Law firm partnership pt 1 –
The path to becoming a partner

PUBLISHED APR ’18

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Although it is becoming more common for firms to develop alternative career structures by enhancing the status (and pay) of associates, the ultimate career aim for most solicitors in private practice is to become a partner.

Partnership essentially means that you own a part of the business, which will entitle you to a share of the profits. In a good year, this could be considerable, in a lean year less so (and if it goes badly wrong, you will be liable for any debts too).

The upside is clear, and competition for partnership can be fierce. Associates often chart their path towards partnership as soon as they set foot in their first firm. However, for many setting out in the industry, the process can often seem a little mysterious and impenetrable. Here is our advice:

1. Hit your numbers

Ensure you achieve the targets you are set. Your other efforts will matter little if you don’t consistently produce the required personal billings and hit your other KPIs.

2. Develop a long-term plan

When you enter a firm in a junior position it is vital to have a career plan and settle on your long term objectives. Start by understanding what the partnership process at your firm is, as you want to progress in the right way (and within the right firm – see pt 2 for more on this).

Set yourself short- and long-term goals, and create an action plan for how you will get there. For example, you will need to build a referral network (see below). How will you go about doing this?

How long partnership takes will vary in each case, and will be dependent on both you and the firm you work for. Traditionally, the process takes between 7-10 years, following a path through Associate and Senior Associate, and perhaps also salaried partner.

As part of the process, get to know the equity partners in your firm, and make sure they know it is your ambition to make partner. They are ultimately the ones who will be making the decision, and to do so they need to know who you are and what you can bring.

3. Demonstrate your commitment

It is important to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the firm – hence why the level of PQE is usually between 7-10 years. This includes bringing in work for others and working to enhance the firm’s reputation, alongside your own.

4. Build your own referral network

Referral networks are groups of people who will send you work, and who can feed both you and others at your firm. As partnership means part ownership, you have to demonstrate the ability to bring in your own work, whether this comes from attracting new clients or renewing work from clients you have previously worked with.

Since existing partners will be the ones who eventually promote you, they will have a keen eye on what you can bring to the profitability of the business. In a nutshell, they are looking for someone who can bring them an increased profit share.

However, building relationships and networks take time. The earlier you start the process, the easier this will be.

5. Grow your reputation

On the whole, it is important to develop a solid reputation within the firm, and to make your contributions prominent and visible. Having a great network you have built up yourself, hitting targets, and demonstrating good leadership skills all go along way in the process towards becoming partner.

It is also vital to gain your peers’ respect as a good lawyer who excels in their field; as much as business development matters, your professional reputation is equally important.

6. Act the part

To become a partner, learn to think like a partner. No, this doesn’t mean bossing people about and throwing your weight around, rather it means considering matters from the perspective of someone with leadership and profit/loss responsibilities. How would a partner act and think in the situation?

Lastly, it is worth noting that top law firms will seek to hire top graduates, but they do so with the expectation that not everyone will make partner. Traditionally, this was seen a make or break model, but it has increasingly become the case that associates move firms at least once in order to advance towards partnership. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from lack of opportunity, to difficulty in shedding your image as a lowly associate. In some cases moving firms can mean a fresh start if you are hitting a wall where you are.

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