keep expenses low, maintain the reputation of the firm, hire, fire and manage employees, and engage in long-term strategic planning. The earlier you start thinking and acting like an owner – like a leader – the earlier senior attorneys will start to think of you that way, too.
Seek Out a Sponsor. What’s a sponsor? According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the author of (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor, a sponsor is someone who takes an interest in you and your career not out of altruism but as an important investment in his or her own career, organization or vision. It involves an implicit quid-pro-quo in which, through the delivery of outstanding results, loyalty, and an ability to make the sponsor “look good,” you earn the sponsor’s willingness and desire to develop you as a leader and help pave your way to the top. Your sponsor wants you to make partner largely because it’s good for your sponsor. I often refer to a sponsor as a “table-pounder,” someone who will go to the Partnership Committee and other members of the firm and lobby vociferously on your behalf. Do you have to earn it? Of course. But you still might not make it without a heavyweight in your corner. Finding a senior person in your firm with whom your interests align is good for you, the sponsor, and the firm.
Work With More Than One Person. While it’s immensely helpful to have a sponsor pushing for your advancement, it’s important that you have more than one cheerleader. To the extent possible, aim to work with several different attorneys in the firm so that you are widely known and trusted. If your sponsor is advocating for your elevation to partnership, you still have a much better chance of getting all the votes you need if other partners have worked with you, like you, and are willing to vouch for you.
Nurture relationships with important clients. Go out of your way to develop strong professional relationships with important clients of the firm. If you think developing an existing client doesn’t make sense because the clients belongs to another attorney, think again. Nurturing client relationships is business development even if you are not getting “origination” credit for it because retaining existing clients is critical to the bottom line. When an important client respects and relies on you, partners will take notice. Perhaps even more important, being well regarded by clients demonstrates to the firm that you have business development potential; in other words, you are someone clients will hire. Especially if you are at a large firm where you are not yet expected to have a substantial book of business, the perceived potential to bring in business is an important consideration.
Develop Your Business Case for Partnership. It’s time to be brutally honest with yourself. Imagine the chairperson of your firm asks you point-blank “why should we make you a partner?” What’s your answer going to be? For purposes of this exercise, remember that an appropriate answer will not include your needs or your desires. The real question the firm is asking is “what’s in it for us?” Assume that, unless you can respond with an answer that demonstrates real value for the firm and its partners, you will not be asked to join their club. Real value can take several different forms depending on the size and nature of the firm: a large book of business, demonstrated potential to develop clients, a strong professional bond with a key client of the firm, expertise in an important area of practice, or a willingness and ability to do something that’s critical but no one else in the firm wants to do. It’s up to you to make your case and a good idea to start thinking about it now.
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