How to Assess if Partnership at Another Firm is a Good Fit

18 July 2019


“Better the devil you know”.

This is often the mindset when it comes to partnership promotions. After all, if you’ve been in a firm for a while and are looking at applying for partnership then you probably have a good feel for the firm.

You already know who holds the power and who doesn’t, whose practices are most profitable, which staff are safe pairs of hands, and who’s best friend works at the Court when you need to file documents urgently.

But what if your opportunity lies elsewhere where you aren’t so informed? What kinds of questions can you ask to try and assess whether partnership at a new firm is going to be a good fit for you… and them?

Firm Culture and Operations

You probably saw this coming, but firm culture is the single largest determining factor of success when it comes to integrating with a new firm (whether as a partner or otherwise).

So scout around – what is the firm’s reputation in the market? What characteristic words are used to describe them most commonly – professional, friendly, lifestyle, funny, hard-hitting, employer of choice, work hard/play hard, old fashioned, something else?

Once you’ve cast the net wide, you can try for some details. What is the firm’s strategy in the market and how have they gone to date implementing it? What are the partners like in a professional and social context? Why are they looking for a new partner – did somebody leave? If so, why? What’s their turnover like when it comes to partners and employed lawyers?

Beyond the professional questions come the questions about firm structure. What kind of administrative and office support can you expect to receive? What kind of leverage does the firm find acceptable and does that match up with your work habits? Are there finance, marketing, administrative teams and how well are they functioning inside the firm?

For many of these questions there won’t be an obvious right or wrong answer. The point of the exercise is to find out whether, in day to day practice, you are more likely to flourish or wilt given your preferences, needs, work style, and team.

Is the Partnership a Herd… or a collection of Lone Wolves?

With the rise and rise of new partnership models and smaller firms, the old forms are becoming slightly less predictable, but by far there are two main models for how partnerships function as a team:

  1. A partnership of individually successful partners with mostly independent teams, marketing efforts and clients; and
  2. A partnership of collectively successful partners in more niche areas, built on successful cross selling efforts and collaborative marketing campaigns.

Of course, these are just either end of the spectrum – most firms fall somewhere in between the two, with a mixture of collaboration and independence.

In part which style suits you is going to depend on your practice. If you have a more general practice and no desire to niche down to a speciality area, then the “eat what you kill” approach of the lone wolf might suit you well. There won’t be pressure to deliver clients to other partners to assist with matters unless absolutely necessary and you will have liberty to market to your prospects with relatively little interference.

On the flip side, if you have a speciality area that you’ve been wanting to focus on, a “herd” style partnership might suit you better. If, say, you focus exclusively on taxation law then the other partners, with the right mindset, can be an excellent source of work in the right situation. Done right, everyone can win – you get good work to do, they get a greater service to their clients, and everybody makes a bit more money.

Where’s the Equity?

Depending on its size and age, there’s a chance that the equity in the firm is held by a relatively small number of partners compared to the overall numbers in the firm.

Does that work for you? Are you going to be looking to grow your equity stake soon, or not? If so, are those partners on the verge of retirement (or going to reduce their equity in other ways) and would you be eligible to take up any equity even if they did?

Of course, a newer partnership might have a greater spread of equity among the existing partners, and there might be more ability to take a significant piece of the firm in the short term. However, does that equity hold the same value in a newer firm, and does the firm have reliable income streams that make it possible to offer a realistic price that reflects the true value of your investment?

Understanding where the ownership lies, how it might come your way, and when that is likely to happen is something that needs to factor into your decision.

Real Profit

Moving into nice offices with a big team, marble floors, river views, extensive online library and never-ending biscuit barrel always seems like a good plan.

Except, of course, when you’re one of the people paying for it.

There are two questions to ask:

  1. What’s the real profit per partner; and
  2. Are you happy with the overhead spend?

On (2) above, in truth the question isn’t how “happy” you are (most people would prefer zero overheads) but rather whether the overheads the firm has committed to are going to add real value to your practice and your clients.

Your Clients and Theirs

Presumably if you’re looking at partnership you either have some clients or think you will be able to get them.

So what’s the practice mix look like at the prospective firm? Do they act for the same kinds of clients you do? Would you be able to expand the offering to your existing clients? Would you have something to offer their existing clients that isn’t already covered?

And, beyond marketing, is the way in which the firm does its job going to be consistent with what your clients have come to expect? Not just in quality, but in terms of manner, formalities, timing, and delivery?

But Most Importantly…

How do you feel about the other partners? Mostly good? Mostly bad? Mostly don’t know?

Of course as firms get larger there is a greater chance that you won’t be best friends with everyone at the partnership table, but by and large you should at least have a sense in advance that you will have a positive working relationship with the majority of your peers.

And, if there is a key group of decision makers, do any of them seem to be toxic?

So ask to meet people, shake hands, and get a sense of what’s going on. What does your gut say about these people and what they’ll be like to work with day to day?

It’s probably more art than science, but it’s a good litmus test to run even if everything else you’ve found out seems positive.

Ready for the Move?

Partnership positions aren’t always publicly advertised. So if you’re wondering what’s out there, stay off Seek and give us a call, because we’ve always got our ears to the ground.