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A cute recent television advertisement showed a young suitor attempting to convince his girlfriend that they should be married, based on bar graphs and pie charts showing such things as his escalating income potential and other objective measures of his desirability as a mate. The ad produces laughs because most people do not choose their spouses in that kind of cold calculation of worth. Indeed, the subjective elements of love and affection can bring together two people who, on paper at least, would appear not to be a particularly good match. And we cluck knowingly that the marriage will never last, when we see someone ignore love and affection, to marry for mere convenience, or wealth. Marriage is perhaps not the perfect analogy to partnership in a law firm, but the two institutions share enough characteristics that a comparison is worthwhile. Just as one could not possibly say that a person who makes a lot of money is automatically a desirable spouse, so, too, an associate who bills some phenomenal number of hours per year (fill in your own preferred large figure here) is not automatically an ideal candidate for partnership. To be sure, a hard-working associate is generally greatly appreciated by the partners in any law firm. Work habits tend to be consistent over time. The hard-working associate of today will likely be equally hard-working if made a partner. Volume of work may also be a useful surrogate measure for some of the more subjective characteristics of superb lawyers. Talented, effective associates are often recognized as such by senior lawyers, and they tend to be very busy as a result. Nevertheless, an associate can amass a tremendous number of billable hours and still not acquire the essential skills required to function as an independent, productive partner. Indeed, for some associates, workaholism may betray a lack of balance that may eventually lead to burnout, and at very least may be a marker for social ineptitude. From the associate’s perspective, moreover, it is a potentially colossal mistake to assume that “all I really need to do is to put in my time.” Most firms will view hard work (within reason) as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for admission to partnership. Associates must ask themselves what else they can do to enhance their perceived value to the firm and maximize their potential for partnership. Keeping that question firmly in mind often requires some critical self-examination: Do you really want to be a partner in your firm? That may sound like a crazy question, given the subject of this article, but it is fair to say that enthusiasm and real interest in participating in the affairs of a firm are among the qualities that can determine whether an associate becomes a partner. Given today’s legal climate, where associates often depart their “first” law firms after only a few years, or pull up stakes for the promised land of dot-com riches, many law firm partners see junior lawyers as transitory players, at best, and fungible at worst. Beating back that attitude requires a genuine, demonstrated affiliation with the firm. Taking part in the administration of the firm (recruiting, training, practice committees, etc.) can be an important way to show that you view yourself as more than just an employee of the firm. Do you like the partners in your firm? These are the people who will be reviewing your partnership candidacy (or at least writing the evaluations that will be received by the partnership committee). If you do not like any of them, it is a fair bet that few of them like you, and your partnership potential will suffer. Further, if you truly find the partners in your firm off-putting or dull, it may be very difficult to demonstrate the kind of “people skills” that, in the microcosm of the law firm, may indicate your potential for client counseling and business development. Admission to partnership is not a mere popularity contest. Still, some ability to socialize with the firm’s partners, and interest in doing so, is generally a requirement for partners-to-be. What are you doing to expand your interests as a lawyer? Many associates are tempted to look for a safe niche at their firms (a big client, a “hot” practice area, or a unique set of skills). They fantasize that the firm “must” make them a partner because the firm “needs” them. In some rare cases, the fantasy may be real. Given rapid changes in the economy and in the legal profession, however, it is a mistake to assume that the hot areas of practice of today will not cool off tomorrow. Thus, associates with high-quality basic skills (research, writing, negotiating, etc.), coupled with a wide-ranging interest in new practice areas and new professional challenges, may be seen as having at least as much value as associates with niche position(s) only. Associates in niche positions, moreover, must be ever watchful for changes in the firm’s client base and practice orientation and must be prepared to change focus whenever appropriate. Are you making progress as an associate? For most practice areas, it is possible to chart a course of progress in the development of skills and experiences that will eventually permit an associate to function as an independent, fully functioning lawyer (partner). In litigation, for example, most associates begin with tasks like doing research and writing office memoranda, then drafting pleadings and discovery documents, then helping another lawyer to prepare for depositions, arguments, and hearings. Eventually, the associates begin to perform these tasks themselves and move on to higher order work (supervising junior lawyers, client counseling, etc.). The course is rarely straight. On some projects, the work may be closer to the basic end of the scale; on others, more advanced. An associate should, however, be able to judge, on both a quantitative and qualitative basis, whether progress is being made. What was your biggest mess-up and what have you done about it? Every associate has at least one horror story to tell about some deal or case that went terribly wrong and for which the associate (rightly or wrongly) took the blame. You can run from these kinds of problems, but you cannot hide. If the mess-up left a bad taste for the attorneys who supervised you on the project, you need to be sure they know that the mess-up is out of character for you, and that you are taking steps to prevent it (or something like it) from happening again. You will need to work doubly hard to ensure that you have the skills and the discipline to prevent the problem from recurring. Protests that the problem was not really your fault, even if true, will rarely suffice to cure your image problem, and may actually make the problem worse. What is your business-development potential? Most associates shudder to think about this question. They have no clients of their own, and the chances that some acquaintance like a college pal will strike it rich and give them legal work is just that: a mere chance. The prospect for an associate getting immediate work as a partner, however, is not generally the determinative factor in partnership decisions. Instead, firms look at an associate’s potential to help in the business development process. Associates who are not afraid of client contact, who willingly participate in client pitches and beauty contests, and who show some outside interests (writing, lecturing, participating in business networks, and social organizations, etc.) show business development potential, even if they have no clients — and no prospect for clients — of their own. Are you stable? Law firms require teamwork to succeed. Associates who are emotionally unstable, irrational, or quick to anger cannot function well in a team and will have particular problems supervising and inspiring others. Those who demonstrate a supportive, flexible attitude toward juniors and staff, who teach rather than merely demand, and who can maintain good humor and esprit de corps, even in tough circumstances, are more likely to get the partnership nod. This list, of course, is incomplete. There is no “perfect” law firm partner and no “perfect” associate candidate. Each has different strengths and weaknesses. Each law firm, moreover, has different needs and interests. What is clear, however, is that law firms are run by and for people. They are not mere factories where the only criterion of excellence is output (billable hours). You cannot bill your way to partnership, and even if you can, you will miss much of the satisfaction of the professional development experience along the route to partnership, and beyond. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, and a co-coordinator of the New Associates Group in that office. The views expressed are solely those of the author, and should not be attributed to the author’s firm, or its clients.

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