The partnership track at most major law firms is seven to ten years long, and wise associates will make use of the entire time to position themselves for the nod. Making a concerted effort during the last year or two may be too little, too late. At the beginning of an associate's career, the top priority is to develop legal skills and, later on, to begin building relationships inside and outside the law firm for eventual business development. A smart associate will make a personal career development plan at the outset that will maximize the chances of acquiring all the necessary legal skills, establishing one or more areas of expertise, ensuring exposure to as many of the relevant decision-making partners as possible, and creating a network of contacts for getting business—all necessary elements in the pursuit of partnership.
If you have decided that your goal might be to become a partner at your law firm, the first step is to learn as much as possible about the process for making partnership decisions and the criteria for judging candidates. Most firms have some kind of ongoing associate performance review process, evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, which establishes a record that may be used in the eventual partnership decision. It is important to take immediate steps to correct any negatives that are brought to your attention, and to ascertain whether your progress is "on track" with firm expectations for someone at your level of seniority. You cannot assume that merely because you have not been told that your chances for partnership are slim to none that, indeed, you are sailing along for a sure thing.
It is up to you, the associate, to take charge of the record that is being developed regarding your career progress towards partnership. You need to toot your own horn. If you get positive feedback from a senior lawyer or client, get it in writing, if possible, and make sure that the decision-makers see it. Do your best to get a copy in your file. Keep track of your "wins" in litigation or successes in transactions, and mention them during your performance evaluations if they are not otherwise noted. Likewise, if you publish, earn outside honors for bar association or community activities, or make a speech, bring it to the attention to the powers that be in your firm and try to get a record in your file. If your firm allows you to have any input on who conducts your performance reviews, suggest those senior lawyers who have seen your best work.
On the other hand, if you receive negative feedback, it is up to you to take immediate corrective action, and to let your superiors know that such action has been taken. Speak directly with the senior lawyer who gave you the negative feedback to determine how you can improve your performance in the future. Even if you cannot change the negative mark on your record, you can get credit for your direct and professional approach and attitude, and desire to improve. At your next review, address the issue and discuss what you have done to correct the situation so that those efforts can be noted in your record, as well.
You must also be proactive in ensuring that you establish yourself in an area of expertise and acquire the skill set necessary to become a partner in that practice. This is where a game plan with specific goals and target dates comes into play. Ascertain what practice, business development, and interpersonal skills are possessed by partners in your practice group and, particularly, at those of the most recently elected partners. Look at their background, areas of practice, billable hours, client contact, speaking and writing, and involvement in firm committees, community service, or bar association activities, business development efforts, and the like. (Comparing the attributes of new partners with those of any candidates passed over for partnership also can be instructive.) Then, take an honest look at yourself to determine where you are in the quest for these skills. Decide what experiences you need in order to fill in the gaps, and make a realistic plan with a timetable to achieve your goals. Talk to your supervising attorney about getting the assignments you need to develop your expertise. Target your MCLE and take outside courses, if necessary, to work on your business development and interpersonal skills. You must also keep apprised of trends in the legal marketplace and within your firm to ensure that your area(s) of expertise are in enough demand to warrant adding another partner with that practice.
You can also enlist the help of your supervising attorneys and mentors in compiling a list of skills you should attain before you are considered for partnership. Ask them directly what they think you need to make partner in your firm. If you find that you do not have anyone within the firm with whom you can have this sort of frank discussion, that also is a sign that all is not progressing as well as it should be. If it merely is because you have not made the effort to develop mentors within the firm, now is the time to do so. (SEE: "Building a Mentor Network") You need powerful partners to know you and your work so that they can advocate for you when it is time for the partnership decision.
Making partner is a political process. You need to garner the support of the partners not only in your department but also throughout the firm. Participating on firm committees and attending all firm social activities are some ways to get to know those you do not work with on a regular basis. (See: "The Fit Factor") If you joined the firm as a lateral associate, it might be wise to postpone your partnership consideration for a year or so in order to become better known and shore up support. Whether you are a lateral or "homegrown", do not overlook your relationships with clients, junior associates, and support staff. Their views may also be taken into consideration, especially in close cases, since client service, mentoring associates, and management skills are important attributes of a good partner.
If you find that you are not getting the opportunities to develop the essential skill set to position yourself for partnership, look for the reason. It could merely be a function of the downturn in the economy and the dearth of sophisticated work. If, however, it seems that only select associates are getting the plum assignments, that may be a sign that they are being groomed for promotion and you are not on track. If you suspect that is the case, talk to your mentor or practice group leader to see if there is anything you can do to garner those opportunities in the future. If such opportunities are not forthcoming, you may need to consider your alternatives. You may need to move to a different, busier, practice group, decide that a counsel or permanent associate position are also acceptable career goals, or make a move to another firm or an alternative career—public service, government, academia, or outside law practice altogether.
You do not want to be taken by surprise by the partnership decision. If you set your partnership goal at the very beginning of your career as an associate, make a realistic plan for achieving that goal, and are honest in measuring your progress according to your plan, being proactive every step of the way, you should know what to expect, and be prepared with alternatives, if necessary.