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Are You Partner Material?

By Anna D. Torres – February 14, 2012

Partner. Member. Shareholder. The technical legal status is not really that important. What is important is what the title symbolizes. Success. Respect. Acceptance. Status. Security. Making partner has always been the associate’s brass ring. From the moment we embark on a legal career, we know that the ultimate prize is—should be—making partner. We see it as our just reward for the long hours, the stress, and the anxiety. But along the road, we often ask ourselves, “Am I partner material?”

There as many answers to that question as there are firms. Each firm has its own culture, needs, and requirements. The duties and responsibilities of a partner vary greatly by firm and often change over time. Partner material at one firm is not always partner material at the firm down the street, or even two floors down in the same building. Unfortunately, there is no Herculean rite of passage upon which completion distinguishes you as worthy of automatic membership. Single-handedly slaying a lion would be a more straightforward endeavor when compared with the often mysterious conclave in which the associate waits expectantly for the puff of white smoke (Congratulations, you made partner!) or black smoke (Sorry, maybe next year.).

Despite the lack of uniformity among firms, there are some recurring concepts that emerge time and again and seem to apply to firms of every size, in every geographic zone, and across all styles and management philosophies. So how will your potential future partners evaluate whether you are partner material? And how do you evaluate and prepare yourself for the day when these individuals will answer that question?

“If elected, will you serve?”
Before focusing on the nuts and bolts of making partner, it is important to explore your motivation for wanting to become partner at your firm. Is it a good fit for you and are you comfortable there? Do you share the firm’s style, philosophy, and ideology? Do you genuinely wish to make a long-term legal and emotional commitment to this firm and to the individuals who are already partners? These are important questions, and they require a certain amount of self-awareness and introspection. Making partner will be demanding, time-consuming, and exhausting. You should not devote that amount of time and energy to anything in life only to realize in the end that it is not what you wanted, hoped, and expected. Make an honest assessment of your goals, ambitions, and aspirations. If they are not in alignment with what this partnership can offer you and what you can offer the partnership in return, devote your energy to finding a firm that is a better match.

Can You Fulfill the Basics?
Assuming that you have determined that, indeed, you do want to spend your professional future devoted to this firm and its people, do your research as to any formal, express criteria for making partner. This is the easy part, because these are likely to be objective and measurable criteria. For example, does the firm require a buy in? Are there billable-hour or other profitability requirements you must meet? Is there a set number of years before you will be considered? Must you first chair a certain number of trials? If your firm has a set of formal criteria, that will be the foundation of your partnership track. Create a plan to meet any formal criteria within the time frame you have allotted yourself for reaching the goal.

Do You Have the Technical Skills?
This part is also easy to plan for, if not as easy to achieve. Quite simply, partners expect their partners to be excellent lawyers. They expect their partners to be able to come in and pinch hit as necessary and do as good a job, or better, than they can. The technical skills you need will vary according to your practice. It is important to know what skills you need to develop and find a way to develop them. Speak up. Volunteer for assignments that will develop your technical skills, even if it means extra work. Become a proficient lawyer.

Do You Go the Extra Mile? Are You Reliable?
In times of hardship and when the proverbial stuff hits the fan, a partner will roll up his or her sleeves and get to work. What needs to get done gets done, even if there is no gold star at the end. Partners have a “can do” attitude. Be dependable, reliable, and consistent.

Do Your Peers Respect You and Seek Your Counsel?
If you answer “yes,” then you are an emerging leader. If you answer “not yet,” then it’s time to work on your leadership skills. Leadership is not about telling people what to do. It involves earning the trust of others who look to you for guidance, inspiration, and motivation because they believe in the path toward success that you have defined. While some are born leaders, leadership can also be a learned skill. There are endless styles of leadership and many, many resources for learning leadership skills. Closely observe those whom you consider good leaders at your firm. Invest time in leadership training. Read books and attend seminars. Seek opportunities inside and outside your firm to develop and demonstrate your leadership skills—select a project that interests you and build a team to complete it.

Do Clients Like You?
Client development. Marketing. Rainmaking. The words strike fear in the heart of a would-be partner. How do you know if you have what it takes to develop business for the firm, particularly as a less-experienced associate with limited opportunity to interact with clients and develop marketing skills? Provide excellent client service in whatever form that means at your level. Prepare timely reports. Provide excellent work product. Respond to calls and emails in a timely fashion. Clients will appreciate your effort, and you will build better relationships. Need practice? Remember that a client is someone who supplies your work. Until you have your own clients and bring in your own work, the firm’s partners are your clients. Practice your client development skills on the firm’s partners. Build those relationships by meeting the partners’ needs and providing them with excellent service.

Are You an Ambassador for the Firm?
Become aware of how you represent the firm to the outside world. Your actions, your conduct, your skills, and your preparation always reflect on the firm, so make sure that you present a positive image. In addition, be diplomatic when discussing the firm with others. Your firm and your future partners want to know that you appreciate and value the firm, despite any flaws. They must be certain that you will present a united and positive front to the world. This does not mean that you must ignore flaws or problems or pretend there aren’t any. It does mean that you will be dignified, proper, and polite when discussing the firm. In the words of Dale Carnegie, do not criticize, condemn, or complain.

Do You Think Like an Owner? Are You Dedicated to the Firm’s Success?
Partners are invested not just in their own success but also in the success of each and every employee of the firm, because they understand that their success is the firm’s success and the firm’s success is their own success. Their efforts are directed toward the needs of the firm. Decisions are made on the basis of whether something is for the good of the firm. As a partner, you will at some point be privy to and must be trusted with sensitive and confidential information. To earn that trust, exercise discretion in all your firm dealings. If you become aware of a problem, challenge, or difficulty, take initiative to correct it and take responsibility for making improvements for the benefit of the firm. You will be recognized as someone who takes ownership, accepts responsibility, and contributes to the success of the firm.

Ultimately, not every partner is expected to be an ace at every quality and every skill. However, partners must be versatile and must be able to handle most situations that might arise. You are partner material if you are willing to honestly and objectively evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, are committed to your personal and professional development in all areas (especially the areas that need the most work), and are dedicated and willing to do whatever it takes to make your firm succeed. When those future partners consider whether they want to make a commitment to you, they will see your full potential and give you the tools and support you need to accomplish all that you are capable of because they know your success will be the firm’s and their own success.

Keywords: litigation, minority trial lawyer, partners, legal profession

Anna D. Torres manages the liability department at Powers, McNalis, Torres, Teebagy, Luongo in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Copyright © 2017, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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