Why Aren’t I Partner Yet and What Can I Do About It?

12 September 2018

Despite the long list of alternatives to the traditional partnership path (another blog topic itself), many lawyers in private practice still desire to make partner at some point in their career.

As the practise of law becomes more commercially competitive, and the number of lawyers striving for the corner office steadily increases, one question comes up time and again: why aren’t I partner yet?

What the Firms Tell You about Partnership and What they Don’t

Many larger firms now have a documented process for promotion, even up to partner.

They’ve done this to try and add a little bit of transparency to the process of partnership prospects. Unfortunately, the policies are not all created equal and can be so vague that they aren’t helpful in any practical sense.

The reason is that most promotions are a collection of objective and subjective elements.

And ultimately, partnership is one big fat subjective decision. It looks like this:

Do we want this person sitting at the table with us or not?

Every partnership policy on the planet will give the flexibility to the existing partners to ignore you indefinitely if the answer to that question is “no”.

This can result in some frustration.

The Bottleneck of Aspiring Partners

You probably already know this: there are a bunch of senior associates who want to be partners, but aren’t.

They’re stuck.

The reasons they’re stuck are wide and varied.

Some don’t have any practice to speak of, and offer no business imperative to elevate them to partnership.

Some just haven’t been in the game long enough (how long is a piece of string?).

Others are stuck because the firm is saturated with partners in their area.

And others still just don’t fit in with the desired attributes (whatever they might be) that the partners want, and so might only achieve partnership by moving firm.

Are They Just Stringing Me Along?

The cynic would suggest that your firm is just milking you for all you’re worth until you leave.

The optimist would say that the firm genuinely hopes that you’ll “get there” and looks forward to the time that you do.

We’ll let you to decide which you are.

Either way, the question becomes: how long are you prepared to wait to maybe become partner in your current firm?

That’s always going to be a complicated question involving more factors than we can comfortably set out here.

But it’s a question you’ll need to ask… and keep answering over time.

So Should I Look for Partnership in Another Firm?

If you’re not getting promoted in your current firm, it’s not a forgone conclusion that your career prospects are over.

Perhaps you’re a prime candidate in another firm. Let’s see whether that might be a prospect…

Firstly, do you have a practice? If you don’t have a stable of clients (even a modest one) who are not firm clients and who will come with you and send you work, then you’re not going to label yourself as a partner to anyone.

Next, what’s the income those clients are going to generate? You might have a very good idea of this if you’ve been tracking it, or you might be a little unsure. Do the numbers, figure out what your practice is actually worth in terms of revenue. A well thought out business plan is critical here.

And last, what’s your gauge of how your current partnership feels about you? Are they on fire, completely cold, or luke warm? With the last two, you need to be careful you don’t fall into an eternal net of unmet promises.

If you have something of a practice and you can measure the income that your practice will produce, but you don’t think that your chances with the current employer are very high or that the partnership model (be it structure or remuneration) is right for you  – then perhaps it’s time to look outside the box as there are a lot of different options out there.

But Isn’t Jumping Ship a Massive Risk?

Yes and no.

It might be terrifying, but often the risks aren’t as high as people think they’re going to be.

As a senior lawyer what you’re looking for is the right platform where you can capitalise on your existing clients, expand your practice over time, and work in concert with your other partners (or principals) towards an agreed goal.

While moving to the unknown quantity of a new firm might seem like a terrible risk, people often forget a significant factor: how does that compare to the risk of you staying where you are?

Staying where you are might seem like the sensible decision, but if it is not the best platform for your practice it might actually constrain your career growth.

Of the many people we’ve placed in senior and partnership positions, most don’t have any regrets about the move.

In truth, the thought of leaving the comfort of a career track at a big firm or a firm you know well is worse than the reality of it.

What Happens if I Decide to Leave?

Probably, “deciding to leave” needs to coincide with “having somewhere to go” unless you’re setting up your own shop or making an unusually significant leap of faith.

With some obvious discretion, you need to do a few things to prepare.

First, you’ll need to figure out which clients are really “yours”. Often people overestimate which clients will actually come with them in a move away from their firm. Do you have binding restraints or contractual issues that you’ll need to navigate?

Next, revisit the exercise you did earlier to see what those clients are worth in terms of revenue. This will help determine your worth to the market, and it’s obviously something that people will want to know if you’re going to offer to take your practice somewhere else.

Finally, you need to decide what kind of place you’re going to aim for.

BigLaw to SmallLaw, Smalllaw to Biglaw, or Something Else?

If you’re going to shift yourself, your clients and potentially a few staff to a new firm it’s important you get it right.

The biggest thing that’s going to make or break the move is…the people.

Not just the existing partners, but the other staff too. Are you forming a new group or moving into an existing one? Is the culture similar to, or “improved upon”, compared to your existing firm? Will you and your people integrate into the new firm smoothly? Who’s there, how long have they been there, and what does everyone outside the circle of power think about the place? Are there strong synergistic practice areas that will complement your practice? Do the partners “hunt in packs” or are they more like lone wolves?

Culture is a hard thing to assess, but finding a compatible culture is going to be one of the biggest factors that determines the long term success of your move.  Multiple meetings are important and in different contexts – formal and less formal.

It’s always tempting to go with the first opportunity that presents itself, but often a lot of thought and a bit of patience can be rewarding.

So Should you Stay or Should you Go?

It’s pretty frustrating to sit in a large law firm, a successful and talented lawyer who wants to climb the ladder but simply can’t because of the sheer volume of people who started climbing earlier.

Similarly though, jumping ship because of a moment of frustration could be unwise.

Making the move in order to secure partnership requires you to answer a series of questions:

  1. How close are you, realistically, to making partner in your current firm?
  2. How close are others who might delay your own promotion?
  3. Is partnership a realistic option in your current firm?
  4. Are other firms interested in you?
  5. What kind of practice do you have and what are its attractions?
  6. What (if any) other complementary practice areas are important for your success?
  7. Are you prepared to take the risk of a move?

In helping a number of practices move recently we can say one thing with absolute certainty: taking your practice to a new firm that actually wants you can be a fantastic move that propels your career success and satisfaction to new levels… if you do it right.

Not all partnership opportunities are broadly advertised, so if you’re ready – get in touch with us today.

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