The ‘How To’ of Making Partnership in a Law Firm

Partnership is the Holy Grail of legal practice.

Please don’t say otherwise.

I simply don’t believe that having committed to a professional calling, you aspire to anything less.

Of course, if you work in local government, in-house or outside of private practice then the label means little to you. But, for the majority of solicitors practising in the United Kingdom, the pinnacle of their profession is partnership.

They say patience is a virtue but, if like me, you were always keen to progress your legal career, you will find the snail-like speed of decision-making incredibly frustrating and debilitating (apropos doing the best job possible for your clients and putting in maximum grunt for the firm).

The cultural dynamic of partnership has radically changed. When I went into practice in 1996, nearly all the then partners had qualified into partnership. There was none of this (yawn!) going through innumerable hurdles to come within a stone’s throw of having a “business case” (how those words make me feel sick to the pit of my stomach) for partnership.

Just think of a GP’s practice. Can you imagine going in and being told that the person you were seeing was an associate or senior GP?

But law firms have had to cope with the inexorable growth in the number of people qualifying, and there are simply too many people chasing too few partnership places. But that said, and as cynical as it may seem, very often every conceivable (and unsustainable) reason is proffered to deny those striving for the ‘Top Table’ to gain entry.

I cannot say from my own experience that only the very best were promoted and certainly there were quite a few partners who were lucky to remain as partners set against the criteria applied to the new breed coming through (and they knew it).

If you are not put off by the increasing number of barriers put in your way, then here is a list of things I would focus on to (hopefully) make the breakthrough. Of course, none of them are guaranteed to make the difference between the stasis of associateship and partnership, but they will at least give you a ready reckoner to work out if the reasons you are being given stack up.

  1. Have you produced regular, personal billings that equate to no less than 3/4 times your salary?
  2. Have you grown a team greater than yourself and your secretary?
  3. If not, how big is the practice area that you have picked? More than £500,00? The benchmark that I was set was £1m. Looking back this looks like a completely unsustainable figure for a South West practice. And in any event isn’t the issue the profit of your practice area? Yes you might only turn over £150k but how much net profit do you make for your firm? If you don’t know, ask and ask again. Or, more importantly, how quickly do your clients pay your bills? Cash is KING after all.
  4. Don’t compare yourself to others. “Right place right time” isn’t going to help when you go home to your partner, and say “It wasn’t my time”.
  5. You have to strive to be the most of anything. If your firm doesn’t recognise that by awarding you the badge of partnership then you need to consider if you are willing to continue to put in the hard work necessary to be front of mind (in fees terms) for another 12 months at least.
  6. Make your offering so compelling that you leave the partnership committee little room for manoeuvre. This means presenting them with a scenario that means not only will they lose a chunk of (£) turnover, but, in all likelihood, even if you are subject to a restraint of trade or non-solicitation clause, there is every chance that as your clients LOVE YOU so much they will walk when you are out of shot of an injunction.
  7. Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t question yourself and continually ask ‘Why’ this firm. Trust me one firm looks and feels a lot like the next.
  8. Believe that you made the right decision and the sacrifices that you have undoubtedly made are worth every brass farthing.
  9. Be proud of your achievements and don’t be afraid to tell others. This is not an excuse for you to think yourself better than anyone else but just a reminder to self that even if you are struggling to make an impression with the firm’s hierarchy or having been missed over for partnership that you are still worthy of the opportunity to be considered.
  10. Don’t give up. If you do get knocked back then you need to persevere. Legal practice is about the long haul.
  11. Be very clear in your objectives and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. This is not the same as bemoaning the fact that others have apparently done less than you hitherto to move up the greasy pole; but you have to recognise that no one is going to speak up for you.
  12. Make yourself known. And don’t think this means sucking up. You need to put yourself out there in such a way that those more senior to you in the firm consider you a safe pair of hands and someone who is going to pick up their friends and acquaintances as clients even where you cannot charge.
  13. Make sure you properly understand the process. The best way to get to grips with this is to talk to those that have just gone through it, and ideally not in your practice area. They should be able to add the insight that would otherwise be missing if you speak to the partner that is supporting your application.
  14. If you have to go through an interview process then make sure you practice your presentation well in advance. Don’t expect those that you are pitching to to understand your business case. If you have a practice area that you are basing your business case around then stick to the essentials – the numbers are everything but try to see the bigger picture. What are the internal opportunities – the cross-sell in other words.
  15. Do you want it bad enough? Partnership isn’t to be taken lightly and simply passing muster at this stage isn’t the end of things. If anything it is only the start. There will be lots of people hoping that everything you have committed yourself to comes true but equally there will be those, silently, overtly or otherwise who can’t wait for you to fall on your face (“I told you so”). Don’t give them any excuses to crow. “Stick it to the man” as Jack Black said in School of Rock. As Matt Huddleson a partner of Foot Anstey said on Twitter yesterday: – P[artner]ship [is] only the start of the journey, providing a platform to succeed”.
  16. Partnership is a means to an end, and not an end it itself. You will want to take a greater role in the successful running of the practice, and don’t think that billing is the sine qua non of partnership because it isn’t (certainly not after a few years of showing your capability). This may seem to be running before you can walk but have a focus beyond the partnership route.

Now I recognise that this reads like a model of perfection and in keeping your head above water you will have very little time to polish every facet of your practice but you have to carve out an opportunity to build your partnership portfolio. Little and often should be your mantra.

Keep a record – perhaps a partnership diary of the things that you still have to master or engineer before you are ready to make your move.

I have mentioned many times before the excellent work of Michael E Gerber author of the E-Myth Revisted. He doesn’t just deal with growing a successful small business, he also deals with life itself.

He says (at p. 138)

“As with Mature companies, I believe great people to be those who know how they got where they are, and what they need to do to get where they’re going. Great people have a vision of their lives that they practice emulating  each and every day. They go to work on their lives, not just in their lives.” (my emphasis added).

And that’s just it. Have a vision of yourself as partner of your firm. It has to be something that motivates and inspires you and not what you think will get you a stake of the equity. It has to elevate you in the eyes of your clients so that they are willing and pleased to have you, qua partner, on their side. If they think it is a put up job then how will that make you feel. In addition, the market should not be influenced to the extent that you think it will make you any more marketable. Your brand is what you are marketing, and not a label.

Of course, partnership is a moving feast and the market, practice area and number of partners in your department may have more to do with your promotion than your innate ability but if that is the case recognise it and understand how that will play out over the long haul.

One caveat to my call to action: if you don’t think you can play by the rules of the game then be honest enough to admit that and tell your firm. Accept that partnership may not be for you.

~ JS ~

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