I’ve received several requests to outline a good pathway to Partnership.  (I’m referring here to Equity Partner).  A pathway is critical because there are a lot of lawyers (and owners) set to retire in the coming ten years.  Properly preparing for Partnership and being prepared to run what is often a multi million-dollar business was never more important.  So here are my suggestions for that preparation – for both the current Partners, and the wannabe’s.

Big Picture:

  1. Create a pathway and share this with your Associates. How will they know if they will eventually aspire to Partnership if they don’t know what it takes to get there?  Be transparent and let them self-select in or out.  The ones who decide to go for it will be more committed than ever because they’ll know where the goalposts are.  And include a Partnership application into the process.  Make it formal.  Don’t make Partnership decisions through an intangible process, especially if you have more than one lawyer in the running.  Show that this is a declared, tangible process, not based on gut feel.
  2. Education your senior Associates on what being a Partner looks like. Teach them about law firm economics.  Trust me.  They don’t have a clue.  Teach them how to read a spreadsheet.  Help them understand why the pathway to Partnership is structured the way it is (see below).
  3. Let them know how they are doing. As they build the skills needed in order to make a Partnership application, critique their efforts.  Help them understand where they are doing well (and how they can continue to improve), and where they need more effort.  Nothing should be a surprise, to either side, when it’s time for the application process.

Details: Partner candidates must show the following:

  • First and foremost, anyone under consideration for Partnership should be a good lawyer in their chosen areas of law. They should be respected as such within the firm, and within the bar.
  • In the three-year lead up to their application, they must show that they are strong financial contributors to the firm through their personal billings, and through the work they delegate to others. Many firms declare a personal billing total (work they’ve billed) and a book of business total (work the candidate brought into the firm for themselves and others) that must be achieved in those three years.  The personal billings might need to reach $1M+, and have been increasing over time.  A steady $300K/year lawyer is OK as a contributor, but that shouldn’t be Partnership material.  The book of business total won’t be as high, but should be substantial.
  • Not only should they have developed a book of business, but they should have demonstrated their actual marketing and business development skills. This weeds out anyone who lucked out in landing work but doesn’t really know how to do it.  Brining work into the firm, and especially distributing it to others, is the real value of a Partner to a law firm. Having the skills suggests that the effort can be repeated when the candidate is a Partner.
  • The candidate should have demonstrated leadership skills. This includes having taking on some leadership opportunities within the firm such as helping to manage a practice group, sitting on various committees or task forces, helping the firm with a major project, etc.
  • The candidate should have demonstrated their ability to run a business. The first place to do this is with their own practice.  They should hit their targets, be seen as reliable and knowledgeable, work well with others (work delegation, etc.), be on top of their workload and deadlines, ask great questions in business meetings, etc.
  • Bonus points if the candidate has also demonstrated leadership outside of the firm by participating in community-based organizations, charities, the bar, etc.

A word of caution: don’t assume every Associates aspires to become a Partner.  I’ve probably interviewed over 1,000 Associates in the past 30 years.  Starting 10 years ago and building, I’ve found that a good 40% of Associates don’t want to be a Partner.  To determine who does and does not have this goal, you’ll need to stay in communication with the regularly (as they might change their mind, either way), and be prepared to prep more than one person for Partnership to hedge your bets.

There seem to be a lot of desperate Partners out there who want to know they can retire at some point, and are working hard to convince Associates that they want to be owners some day.  In my mind, that doesn’t work.  You can’t force someone into a position they might not want and probably aren’t ready for.  Instead, create a training program to let Associates learn about the option and self-select. Give them clear guidelines to follow, and help them along the way. That’s how law firms become legacies.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com