Become a Partner in a Law Firm
You went to a good Obtain a Law Degree, passed the bar, and started as an associate with a large law firm. Many would say you've got it made, but there's still one last brass ring you're reaching for — making partner. The partnership track is grueling and competitive, requiring not just legal expertise, but also business and marketing acumen. To become a partner in an American law firm, you've got to set yourself above the other associates in terms of your expertise and your ability to attract new clients and enhance the firm's reputation. Typically, it takes 5-7 years to become partner.
Honing Your Skills
- Specialize in a niche area of law. As an associate, you're likely working in a particular department of your law firm, so you're already specialized to some extent. To turn yourself into partnership material, though, try to specialize even further.
- Look at the specialty areas the partners in your department have carved out for themselves and figure out what's missing. Is there a particular legal question that nobody in your firm is really an expert in? That could be an area where you could shine.
- Even though big, high-profile cases may seem prestigious, working on those cases doesn't typically do anything to help you differentiate yourself from the other associates. Instead, take on smaller, niche cases that turn on a small matter of legal interpretation.
- Getting additional certifications in your niche, if available, can enhance your reputation as an expert in that particular area of law.
- Develop a reputation for delivering consistently excellent work product. Law firms, like any other business, are built on the results they produce. You'll never be considered for partner if you don't consistently produce good results for your clients and your firm.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions if you need help. You won't do yourself any favors by claiming you know how to do something and then doing it wrong.
- Seek out a partnership mentor early on. Some firms might assign you a partner to serve as your mentor, but your assigned partner might not necessarily be the best mentor for you. Look for someone you have something in common with who can guide you through potential pitfalls on the path toward partnership.
- Ideally, you'll find someone who shares a similar background to you. For example, if you're a woman, find a female partner to be your mentor. She can help you navigate the particular challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession.
- It's okay to have more than one mentor. You might also seek mentors outside your firm, particularly if none of the partners in your firm seem to have much in common with you. While they might not necessarily be able to help you make partner, they can help you in your professional development.
- Volunteer to take on projects in your niche. If you want to establish yourself as an expert, speak up when you hear about projects that could benefit from your knowledge and skill. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there as an expert in your particular area and reach out when there's a project that could use your help.
- If the particular case is being handled by a partner or associate you haven't worked with before, introduce yourself and explain your expertise in the area. Then, describe the ways in which your assistance could benefit them.
- Build a name for yourself in your specialty. Having name recognition as an expert in your specific area of law is a good way to secure your chances at partnership, and there are many different ways you can do this. Publishing articles in law journals or legal blogs, speaking at bar events and seminars, or getting quoted in local or national news are all ways to raise your profile.
- Getting your name in print in a respectable publication also enhances the reputation of your firm and potentially brings in business. Readers of your articles might contact your firm when they need legal assistance and ask for you by name.
- Reach out to your state or local bar association about teaching a continuing legal education (CLE) course in your specialty. Becoming a CLE teacher not only establishes your expertise but also gives you opportunities to network with other attorneys who practice in your area.
Generating Business for the Firm
- Familiarize yourself with law firm economics. While law school might teach you to "think like a lawyer," it typically doesn't teach you much about the business of being a lawyer, particularly at a large firm. This is something you'll have to learn on your own while you're practicing. But, as you start to better understand how law firms make money, you'll find ways you can contribute and increase your firm's bottom line.
- Most importantly, understand how your productivity ties to your worth as an associate. If you're making money for your firm as an associate, you have the potential to become a partner. However, you also have to show that you're doing things to expand that value and ultimately generate new business.
- Create a business plan for yourself as an associate. Treat your work as an associate as a business with the goal of making money for your firm. Use the basic Write a Business Plan in a Day (or Less) model to set concrete steps to achieve your goals and present it to the partners of your firm.
- Creating a business plan sends a message to the partners that you're already taking an owner's approach to your work, rather than simply seeing yourself as an employee who simply does someone else's bidding. It shows that you understand the need to build a volume of business to both serve your clients and generate a profit.
- Form close relationships with your clients. If you go above and beyond to provide excellent service to your clients, they'll notice. Encourage your clients to ask questions and ensure they understand what you're doing for them every step of the way.
- Ask your clients about other legal needs they might have and try to find ways your firm can address those needs. This helps you expand your firm's business with that client.
- Eventually, you might have clients contacting the firm and specifically asking for you by name. This tells the partners that you have a potentially irreplaceable relationship with that client, which makes you a valuable asset to your firm.
- Attend industry events and functions to recruit new clients. Not only do you want to be a specialist in an area of law, but also in the industry that you serve. Industry events help you market your services to potential clients, as well as educate them on legal issues they might face.
- Clients will appreciate your understanding of the particular needs and demands of their industry. They'll also feel more comfortable with you if they know that you're familiar with how their business works.
- Stay in contact with clients after the case is over. Your work with a client on a direct legal issue may only last a few months, but if you stay in touch, you can form a lifelong relationship and ensure that they'll come to you with other legal needs they have in the future. Establish regular lines of communication with your clients and reach out to them consistently.
- For example, you might create a short and simple email newsletter that you send out once a quarter. The newsletter could cover cutting-edge legal issues that impact your clients' industry.
- If you worked with a particular client closely, you might also check in on them personally once a month or so, just to see how they're doing.
Building Professional Relationships
- Cultivate casual relationships with partners and associates. Going out for lunch or participating in idle chit chat around the office might seem like a waste of time, but it helps you form personal connections with the other attorneys in the firm. Being known and liked around the firm increases your chances of being made partner.
- Remember that relationships are the essence of partnership. If the existing partners of your law firm like you and enjoy being around you, they'll be more interested in inviting you to be a partner as well.
- Firm-sponsored social events, including holiday parties or summer picnics, are an opportunity to expand these relationships. But you also want to socialize with your coworkers in more informal settings.
- Don't feel pressured to participate in activities you don't enjoy — you won't be good company and won't build genuine relationships that way. If you don't enjoy golf, for example, maybe you don't need to go to the firm's annual golf retreat.
- Work with several different partners at your firm. Your chances of making partner increase exponentially if a lot of different partners are familiar with you and your work. Make yourself available, especially early on in your career, and volunteer to help other partners with their caseload.
- Don't shy away from doing grunt work that nobody else wants to do. Being willing to take on menial tasks shows that you're a team player who's willing to do whatever is necessary for the good of the firm.
- Volunteer with local, state, and national bar associations. Bar associations offer the opportunity to establish deep, long-term ties with other attorneys, both in and out of your own firm. These relationships can lead to professional opportunities as well as client referrals.
- Forge relationships with attorneys who practice in related areas for potential client referrals. For example, if you specialize in wills and trusts, you might network with family law attorneys, since their clients often need estate planning services.
- Specialty associations also present opportunities for you to expand your expertise in your niche.
- Join and actively participate in firm committees. By participating in your firm's committees, you not only build relationships with other committee members but also demonstrate your commitment to the firm itself. Take committee membership seriously and volunteer to help with important committee functions.
- Committees also give you an opportunity to flex your leadership chops. Partners on the committee will take note if you step up to take the lead on a successful project.
- If your firm doesn't have organized committees, look for an area that could use one and volunteer to set one up yourself. For example, if your firm doesn't have a committee to organize the recruitment of new associates, you might offer to jumpstart one to streamline the firm's recruiting efforts.
- Many firms have specific criteria, such as billable hours, that you must meet before you'll be considered as a partner. Familiarize yourself with those criteria and make sure you meet them in addition to any other efforts.
- Read any written information your firm has on its partnership track carefully to understand more about the process, which varies among firms. If you have any questions, reach out to your mentor or another partner in your firm that you respect.
- If you've worked for your firm for 7 or 8 years and haven't been offered partnership, have a frank discussion about it with your mentor. If you're dead-set on partnership, you might want to make a lateral move to another firm.
- This article discusses how to become a partner in a law firm in the US. If you practice law in another country, you might find other strategies that are more beneficial. Network with partners to identify the best strategies.
- Making partner comes with a lot of additional expenses since you are an owner of the firm rather than an employee. These expenses could mean you end up making less money in your first few years as a newly-minted partner than you did as an associate, so plan accordingly.