The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Do you have the right stuff to make partner? At the top firms, studies show that associates who join right out of law school have a 10% chance of making partner at their firm; lateral associates have a 17% chance. Nearly ¾ of all associates leave the first firm they join after law school graduation, either to join a different firm, pursue a different career path in the legal profession, or leave law altogether. While this attrition itself may give you a better chance at making partner, mere longevity will not do the trick. So, what makes you partnership material? Playing politics and/or putting in long hours are important, but not enough. Besides a likeable personality which "fits" with the firm culture and producing lots of top-quality work, associates must demonstrate that they are a team player, and committed to the success of the firm.

Creating a niche for yourself, such as developing a specific area of expertise, and excelling at it, is one way to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. Keep abreast of changes in the law and the marketplace, and become indispensable by developing a new area of expertise for the firm. Also, keep in mind which areas of practice are growing in the marketplace in general, and your firm in particular. There will be more room for partners in a hot practice area, than in one where there is little work for the existing partners to do.

Act like an owner. Take responsibility for the work that you do, keeping the big picture in mind. Understand the needs and objectives of the clients. Then, be flexible, and step in to do whatever needs doing for the good of the client and firm. Inspire confidence in the partners and the clients that you will handle the work well and achieve the best possible outcome.

Take charge of your own career. Try to monitor your workload so that everything you do is top quality. Attempting to do too much, and doing it sloppily, will backfire. If your goal is to develop a specialized area of expertise, ask for that kind of work. Toot your own horn when appropriate, and play office politics wisely. Observe who is in power, what type of work is most valued, and note the attributes of the most successful attorneys at your firm. Model your behavior, as much as possible, on theirs, and choose your mentors wisely. Participate on firm committees and become active in bar association and community activities which are supported by your firm. Becoming a leader in these organizations, while doing a top-notch job in the office, will mark you as a potential leader in your firm.

While business development is important in the long run, it is not often a condition precedent to partnership. Most firms look for rainmaking potential. They look for associates who inspire confidence, do excellent work, enhance and expand relationships with existing clients, and who are positioning themselves to bring in new business in the future. Nonetheless, at all but the wealthiest firms, business development is noted and appreciated. The tricky thing for most associates is to bring in clients who will pay all or almost all of the firm's going rates. It is a rare associate who can land such a client. However, if you can, you should go for it. Caveat Emptor: the more prestigious the firm, the less that bringing in such a client will inure directly to your financial benefit. But it is likely, though not certain, it will be taken into consideration at bonus time. It will, however, increase your partnership chances.

In determining whether you have the right stuff to become partner, the most important thing is to first ask yourself these questions: Do I really want to become a law firm partner? Do I want to become a partner in this firm? Have I observed what it takes to become a partner here? And, am I willing to make the commitment to do those things to make partner at this firm? If the answers to these questions are "YES", you are well on your way.

Valerie Fontaine
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