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We all know the story. Making partner at a law firm is like winning a pie-eating contest, only to find out the prize is more pie. Law firms promoted a new batch of partners this month, who are trying to figure out just what it means not to be associates anymore and what they need to know about eating more pie. Before lobbying for one of the corner offices and picking out new desks in furniture catalogs, new partners need to understand at least these five basic things about “partnerhood”: law firm finances, rules and responsibilities, ownership, responsibility to associates, and just what they will miss about being an associate. First, of course, new partners must understand law firm finances — from how the pie gets divided to how much they need to pay to eat more pie. Terms that are foreign to most associates, like “liquidity,” “realization,” “leverage,” “draws,” “margin,” “overhead,” “debt load,” and “inventory,” are important to comprehend for partners, as are the alphabet soup of law firm economics, from ALC (assigned lawyer collections) to PPP (profits per partner) and RPL (revenue per lawyer). There are numerous resources available that provide explanations of the business of law firms, including Law Firm Economics 101, an American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division guide available on the Internet, which gives a great foundation. At a minimum, new partners need to understand their firms’ compensation processes — how their pay is determined, how it is actually paid, and what gets deducted from that payment, such as mandatory pension and insurance payments. If they are equity partners, new partners need to know the details of their capital contribution, how and when it gets paid, as well as what else they must pay, such as quarterly taxes and health care benefits. New partners also need to know how their firms measure profitability. For many new partners, this may be the year to finally get that accountant to help with tax returns or the financial planner to review investments, since preparing quarterly tax returns in every state where your firm does business and managing personal finances gets even more complicated with a promotion. Newly minted partners not only need to know how the pie gets divided but also must make sure they get and manage their pieces of the pie. RULES OF THE CONTEST Every pie-eating contest has rules. New partners need to know the policies governing them, including the details of partnership agreements and policy manuals. Do they get a vote, and is it weighted? They also need to know what is expected of them and what their responsibilities are. How many billable hours are required of partners? What are the other expectations? What firm service is expected? Are they allowed to buy their own furniture, and are they required to undergo annual physicals? When are the partner meetings and what are the rules for them? What else? Many firms conduct new-partner orientations that provide explanations of the rules and responsibilities of new partners, but often the best resources for such information are junior partners who are willing to share experiences. Partners have an absolute duty to follow the rules of the firm and fulfill their responsibilities, from the timely submission of time sheets to meeting other deadlines, such as associate reviews. OWNING THE PIE Associates are evaluated, in part, on whether they take ownership of projects — whether they act like partners. Partners also must act like owners, even if they are not yet full equity partners. This includes always acting professionally and fiscally responsible and not exposing the firm to any kind of liability or unnecessary expenses. It also includes being aware of how the firm operates by understanding the infrastructure and being cognizant of the culture and the politics. And it includes being committed to the firm as a whole as well as to the other individual partners, such as actively participating in partner meetings and being responsive to colleagues’ requests. Sometimes associates have an “us and them” mentality, and such attitudes make the transition to partner harder. How do they become that which they despised? While new partners should still think critically, bad-mouthing the firm or firm leadership and criticizing associates to other associates is not acceptable. Instead, new partners need to figure out their firms’ and their practices’ strategies and buy into them — whether the goals are to rise up the law firm profit-measuring charts, to expand the firm’s geographic footprint, to increase or improve the talent pool, or to position the firm for merger. Suggested resources for learning how to own the pie are any David Maister book or Adam Smith column. SHARING THE PIE New partners need to share their “just desserts,” especially with associates. All partners have a responsibility to contribute to associate development, and not just to improve their firm’s leverage but also to invest in the future of their firm. This includes helping the recruiting department find the best summer and lateral associates by heading back to law schools during on-campus recruiting season or handling callback and follow-up interviews. Just as much effort should be made on retaining associates, and every partner needs to help train, teach, give timely feedback to, mentor, and share the pie with associates. Mutual respect is paramount. Those who were the “victims” of abuse by partners need to end the cycle and make sure they treat associates better. Partners need to be responsive and accessible. If an associate asks for direction, he or she should get a prompt reply. Partners should also respect associates’ time. Associates should not be left sitting in guest chairs while partners take personal calls or check their e-mail. Partners need to be organized — no false deadlines or emergencies caused by mere procrastination. And partners need to be receptive to associate input. Mentoring is clearly a two-way street, and there should be give-and-take in partner-associate relations. Another associate-related responsibility of new partners is fostering camaraderie, whether it is treating associates to occasional lunches, genuinely being interested in associate development, or merely saying “thank you” after good efforts. Pie-sharing involves everything from giving credit where it is due in praise, origination, and reward to making sure all associates have equal opportunities. It also involves not pulling up the ladder but, instead, being sure to reach back down to the associate ranks with helping hands. EAT MORE PIE Many new partners are surprised how little changes after promotion. There are differences, though, some of which new partners really miss. New partners can feel isolated and abandoned, as if they no longer understand the expectations, can’t ask questions, have no one looking out for them, must suddenly be self-sufficient, or worry that their mentors will stop mentoring. Some will unnecessarily distance themselves from associates, which is unfortunate. While gossiping about other associates or partners is not acceptable, lunches and happy hours to maintain friendships and continue acquaintances are important. For those at firms with lockstep associate salaries and bonuses, new partners will miss knowing how much they can expect to earn. One of the most important differences is that most firms do not formally evaluate partners, although more firms are conducting upward review programs. While most new partners will not miss filling out self-evaluations or worrying that someone will “ding” their performances, many will miss not getting the directed feedback needed to do better. So, new partners need to proactively seek out feedback and continually self-assess and reassess. Most firms also do not have formal training after the associate years, and many partners would never be caught in associate training programs. New partners need to focus on their own development, therefore, and make sure they avail themselves of opportunities and resources to continue to learn and to enhance their skills. Eating more pie is not such a bad prize — but you need to like pie, understand how it is made and divided, and be willing to own and to share it. Congratulations to the 2008 new partners, sitting in corner offices and, hopefully, enjoying their pie.
Molly Peckman is co-director of associate development for Dechert. She is based in the firm’s Philadelphia office.

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