A commercial litigator with eight years in practice, Jessica Valenzuela Santamaria said she "felt really incredible" when she was told that she had made partner at Cooley in November after a months-long process.
Soon after, she heard from former classmates, friends and family -- and even got a congratulatory letter from the dean of Stanford Law School, where she earned her J.D. The title causes some people to treat her a little differently, she says, but it's subtle. Less subtle is the weight she feels on her shoulders. "It's now my responsibility to maintain the Cooley culture," a challenge, she's quick to add, that she welcomes. "It's also nice," she adds, "to not have someone approve every decision I make."
Beyond the obvious, and sometimes delayed, financial rewards of making partner, the title carries with it a wealth of psychic rewards: respect from peers and family, greater autonomy and accountability, and, for many, a feeling of relief.
The Recorder's 2011 list of over 300 new partners can be found here (paid subscription required).
Riverside, Calif.-based litigator Jerry Dagrella joined Best Best & Krieger in 2004 as a third-year associate. In August, he spent more than 20 hours working on a partnership application that required him to trace all of his activities since joining the firm. He was elected by the firm's full partnership in November.
"I would like to say excitement, but the word I would use is relief," Dagrella said. "If I had been rejected, I would feel like where do I go from here? You are in a kind of limbo until you know what your future is. So, you go from really, really wanting to have a good decision to wanting to just have a decision."
Teresa Goebel's partnership track was temporarily derailed by the 2008 collapse of Heller Ehrman, where she was being considered for partner. Although she had an established practice as a real estate lawyer, Goodwin Procter, where she joined as counsel, was focused more on whether candidates had developed the legal skills necessary to be partners. "Obviously, there had to be a business case, too," she said.
Goebel heard the good news from Regina Pisa, the firm's chairwoman, who called her in May. "It was also very gratifying to see the reaction from clients," she said. "I got flowers, champagne and congratulatory e-mails."
Reaching the partnership milestone had an extra benefit as well. "People outside the firm do treat you a little differently," Goebel said. "People take you a little more seriously."
Goebel's day-to-day work hasn't changed much. But she has taken on more administrative duties, there are more meetings to attend, and there's a whole new level of new personal income tax paperwork relating to her ownership status. Likewise, Jason Lo, a new partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles, said that little has changed on a daily basis. Partnership has given him a sense of stability and, of course, a change in his compensation. But the biggest difference, he said, is that "everything that goes on is your responsibility."
When Richard Moore joined Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in 2001, the firm's orientation for first-year associates included a session on the pathway to partnership. "All of that was over my head at that point," Moore said. "I just didn't want to screw up in my first year."
Once he settled in, he became more active in an industry group, started giving presentations and edited a municipal bonds legal treatise. "For a tax attorney, you can just sit in a back room," he said. "I wanted to be prominent. I wanted to be upfront."
When he heard the news in January, he let out a "loud, guttural yell."
Dagrella, the new Best Best & Krieger partner, said he appreciates having a larger office -- and a new title on his business cards. "I look very young and clients are often looking for someone who has gray hair -- and I don't have any," he said. "The title 'partner' gives me some credibility."
WHAT IT TOOK
Cooley didn't expect Valenzuela Santamaria to bring in bet-the-company cases to the firm right off the bat. But the young litigator did need to describe her client work and relationships in a lengthy partnership application, as well as develop a business plan for bringing in new work. She also spelled out her nonbillable contributions to the firm such as starting a minority group for Cooley's associates.
Andrew Giacomini, the managing partner of Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco, said expectations for partnership were a little less defined when he joined his firm as a law student in 1990. Back then, the partnership track was seven years, all partners were equity partners, and candidates were expected to handle a case or a deal from start to finish, all while supervising others.
"There was a broad expectation that you had to demonstrate the potential to develop business," Giacomini said. "You didn't actually have to have business. The firm had lots of institutional clients and there was less concern that partners would bring in their own clients."
Giacomini added that today "there's a recognition that it's a tough gig, especially on the business development side. We are now looking for people who have at least gotten started at that."
New partners at Hanson Bridgett start off as income partners, which is a salaried position. Joining the equity ranks often takes several more years. "It takes seven years to master your trade," Giacomini said. "Developing a book of business at the same time is almost too much to ask."
Still, there is a difference between partners of either tier and associates. "You are working on more things and there are standards for how hard you are working. It just keeps increasing," Giacomini said. "I still think it's the top of the mountain. It's still a goal and people are striving for it."
Terrance Evans, a new partner with Duane Morris in San Francisco, began positioning himself for partnership six years ago. That's when he got an opportunity from the firm's East Coast offices to do banking work for clients on the West Coast. From there, he started to develop a new practice area for the San Francisco office. "I was really fortunate to be able to build a niche for myself," he said. "I was a junior associate who was starting something that hadn't been done before."
Law firms are increasingly focused on the bottom line for new partner candidates, according to Peter Zeughauser, a consultant with the Zeughauser Group in Newport Beach, Calif. "It used to be that if you were a good lawyer and had reasonably good people and social skills, you could become a partner," he said. "There is a much greater emphasis on economics. You need to generate a significant amount of business. And it's got to be in an area important to a firm's growth where clients are willing to pay top rates."
Gary Davis, a recruiter with Patterson Davis Consulting in San Francisco, said making partner has never been easy, and he resists the idea that the requirements have gotten tougher. Still, he said, "people did a pretty good job of getting folks through the gauntlet this year" given the down economy.
Andrew Abrams, a new partner at Fish & Richardson in San Diego, said his firm was very transparent about its expectations of partners. "You need to go out there and build a client base," he said.
Eugene Mar, a new partner at Farella Braun & Martel in San Francisco, joined the firm in 2007 after working at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. At Farella, he has been handling an increasing number of patent cases. He has also been active in the firm's diversity and professional development committees. Another expectation at the firm, he said, was creative lawyering. "They want you to think outside of the box," he said, noting that he had to cite specific examples of that work in his partnership application.
"I don't think there is a secret to making partner," Mar said. "You obviously have to work hard and make your presence felt. But there isn't a secret sauce to make it happen."
Richard Pio Roda started his legal career in government as a deputy general counsel to the San Francisco Unified School District. After two years, he joined the political and public law groups at Meyers Nave Riback Silver & Wilson. Business development, he added, has always been in his blood and he frequently makes presentations on California's Public Records and Brown Act. He also found key mentors in partners Jayne Williams and Benjamin (Ben) Reyes II, both of whom represent public agencies and sponsored his partnership application.
Pio Roda said he's always had "an ownership mentality," but now "that's for real." He has an accounting degree, so he appreciates having access to the firm's financials.
"My reaction was relief and excitement," Pio Roda said. "What's next? I haven't really figured that out yet."