The Myth of Career Progression

One hundred and twenty thousand and counting: the number of solicitors admitted to the Roll.

And for most the pinnacle of their professional lives will be … Partnership.

Previously, everyone who qualified became a partner, but, in case you haven’t noticed, the length of time to reach the hallowed ground has gone out even further. For most lawyers in private practice I would wager it will take more than 10 years, and for some considerably longer. All told that means you will have given over 16 + years of your life. A long stretch by anybody’s estimation.

Once you reach the ‘Top Table’ you then have to fight to hold your place, and, increasingly, prove your worth over and over: how many times have you heard the oft repeated expression “You are only as good as your last result”?

But what of Career Progression?

I challenge you to examine each and every partner in your firm. Are they that much better than the people in their charge or with a similar PQE but who haven’t (yet) made it to partnership?

For me, I had the privilege to work with some amazingly talented lawyers and certainly one Senior Partner stands head and shoulders above the rest, but there were many partners who had gone into terminal decline. Others who should never have been promoted in the first place.

Some firms recognise the need to skill up their partner cohort but it was the exception. Most are content to leave them to their own devices. As long as they bill then it is assumed they are the finished article.

I don’t know what motivates most lawyers – sorry I don’t buy the money thing – but even when I was stretched with trials and demanding clients, I was always questioning my own ability. The $64,000 question: was I growing?

In hindsight I now recognise how little I progressed during my 14 years in practice. If anything my focus became narrowed to the point of extinction, meaning that outwith law I would be hard pressed to understand what sort of job I would be suited to.

I am not decrying the training that I received but frankly it didn’t expand my horizons and certainly didn’t go to the root of my current thesis that it is the job of your law firm employer to put you first and to make sure that they can say that they have developed every single one of their charge so that they are the most that they can be.

Anyone reading this post is very unlikely to be dissuaded from pursuing their (career) dream to be a partner but in the new dawn that is emerging you may be maneuvering yourself into a position of unemployability unless you are equipped to run a proper business and not the closed shop of private practice.

In the final analysis there will only be enough room for a discrete number of specialists of which the partner cohort is likely to be most valuable element. The on-line providers will decimate the bottom end, so that your quasi consultant role of the partner is all that will be left to leverage. But that will leave exposed those that are not up to the mark.

I know I can’t demand a damn thing but for all current partners and those aspiring to greatness, don’t just sit on your billing and think that will be enough. It won ‘t. You need to be constantly growing. That means spending time and money of your own to make sure you are the best you can be. Don’t keep looking to your firm to make up for the lack of attention to training and people development.

Ultimately, partnership has to count for more than a title. You need to know that you not only walk the billing talk but you are challenging yourself to grow, as you expect of everyone in the firm. If you are not growing then frankly you face a precipitous decline. Your firm’s brand awareness may have helped but in the brave new world where new players emerge, it will count for less than you can imagine.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~