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Election to partnership in a large law firm is one of the most unusual promotions to senior executive status in modern business. In other businesses or professions, it is difficult to find the same degree of mismatch between the skills law firms value in associates and consider as qualifications for partnership and the actual requirements of the job to which associates are precipitously promoted, after eight or nine years of fighting in the trenches with little or no management training. Look at what makes a great associate: superior knowledge of a substantive area of law, high technical skills in the mechanics of legal service, dogged attention to detail, and superb acquiescence in being a subordinate, supporting player. Compare these with the principal jobs of a partner: marketing and selling legal services; developing and managing client relationships; assembling and leading teams of other lawyers; administering a business; and setting, billing, and collecting fees. It is no wonder that many lawyers, once the euphoria of having “made partner” wears off, find themselves adrift and disoriented when facing a new set of responsibilities for which they have had scant preparation. It is the rare law firm that recognizes this instant disconnect between the accomplishments that got a lawyer to that point and the expectations attached to partnership. Most firms have no training programs for newly elected partners. In fact, most law firms barely provide an explanation of the partnership agreement, partner procedures, partner economics, or partner perks and benefits, let alone a serious orientation to participation in firm ownership and the attendant management obligations. Unlike other businesses that send new executives to management training schools or conduct their own in-depth, multi-day executive orientation programs, law firms elect partners and then continue with business as usual as if the aura of partnership carries with it an automatic infusion of the set of skills needed to be a successful partner. The usual response of the new partner is to go back to work and keep doing the things that got her there. This is a mistake: It squanders an opportunity for personal and professional growth at a critical moment and is a disservice to the law firm and its clients. Common problems faced by new partners include handling personal finances, failure to understand compensation systems, confusion in setting new career objectives, and difficulties in adjusting to changed roles. PERSONAL FINANCES In law firm mythology, partnership carries with it the keys to the vault. In fact, the transition from employee to owner presents a whole new set of personal economic challenges that baffle many new partners and create serious problems for those who have trouble understanding and adjusting. The comfortable associate’s salary check in preordained amounts, at regular intervals, with taxes withheld, is replaced by capital contribution requirements, draws against profit shares, the need to estimate taxes and save enough to pay them quarterly, lump sum payments of profit distributions, personal contributions to retirement plans and other benefit programs, and requests for personal financial participation in charitable and political contributions demanded by clients. All of this thrusts upon the new partner new financial responsibilities. As an associate, many of these obligations either were not present or were handled by the firm as employer. This is compounded by the life stage of most new partners, who have young children and recently acquired mortgages. Responding to these changed financial circumstances requires an aggressive two-pronged approach. First, new partners need to press for a clear and complete explanation of how their firm’s flow of cash to and from partners works. This means cornering the right administrative people in the firm’s financial office, who usually can explain such things with greater precision and clarity than other partners. Second, armed with details, new partners need to sit down with an accountant or other financial planner to develop a budget, a tax calendar, and often programs for short-term loans to get personal cash flows properly synchronized. COMPENSATION SYSTEMS Just when the lawyer eight to 10 years out of law school has figured out how to maximize her compensation as an associate, the rules change. And they are generally not found in writing. In fact, it is the unusual partnership where they are even explained to a new partner in an intelligible manner. Even in those law firms with open communications, understanding the basis for partner compensation from partnership books and records is nearly impossible. This leaves the new partner in a quandary. Through most of life up to that point, how to get good grades or how to get the maximum bonus was spelled out in advance. Now the new partner is left to figure out two rather obscure things: how partnership compensation is determined and what a partner is expected to do to get appropriate and fair attention from the firm’s compensation committee. It is well worth seeking out a few lawyers who have been partners for a while to get their version of the firm’s system for sharing profits. Then, in some relaxed moment with the managing partner or chair of the committee that allocates profits, initiate a short, diplomatic conversation. NEW CAREER OBJECTIVES There is a question asked about a dog who chases cars: What will Fido do if he ever catches one? New partners, who have put so much energy into and focus on “making partner” suddenly find themselves in that position: Now what? Steven Covey, in his well-regarded book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” identifies the second important habit as “Begin with the end in mind.” It is amazing how many successful young lawyers who began their career with this habit forget it when they attain partnership. Becoming a partner should instantly prompt a new inquiry into goals and objectives. At that point, the career landscape has shifted dramatically, and a new survey of the territory is needed. It is no longer enough to be content with being a great lawyer and delivering superb client service. One way for a new partner to identify new career goals is to prepare an individual business development plan. Most well-managed firms today have business development departments or consultants who can help partners take an inventory of existing skills, relationships, and affiliations and develop appropriate short- and long-term targets of opportunity to help lawyers to take on the marketing, selling, and client-building responsibilities of partnership. Seeking out these resources and then producing a written plan with particularized objectives and milestones for meeting them is an important step in reorienting a new partner to different expectations. CHANGED ROLES By the time a successful associate reaches the threshold of partnership, she has become an excellent aide-de-camp, a valued second chair, and a subordinate who can anticipate every need of the partners and clients she works with. Very good senior associates also have developed an easy camaraderie with other associates and staff. All of a sudden, the new partner finds herself in a new role. In the “us against them” game played by associates in many law firms, the new partner has become one of them. Some new partners handle this change in status by taking on a new arrogance, while others try to pretend it doesn’t matter and that they are still “one of the guys.” Neither is the correct posture. Achieving the correct balance between preserving one’s friendships and humanity, on the one hand, and accepting an ownership and managerial position, on the other, is another common problem faced by new partners. Suddenly, speculative gossip about firm economics, governance, and partner incomes is replaced by actual information. New partners need to develop new discretion when talking to colleagues who are not entitled to that information. Other aspects of partnership are the responsibilities to take charge, assign and evaluate work, train, mentor, delegate, and leverage. While many senior associates develop these skills as they approach promotion, many do not�and most law firms evaluate associates right up to partnership on different qualities, such as hours worked and knowledge of a substantive speciality. Thus, many recently elected partners have to develop a managerial skill set. Since law is a profession of constant learning, taking on this new assignment should be something that comes naturally to high-performing lawyers. But getting a good handle on this aspect of partnership requires some time, work, and retraining. Becoming a law firm partner is a crowning achievement in the eyes of many a young lawyer. However, it really is just the opening of a door to a new world of challenges and responsibilities. But accepting and mastering them can be every bit as rewarding as “making partner.” Robert J. Kafin is chief operating partner of Proskauer Rose, a New York-based firm with 550 lawyers.

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