During law school, when you think about your future career, it’s common to have aspirations of making it to the top—becoming a partner. If you are going into BigLaw, it’s even more natural to think that someday you will make partner. Once you have spent a few years as an associate, it is time to create a clearer picture of what you want out of your legal career. If you aren’t quite sure what you want to do, this is the time to evaluate and make a plan.
Becoming a firm partner is a great goal, but is it the right goal for you? Let’s face it, they don’t teach you anything about this in law school, and the first few years working as an associate has you too busy to find out what it really takes. Hard work, mastering a practice area, client relationships, and commitment are a few of the things you may figure out along the way. But what else should you consider if you want to make partner?
- Generating Business
It probably seems like a no brainer, but making partner means you must be able to generate business. Think beyond merely mastering the tasks that are given to you and consider if you are a financial asset to the firm. If you work well with a current client, work on convincing them to bring more business to the firm. Another way to deliver value to the firm is to engage in public speaking/writing about your practice area. Not only do these activities promote the firm, it allows you to be seen as an expert on the subject. Being an expert draws in clients who want to work with you. Networking is another fantastic way to generate business. Cultivate relationships with family, friends, and alumni from your undergrad and law school. Go to bar association meetings and conferences that will make the connections and build working relationships that bring in business.
- Understanding Firm Economics
As an associate, you benefit from a regular (and generous) salary with the potential for major bonuses. But salaries and bonuses are only a piece of a firm’s overall economics. Partners regularly deal with a constant stream of quantitative information—from client profitability to benefits to malpractice insurance to billing to office and vendor leases. And those are just a few of the many issues that partners deal with on a daily basis. One way to learn about these economic factors is to get involved in committees if your firm has them. Another way is to pay attention in town hall meetings where firmwide financial information and decision-making processes are shared. Don’t to be afraid to ask questions of partners that you work with or that you have a mentoring relationship with. Finding out as much as you can about how the firm’s economics work will help you on your partnership path.
- Personality Fit
While high quality work and dedication to the firm are important, it can only get you so far. Your firm will have specific criteria necessary to make partner, but some general things are true across the board. Potential partners are nominated by department heads (and perhaps by the partnership as a whole, depending on the size of your firm). After a nomination, the associate’s records are reviewed, interviews are held, and a vote is taken. This whole process involves making a good impression on the higher ups. Traits like teamwork, leadership, initiative, and sound judgment are going to be very important in the decision to make someone a partner. Start cultivating these traits early on in your career, and carry them throughout your time with the firm.
- Other Important Considerations
If you are pondering whether partnership is the path for you, make sure you talk to partners inside and outside your firm. Ask them about the day-to-day life of a partner. You’ve probably noticed that partners are busy—very busy—but do you really know what they are doing all day? Find out! There is no better source to discover if this life is for you then hearing about it from someone already living it.
Another thing you should do is sell yourself, but not in a brown-nosing kind of way. Be responsive to other lawyers and clients, conduct regular check-ins on your work with senior attorneys and partners, and take initiative on a project when you have the chance. All these little things will add up when the time comes to be considered for partnership.
After you have done your research and concluded that partnership is not for you, what now? Again, it’s time to plan. Take time to evaluate what you want to do in the next five or ten years, even if it’s just a rough idea. If you like your firm and the work you do, inquire if opportunities exist to continue at the firm long-term. Many firms have roles for long-term associates or counsel positions.
If you have decided that a different career path is the answer, explore what options are out there. Some firms will work hard to place associates in other positions, like government roles or in-house jobs with clients. Use the tools you have at your firm to make a change. Employment options are pretty broad for law degrees—roles in a different practice area, government, mediation and arbitration, lobbyists, and legal-adjacent careers are just some of the areas you can explore. Whatever you do, it’s important not to get lost in the fallacy of sunk costs if you are not happy with what you are doing. Many lawyers before you have been in the exact same position and have landed on their feet. Reach out and find out how they were able to pivot in their careers.
Whether you want to make partner or not, it is important to start planning for your future a few years into your practice. Take a look at what you want in your career and what you want your life outside of work to look like. Making a plan and working towards your ultimate goal can help keep your sanity and motivation on the right path.
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