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How to Become a Law Firm Partner

By Matt Shinners – June 7, 2012


When you’re first starting out, the entire partner track can seem like a mystery. Third-year law students imagine a cabal of lawyers, cloaked and masked, intoning over a cauldron that will speak the names of those to be made partner this year. Even after starting at a firm, the criteria can be somewhat ephemeral. However, there are certain things that are expected of a partner, and as Ben Affleck said in Boiler Room, “Act as if.” But, before you can act as if you’re a partner, let’s look at where it came from and what it means.


The History of Partnership
The modern partner track started at Cravath in the early nineteenth century. Before Paul Drennan Cravath, law firms would hire based on reputation and connections. Lawyers were expected to bring in their own clients, and everyone was paid essentially on commission; there were no salaries.


Cravath joined the firm of Blatchford, Seward (of Seward’s Folly fame) & Griswold in 1899. He decided that to be the best, you have to recruit the best. Instead of hiring people who had spent a few years working as a lawyer, he headed to the best universities in the country and hired the best and the brightest. Rather than paying on commission, they were offered salaries. Instead of being independent attorneys, they were mentored.


During your tenure at the firm, you were expected to learn from your mentor, bill your hours, and develop business relationships with clients. While hiring from the best schools in the country, Cravath recognized that not everyone would rise to the top of his firm. The first few years were meant as almost an extended interview where associates would be constantly evaluated for partnership potential. Unlike other firms, not everyone hired was expected to make partner.


Instead, there was an “up or out” philosophy. Those who billed their hours, learned their trade, and made the right connections would be promoted. Those who weren’t promoted were expected to leave the firm. Additionally, the partner track was expected to take six to seven years, and anyone taking more than 10 years was typically shuffled out.


Modern Partnership Tracks
The modern partner track is different from the one started by Cravath over a century ago, but it has retained several similarities.


First, firms still have the “hire the best” mentality. Big law firms typically recruit extensively from top law schools. On-campus interviews (OCI) are often limited to the top 14 schools, with very few exceptions made for those who prove themselves by editing their school’s law review or distinguishing themselves in some other manner (for instance, writing a widely quoted note or having a clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit).


Second, associates are still hired on salary and provided with a mentor under whom they will learn to practice law. It’s a long-running controversy that law school doesn’t prepare you to practice law. While not entirely true (the skills you learn at law school certainly help you acquire the practical skills once you start at a firm), there are pragmatic considerations that aren’t covered in Torts or Corporations. Law firms are bringing you on at a high salary with the expectation of investing a considerable sum in training you.


Despite the prestigious hiring pool, law firms don’t expect everyone they hire to make partner. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly common for associates to lateral into another firm at least once before making partner. While the Cravath model involved hiring outside the firm only when there was a deficiency in an in-demand practice area, associates are increasingly “jumping ship” after three or four years for another firm at which they don’t have a history of being viewed as a “lowly” associate. The “up or out” model is becoming more of an “over and up” model.


Finally, the partner track is taking longer: The road to partnership that took six to seven years a century ago has now extended to eight, nine, ten, or even eleven years.


What Partnership Means
Equity Partnership
You’ve put in your decade of 2,200 plus billable hours a year, brought in a few big-name clients, and married a senior partner’s daughter (or son). What has this earned you?


In short, it depends on how your firm is structured. There are LLPs, LPs, corporations, etc. However, whatever the case, you’re essentially now an owner of the firm.


That’s right: You own a small chunk of the business. As a junior partner, you can probably measure which part you earn without leaving your desk. However, it does entitle you to a percentage of the profits.


Being a partner means that you earn a small amount of whatever the firm brings in that year. You’re no longer salaried. You’re no longer on a lock-step track that increases your earnings each year (though you’ll probably be on a new track that grows the percentage of the profits to which you’re entitled each year).


In a good year, your take-home income increases; in a bad year, it decreases. In a belly-up year, you’re on the hook for the firm’s debts.


You have to pay for your own benefits, as you’re no longer employed; rather, you’re an employer. You’re expected to increase the firm’s profitability, as you’re now drawing your livelihood from it.


Because of this, you’re now weighing the crop of associates to make sure the wrong ones don’t make partner. If you watched Boston Legal, you probably shook your head in righteous indignation when the character Jerry Espenson (referred to, unlovingly, as “Hands”), was passed over just like Alan Shore. However, as a partner, you’d understand that being a good lawyer just isn’t enough. Without drawing in new business, Hands would be a partner who took more than he contributed. His social ineptitude means that, while a fantastic litigator, he wouldn’t increase business. Your piece of the pie would become a little smaller if Hands were to make partner. Instead of being mad that he wasn’t made partner, you’d be mad that Alan Shore was fighting to have Jerry be part of a group from which he would take more than he’d ever give.


Two-Tier Partnership
What’s a non-equity partner?


It used to be that all partners were essentially the same. Some would hold more “stock” in the company and take more home, but anyone labeled as a partner was an equity holder in the company. Now, however, many firms are adopting a two-tier partnership system. Before you become a full partner, you spend some time as a non-equity partner.


Instead of being an associate (which is an at-will employment position), you have a contract with the firm. You have guaranteed employment. You can put “Partner” on your business card. You also can shake prospective clients’ hands, look them in the eye, and tell them that you’re a partner.


But you don’t receive a share of the profits.


It’s not a bad deal, and you typically don’t follow this track without the full-partner finish line in sight. The pay also can be fantastic. However, it can add a few years to the equity-partnership track or remove it entirely. It’s something you should ask about when deciding on whether to join a firm.


Tips for Becoming a Partner
Now that you know what it’s all about, what can you do to enhance your chances of becoming a partner?


Well, it’s a bit of a mystery. While there are certainly quantifiable aspects of the path upon which you’ve embarked, there also are other requirements that aren’t as easy to track. But, here are some widely agreed-upon parameters.


1. Above all, make your hours. The specter of the billable hour hangs over the head of every young associate. The typical number of hours a firm expects its associates to bill in a year, 2,200, doesn’t sound like too much, until you do the math. At an average of 80 percent billed hours (because you’ll have meetings, bathroom breaks, CLE, etc.), you’ll be working an average of 7.5 hours a day, including weekends.


When first starting out, though, you won’t have that much on your plate. It will take a while for you to receive work from a few partners and will take even longer to develop enough of a relationship with partners to have them regularly give you work. It’s not unusual to experience months of a light load before you start amassing the requisite hours.


However, billable hours are the easiest criteria of your job to track. You’ll have a program on your computer that counts up the time you’ve spent on each case and client. You’ll have regular reports of your hours and your conversion rate (how much of the time you spent billing that actually passed through to the client—as a junior associate, the higher-ups will decide that you should have done things faster and won’t charge the client for the entire time). Ideally, you’ll keep that conversion rate above 90 percent.


And, ideally, you’ll meet your firm’s billable-hour requirement each year. Not only does it keep you on track for that partnership, but also it usually qualifies you for a nice bonus.


2. Have a partner under whom you primarily work. Have another partner with whom you also work. While aiming to meet those billable hours, you’re going to need to know a partner. This partner will give you most of your assignments, and the relationship you develop with him or her will be extremely important to your continued career at the firm.


First, having a partner view you as a hard-working and competent attorney keeps files on your desk and hours piling up in your yearly count.


Second, that partner will “vouch” for you whenever discussions arise regarding layoffs, bonuses, and advancements. You don’t make partner by being forgotten in these discussions—you want them to talk about how much value you’re adding to the firm.


A word of warning: Similar to associates moving laterally into other firms, it’s increasingly common for partners (or entire practice groups) to lateral into another firm. If you work exclusively for one partner and he or she leaves, you could be in trouble.


If you do a great job, someone might try to monopolize your time. After all, you’re making his or her life easier by doing solid work and taking it off a partner’s desk. This is why it’s important to ensure that you have a “secondary” partner for whom you’ve worked many hours. Even if that first partner jumps ship, you’ll have someone else who can give you work and attest to your abilities.


3. Work on professional panels and in professional groups. Some lawyers will tell you that being on professional panels and in professional groups is an annoying waste of your time. They’re half right.


While not the most exciting aspect of the profession, legal groups and professional panels are important. Your involvement on these panels brings recognition and prestige to your firm. It raises the firm’s stature in the legal community and allows partners to tell the client that the chair of the local Trusts and Estates professional panel is working on their case. It’s the type of thing that makes you valuable to the firm. Firms like value. Increasing the firm’s value earns the partners’ money, and earning the partners money puts them in a good mood when they think of you.


4. Bring business to your firm. As many have said, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Nowhere is that more true than in the legal world.


The single biggest difference between a partner and an associate (as far as expectations go) is that a partner is expected to generate new business. It’s not a bonus when they bring in a client; it’s a major reason why they earn an equity share of the firm’s profits.


What better way to demonstrate that you’ll do this as a partner than by doing it as an associate (that whole “act as if” thing).


Will it be easy to do as a lowly associate? Nope. You most likely won’t be able to snag any major clients until you’ve built up a reputation (say, by establishing yourself in the legal community through joining a few professional groups).


However, if you manage to land a major client, you will instantly jump up in the affection partners have for you. You’ve just increased the pie from which they earn their yearly incomes. Instead of being a draw on the firm’s profits, you’re now contributing to them.


How can you do this? Network, whenever and wherever you can. Always be open to opportunities. Become a specialist in a certain area; give speeches and write articles. Start a blog. Do whatever it takes to let the world know that you’re an expert in a certain area.


What to Do If You Don’t Make Partner

After a decade at a firm, you might end up in the legal equivalent of the “friend zone.” Instead of writing “Partner” on your business card, you’re stuck with “Of Counsel” or “Senior Associate.”


What do you do?


That depends.


Are you happy with the job? If yes, that position isn’t too bad. Many firms are happy to keep you on in that capacity. You won’t ever be an equity partner, but the salary can still be quite good. There are fewer things expected of you, and you can spend your career actually practicing the law instead of schmoozing and networking.


If you really want that “Partner” title, however, you’ll need to lateral to another firm. It’s no guarantee of partnership, but you won’t have the same reputation at the new firm. The partners who saw you make mistakes as a junior associate will no longer be the ones making the decision on your equity stake, and you’ll be hired on as a fully trained, competent, and experienced lawyer.


In the end, you also might keep in mind that becoming a partner at a law firm isn’t everyone’s holy grail. It takes years of hard work and dedication, and there is no guarantee that you’ll make it. While the reward can be great, for some the sacrifice can be too much. Either way, understanding yourself and what is required to be a partner should help you make the decision. Good luck.


Keywords: young lawyer, equity partnership, two tier partnership


Matt Shinners is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is the Blueprint LSAT Preparation East Coast coordinator.


 
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