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Did you hear the one about the partner who invited his associate to dinner at his home? The partner takes the associate by the arm and gives him a tour of the house. After they’ve seen the grand rooms, the tennis courts and the wine cellar, he takes the associate to the final room and gestures at three beautiful paintings on the wall, saying, “And over here are my Van Goghs.” Turning to the associate, the partner puts his hand on the associate’s shoulder, looks at him seriously and says, “One day, son, if you work your heart out, if you bill thousands of hours and if you dedicate your life to this firm . . . well, son, one day . . . I’ll be able to buy another one of these.” Ahh, partnership. The brass ring or the golden handcuffs, depending on how one looks at it. If you graduated in the past 10 years or so, you recently or will soon be up for partner, and whatever that may involve at your firm. The cold, hard fact is that while many may start as starry-eyed new associates at firms, confident in rising to the top and making partner in record time, few of those associates will actually be made partners. And, in a tight economy, even fewer partners are made. It can take years longer to even be put up for consideration in a bad economy. When business is down, and where there is the fear of business getting worse, partners take care of existing partners, not potential ones — which puts senior associates in a squeeze. For the uninitiated, a firm is a business. And businesses are all about the bottom line. More partners means a lower per-partner profit, and in the business world, lower profit generally is considered a bad thing. Unless you have a great skill set and the requisite je ne sais quoi (that’s French for “book of business”) the partners are looking for, you were not, in all likelihood, made partner last year. If you have the first and not the second, this year you may be put on hold or shown the door, depending on how well the firm is doing. The years when just working hard and paying your dues were enough to ensure you a seat at the big partnership table may be over at firms, at least for now. If you want to be an equity partner in a big firm, you have to be a good attorney, a potential rainmaker, a manager and a communicator. And, perhaps most important, you have to be connected to the partners with the necessary leverage to make new partners in lean times. As most current and former partners will say, partnership is not always all it’s cracked up to be. Partners often have the same dreadful hours as associates, but even greater performance demands and higher stakes for failure. Becoming a partner really is a double-edged sword: A partner may eventually (not necessarily in the first few years, though — read the not-so-fine print) make boatloads of the green stuff and be widely regarded as brilliant, but he or she also may have to compromise a personal life in its entirety. Forget hobbies and spending time with the family. Think 100-hour weeks and off-hours spent schmoozing. OK, we may be exaggerating, but we hear stories. Take a good look at what you are missing out on and consider the possibility that you may be better off readjusting your goals. These days, making partner in many firms means becoming a non-equity partner first. It has become common at some firms to be made counsel first, then non-equity partner and then equity partner. In either case, you’ve got eight to 10 years as an associate to become essentially a (drum roll, please) salaried employee with a big bonus, with the coveted equity partnership step being pushed further and further out. You’re only made equity partner down the road at some point when you control a substantial amount of business, which is going to take a bit more time than the standard eight- to 10-year track. See the Signs It shouldn’t come as a shock if you were passed over for partner, unless you work for some seriously sadistic individuals. The Powers That Be should have come to you at some point and whispered the cold, hard truth in your ear. The signs may have been there, too: If you didn’t have enough work, chances are that means no one’s looking out for you or you aren’t well liked. Either way, you’re not making partner at that firm. Get out. If you bill like a machine and you were passed over, ask for a review and get a realistic assessment as to when you could make partner and what you will need to accomplish between now and then to make that happen — try to get honesty and a commitment. If they can’t give you anything specific, move on to a firm that will. Expect that partnership in a new firm will take a year or two minimum and as much as five years in some cases, depending on the firm’s structure. If you didn’t want to make partner anyway and you like where you are, see about staying at your current firm. Get assurances your job is secure and/or negotiate a contract. They may need your skills and want you to stay on as counsel. If you like the firm and they like you, this may be your best option. If you have officially had it with firms, consider going in-house, depending on how senior/expensive you are and what your skill set is, as well as what’s in demand. Alternatively, consider looking at government agencies, where you can be sure to keep your skills sharp, so that when the market picks up you have a solid skill set to sell to prospective employers in the private sector should you want to return to a firm. Finally, if you’re at a mega-firm and you’re sure you want to continue to work toward making partner, consider something smaller. Smaller firms you wouldn’t have considered putting on an interview list while you were a status-seeking law student may actually be a better option now, in a variety of ways. At the right smaller firm, you get to do the same sophisticated, interesting and challenging work as at the bigger firm. Smaller firms generally also are more committed to getting you continued client contact because they need you out there being the face of the firm. And the more client contact you’re given, the more likely it is that you will form the relationships that will help you generate business. The more business you generate, the more likely you’ll make partner. Do some research and ask a lot of questions about what you will need to do to make partner in any new firm. This time be sure that 1. these are people who genuinely want to help you reach your goal, and 2. this is the place where you want to be a partner. Getting shot down after putting your life into the firm stinks, no two ways about it. If you were taken unawares, you are probably best rid of the place. Do you really want to be in a partnership with people like that? Don’t do anything rash until you’ve calmly assessed whether you’re committed to staying in the fight, possibly at a smaller firm with a better communication system and more opportunities to prove yourself. You may need to take a couple of steps back to take a step forward. Being smart and working hard are not always enough to be the top dog, at least not now; move on, keep a positive attitude, make sure you explore all options and don’t burn any bridges. Eventually, it will all work out — it may just take a little longer than envisioned. This article originally appeared in the Texas Lawyer, a publication of American Lawyer Media.

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