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The first item of business in Adrienne Pitts’ push to become partner was elementary. “I had to decide if I actually wanted to be a partner,” said the 37-year-old litigator at Winston & Strawn in Chicago. But once she determined that the partnership track, with its punishing sacrifices but hefty rewards, was the right direction for her career, she launched into a concerted, deliberate self-marketing plan to raise her profile and get the opportunities she needed to earn the coveted title. Working at the 870-attorney firm, Pitts is part of the nationwide legal market where fewer associates are making partner and the competition for the positions has grown fiercer. As a result, she and other attorneys have found that becoming partner requires not only a genuine knack for practicing the law but also a talent for self-promotion in order to make the cut. For associates who want to advance, self-marketing is critical, said John Sapp, author of Making Partner: A Guide for Law Firm Associates (2002). Requesting more sophisticated work, asking to participate in client meetings and offering to help rainmakers when a client comes aboard are underutilized ways that associates can distinguish themselves, said Sapp, who is also a partner in Michael Best & Friedrich’s Madison, Wis., office. What deters associates from making such overtures to partners is a fear of rejection, which is often unfounded, he said. “You might have a few old sore heads, but they are far from typical,” He added, “Expressing an interest is a compliment to the partner.” But being “a little bit aggressive,” as Sapp suggested, does not mean being obnoxious, he cautioned. He said that partners are quick to recognize when associates hoard credit or criticize colleagues. “That is absolutely not appreciated by partners,” he said. The ability of associates to distinguish themselves from the pack may be more important as fewer of them are attaining partnership status. A report released in March by Citigroup Private Bank showed that the number of equity partners at law firms grew by just 2.5% last year, which is down from 3% from three years ago and 4.5% five years ago. And as profits per partner climbed 9% last year to an average $960,000 among the top 100 firms ranked by The American Lawyer, a sister publication of The National Law Journal, it appears that gaining entry into the elite club is more difficult-and more profitable. In Pitts’ case, as a nonequity partner, she is one step closer to her goal of full partnership status, she said. And as an associate, she was careful to remain aware of the line between marketing her strengths to the firm and becoming an irritant, she said. “You want to stay in people’s minds, but you don’t want to bug them.” Part of her plan was to keep a close watch on the conflicts of interest check sheet at the firm to monitor incoming clients. If a big client or a juicy case came in, she offered to help those partners. Sometimes she went directly to the partners’ offices. Other times, she dashed off an e-mail offering help. Pitts said she received many thanks-but-no-thanks responses, but she kept at it. At one point, she struck a deal with a partner regarding a case involving a popular recording artist. If she performed well negotiating a more pedestrian settlement for another one of the partner’s clients, she wanted in on the fun stuff. “When the case settled, there were two large files on my chair with a note that said ‘Get up to speed,’ ” she recalled. Pitts, who practiced as an associate for seven years before becoming a nonequity partner, said that in her fifth year as an associate, she started making the big push. She pressed for more client contact, meatier assignments and leadership responsibilities over newer associates. Once she asked for the work and performed it well, she started to get noticed by the attorneys who made the partnership decisions, something that is key to a lawyer’s advancement, she said. “It’s important that you have someone in the room who knows you or who has heard positive things about your work,” she said. Pitts added that although part of the “onus” is on the partnership committee to seek out those who should get a promotion, associates have a major role in making their case. Raising the firm’s visibility A significant way for associates to get noticed is by raising the firm’s visibility outside the office, said Robert Dwyer, partner-in-charge of Dorsey & Whitney’s New York office. Participating in community events, taking on pro bono work and publishing articles scores big points, he explained. Dressing the part helps as well, Dwyer said, as does speaking to partners in a manner that is mature and confident. If the partners perceive confidence, they will be more comfortable in funneling work to the associate. “Partners will view them as colleagues, not as subordinates,” he said. But at the heart of making partner is convincing firm leaders that the associate is indispensable to its bottom line, said James Seevers, a newly minted partner at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va. Seevers, 35, maintains that the issue of making partner has undergone a presumptive shift, of sorts. The old presumption was that associates put in their time, and, if they demonstrated efficiency and competency, partnership was the usual outcome, he said. But now, the burden is on the associates to show that they are “crucial” to the firm’s ability to make more money, he said. “It’s much more of a business decision,” he said. Racking up opportunities that showed his ability to exercise good judgment and to work comfortably with clients was important to his making partner, said Seevers. He added that it is “definitely” more competitive for associates to make partner than it was a few years ago. Because of that competition, Sapp, the author, suggests that associates carefully select the projects they decide to go after. A case may be high profile, but if six other associates are participating, the chances to shine become dimmer, he said. Becoming an expert The better approach is for associates to make themselves “experts” in particular fields, especially ones that may be less than glamorous. “HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] is an astonishingly boring law, but somebody had to volunteer and say ‘I’m going to become a HIPAA expert,’ ” he said. King & Spalding’s Tracey Zaconne agrees. She recently made partner in the Atlanta firm’s New York office, where she handles mergers and acquisitions and private equity matters. “You’ve got to really know your subject matter in a way that’s not necessarily deal-to-deal specific, said Zaconne, 35. “You need to be the person people can go to with questions.” Zaconne also was available for pro bono projects and other firm activities. She took the attitude that King & Spalding was her firm “home,” she said, and volunteered for work that enhanced the firm’s profile. A passion for her particular practice and putting in long hours in a pinch, despite plans with family and friends, also made the difference, she said. “You’ve got to think long-term rather than short-term,” she said. “That’s drive. That’s ambition.”

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