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The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once said, “A wedding is an event; a marriage is an achievement.” Much the same could be said about the attainment of ownership in your professional practice. Your ascension is an event; partnership is an achievement. And so the analogy goes that a law firm partnership is much like a marriage and a breakup much like a divorce. Life repeats itself in business. And so, as we begin a new year and newly minted partners settle into their new roles, here is some guidance, serious as well as lighthearted, to begin what hopefully will be a long and satisfying achievement — your partnership. Congratulations. And now onto the 12 most important things for a new partner to do. 1) Ascertain objective standards for partners regarding billable and total hours, collections, billings, origination, training, marketing, management, etc. Performance management of economic and non-economic contributions at the ownership level is becoming more common in the legal profession. Such standards were critical for your promotion. The standards will evolve over time and the expectation of you will evolve as you continue to develop in your career. Your tenure as a partner will depend on consistently meeting performance standards. 2) Figure out how partner compensation works — ask to see memos, descriptions, information provided to decision makers, whether there is right of appeal and to whom. In smaller firms you may find yourself part of the decision makers for this task. In larger firms others will be charged with this task. Whether you are part of the decision making or not, educate yourself as to how your firm does this and just how difficult an assignment it really is. 3) Ask to see the partnership tax return, financial statements, partnership agreement and all contingent liabilities. Show yourself to be a good steward and thoughtful owner. Study the documents. Ask questions. Read management and other appropriate literature to improve your business and financial analysis skills. 4) Set aside that final associate bonus for capital contribution. Yes, they really do want you to buy into the firm. And no, those profits you earned for the firm were not sweat equity. Many firms will assist you with an extended payment schedule or assist with financing at the firm’s bank. Having some sum of money ready to put into the firm will ease the financial stress of buying in. Also, if you can curb the urge to expand your lifestyle, you will feel much better about the vagaries of partnership income. (Did they tell you that some years are better than others — code words for “it is not a given that every year is more profitable than the last”?) 5) Figure out how SE (self-employment) tax works. This does not apply to shareholders in a professional corporation. You may remember the social security and Medicare taxes withheld from your pay when you were an associate. Double what was withheld (the firm picked up the other half when you were an associate) and that is what you will be responsible for paying. Thankfully or not, you only need to make four payments each year (see the next item). 6) Budget from each draw for quarterly tax payments. As an associate, the firm withheld income taxes and deposited them in your name with the various taxing authorities. Now you get to do this on your own. 7) When you looked at the draw schedule you probably got excited. Hold the enthusiasm until you adjust for the cost of benefits and taxes formerly paid by the firm. Although some firms make these payments in addition to draw, most do not. You must pay the $10-15,000 for various insurance programs that you got courtesy of the firm (well, maybe some of the cost was paid by the firm) while an associate. A few firms will also pay a tax draw quarterly to help with your estimated tax payment requirements. Most firms expect you to save some of each draw for that purpose. Any payments made, even if by the firm, will be charged against your draw account and eventually your capital account. Get used to thinking that now it all comes out of your money, no matter who writes the check. 8) You have just begun an important new chapter in your life. It is not a destination to become partner, but the first step in a far more challenging role. Listen and learn from more experienced, accomplished partners. Find a partner mentor/coach — even if your firm does not do this formally. Continue to learn. It’s a lifelong pursuit — dedicate yourself to it. 9) Adjust to a new relationship with associates, staff and paralegals. Maintain close ties and an openness to them even as you adjust to being the new kid at the partnership table. Now, as the new partner, you probably are not quite comfortable in either circle. The associates and staff view you differently and partners are not quite ready to fully consider you one of their own. It takes time — be thoughtful, listen well and ask questions. 10) Market as though your life depended on it (it does — as do the lives and livelihoods of the staff, associates and paralegals). This is the most important lesson to learn. You most likely have already demonstrated some affinity for marketing and business generation, but now it is imperative that you dedicate yourself to this. Your career in private practice depends on it. 11) Be sure announcements are sent to everyone you knew in college and law school, all friends and acquaintances, any other potential clients or referrers, plus alumni publications, local papers, business journals and the like. You have accomplished something important — a milestone has been reached. Allow others to celebrate with you. The accomplishment also will assist you in marketing. 12) Have fun! Don’t lose sight of what you have accomplished getting to this point and the fun and challenges stretching out before you. This is a good time. The career ahead is long. Enjoy the law, the profession and the service that goes with it. James D. Cotterman is a principal of Altman Weil Inc., a legal management consultancy headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. This story originally appeared in the New York Law Journal, a sister publication of The Recorder.

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