Breaking into the partnership ranks at a large law firm is hard enough, but succeeding once that divide is crossed may be even tougher, according to The American Lawyer‘s latest survey of lawyers who have risen to partner within the last several years.
While almost all of the 440 survey respondents said they expect their ability to develop business—one of the key metrics against which partners are measured—to figure prominently in their professional futures, many also said they had received little training on that front. As one new partner put it: “I learned how to practice law, but I was not trained in how to develop business.”
In an era when profitability reigns supreme, such concerns are not misplaced. In a report released last week by LexisNexis and Am Law Daily affiliate ALM Legal Intelligence, “Thinking Like Your Client: Strategic Planning in Law Firms,” nine out of 10 leaders of Am Law 200–size firms said their firm has “unprofitable” partners, and seven out of 10 said their firms have partners at risk of being deequitized or “put on performance plans.” As one firm leader responding to that survey said ominously: “There are too many partners without sufficient billable work. Our attorneys need to be become client development experts rather than expense-cutting experts.”
As for the new partner survey—which polled 305 men and 135 women who achieved partner status at either Am Law 200 or large foreign firms between 2009 and 2012—found respondents are generally content with their new roles. Just over half (55 percent) reported being satisfied with the amount of work they are doing, 10 percent said they are very satisfied, 28 percent said they are somewhat satisfied, and only about 8 percent said they are not satisfied at all—figures that are nearly identical to that yielded by last year’s survey.
This year’s survey respondents are more satisfied with their compensation than their 2011 counterparts. Nearly half the new partners polled in 2012 said they were satisfied with their earnings, compared to about a third who felt that way last year. Only 9 percent of this year’s respondents said they are not at all satisfied with their compensation, compared to 15 percent who expressed such misgivings last year.
Most new partners also reported having strong ties to clients, with 63 percent characterizing the relationship as being “part of the same team,” and 30 percent describing the role they play with clients as that of “close confidant.” (Not everyone was feeling so magnanimous: 7 percent of new partners said they felt like a “hired hand.”)
The positive picture that emerged from the responses to most of the survey questions grew a bit gloomy, however, when the new partners considered their business-development responsibilities. Asked how important developing clients is to their career as a partner at their current firm, 38 percent of respondents said “very important” and that “I am accountable for a book of business,” while 52 percent said “somewhat important” and that they are “accountable for having a few clients of my own.” The remaining 10 percent said developing clients was not very important. Not a single respondent checked the box for “not important at all.”
And despite the critical role business development is likely to play in their future success, nearly half of the survey’s respondents reported said they have received no formal training in business development before and/or after their promotions. And four out of five respondents said they now spend at least half their time on other matters related to other partners’ clients.
In the opened-ended section of the survey, which allowed new partners to say what disappointed them most about their new role or what worries they had about their firm or practice, respondents raised concerns about the lack of business and client development training they believe their firms provided, as well as how their success might be hampered by a failure to generate assignments on their own.
“I’m worried about whether I can develop the type of business and clients that the firm expects, especially in a much more competitive and challenging environment than the environment in which a lot of the current equity partners experienced when they were at my level,” wrote one new partner. Another echoed those sentiments: “I constantly worry about my ability to develop business. Although I consider myself a valuable and committed team member, I worry that I won’t shine in the numbers game as I don’t have my own originations.”