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There are few business organizations left these days where the transition from one position to another is so dramatic, so decisive and so weighty that it is akin to crossing the River Styx. But law firms, holding fast as they do to the partnership model of organization, even as they become ever-larger businesses enterprises, still have the traditional rite of passage from associate to partner. And although associates may doggedly pursue their dreams of making that transition with all their hearts and might for years on end, few have a very solid notion of precisely what awaits them on the other shore, or exactly what they should be doing when they get there. To the contrary, many expect the experience of becoming a partner to magically transform and educate them. But that is not a realistic picture. “Don’t expect to be enlightened, or for things to change that much,” says Wayne Katz, who has been a partner for one year at Proskauer Rose. This is especially true, he explains, in a large firm. New partners expect to be privy to, and participate in, a host of managerial decisions. “But basically, you really get to participate directly when voting on [new partners],” says Katz. The reality in many larger firms is that the nitty-gritty work of firm management takes place in committee meetings, and not in the auditorium-style meetings of the full partnership. As an associate, firm politics revolve mainly around one central, burning question of an associate’s life: Will I make partner? “I was just interested in becoming a partner,” says Cheryl Haber, who has been a partner for two years at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, commenting on her view of firm politics during her associate years. Back then, her perspective of firm politics was limited to whether particular, powerful partners knew who she was, and liked her. As a partner, Haber can now “see more clearly how the powerful partners interact with each other.” These revelations come slowly, though, and are often coupled with a lot of new information “about financial issues and how the firm is run,” she says. Serving on committees is a typical method of introduction to such management issues. One thing that soon becomes apparent is that not all committees are created equally. There are “definitely” some committees, such as “the partnership committee or finance committee that are more powerful,” explains Haber. And real power comes from chairing a committee, a privilege usually reserved for more senior partners, she notes. WHAT ARE THE POLITICS? Jumping into committee work or simply accepting any old committee assignment that is thrown one’s way, however, may not be the answer in and of itself to the question of handling the politics of partnership. Understanding the complexities of firm politics and management, and growing into the true role of partner, according to Steven Bennett, a commercial litigator in his third year of partnership at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, “is nothing if not a life-long process.” It is helpful, first, to step back and consider what the political process in a law firm means. Proskauer’s Katz offers one definition: Politics determines “the power and ability to control decisions and to [allocate] resources; the power to make material business decisions.” Included in those business decisions are compensation issues, an important element of law firm life, and certainly one everyone can understand. Bennett, of Jones Day, defines it slightly differently as “being able to get things done that you care about.” This is fairly close to the way academics who study organizational behavior define power within an organization. Gareth Jones, in his textbook on this subject, “Organized Theory: Text and Cases” (1995 Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), defines power as “the ability of one person or group of people to overcome resistance by others to achieve a desired objective or result. More specifically, organizational power is the ability of A to cause B to do something that B would not otherwise have done.” Defining power, it seems, is the easy part. So is identifying those people within an organization who have it. Studies have shown that while managers may not always want to talk about power politics (and, indeed, this writer found many lawyers reluctant and uncomfortable with the subject), few people within an organization will disagree about who has the most power. (See Gerald R. Salancik and Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Who Gets Power � and How They Hold on to It: A Strategic-Contingency Model of Power,” Organizational Dynamics, Winter 1977, at page 374.) In the same vein, most lawyers within a firm instinctively understand which partners are running the show. But understanding how one obtains and holds on to power within an organization, and specifically within law firms, is a subtler endeavor. In a complex organization such as a large law firm, understanding the distribution of power is not a simple proposition. According to Bennett, many senior associates and new partners have the misconception that partnerships are monoliths, when in fact they contain many subtle layers of managerial control. “There are all different levels of partners, and this becomes apparent when you start participating [in firm management],” says Bennett. He explains that “a fair number of people suspend their naturally inquisitive nature about everything else and see partnership as some misty, unknowable goal.” Failing to demystify what partnership means, cautions Bennett, “doesn’t serve your interest.” In his book, Gareth Jones sets forth what he calls the strategic-contingency theory to explain how individuals get power in an organization. Under this theory, the source of power is the ability to control the vital resources of an organization. For example, the people with the most power in a drug company would be the researchers in the R&D department who are developing new drugs. They are in the best position to generate financial resources, and in turn, to allocate the resources that come in. In addition, they are in the best position to address the greatest “contingency” (or “uncertainty”) of that particular organization: “Will we have new drugs to sell to the public?” Hence, under Jones’ strategic-contingency theory, ability to generate and allocate resources and solve the central contingency problems of a law firm is the clearest road map to power. At first blush, applying this theory to a law firm setting might suggest that generating resources (i.e., getting clients) and allocating resources (i.e., hiring associates and making more partners within one’s own department) and solving the central contingency of a law firm (i.e. “Will we have clients to service?”) are the only roads to power. However, one can argue that law firms today — especially large firms that are merging into ever-larger global firms — have other important contingencies besides generating new business. For example, human capital (in the form of associates, staff and even junior or lateral partners) must be recruited, trained and managed. The services and accomplishments of the law firm must be marketed. The physical plant must be managed. And the flow of information must be kept alive and current. Peter Sherer, Associate Professor of Management at the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon, studies law firms and how they are managed. In applying the strategic-contingency theory to law firms, Sherer says that new partners need to ask themselves, “What are the critical issues facing the firm at any given point in time? What are those critical issues going to be in the next five to 10 years?” Sherer has studied how law firms leverage talent (that is, associate to partner ratios). (See Peter D. Sherer, “Leveraging Human Assets in Law Firms: Human Capital Structures and Organizational Capabilities,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, July 1995 48 [sic], pages 671-691.) In firms that are high leveragers (i.e., with many associates per partner), new partners who want to build power “better learn to be leveragers,” he says. But in firms that have low leverage ratios, where a greater percentage of the work and expertise is concentrated among the partner ranks, new partners would do better to “develop a deep expertise” in their field, explains Sherer. OTHER POWER SOURCES New partners who don’t have a big book of business can take some comfort in knowing that Jones’ strategic-contingency theory also includes other sources of power aside from asset generation and allocation. For example, he identifies “control over information,” “nonsubstitutability,” and “unobtrusive power” (or forming “coalitions”) as additional sources of power within an organization. (Salancik and Pfeffer, supra at page 567-560.) Each of these could be applied to the law firm setting. Indeed, in more informal and less academic terms, junior partners in New York firms expressed many of these thoughts when asked about the power politics game. As Bennett of Jones Day expressed it, partnership and political survival within a law firm are closely linked to an honest assessment of one’s own particular talents and interests. This is akin to Jones’ theory of “nonsubstitutability.” That is, individuals who make themselves indispensable by performing a unique task actually acquire a fair amount of power that way. As in any other endeavor in life, people seldom succeed if their talents don’t match the tasks to which they are assigned. “If you are put on a committee and told to select the firm’s coffee, but you don’t like coffee and you don’t care about it, you are going to do a crummy job,” says Bennett. A new partner, he advises, needs to ask himself or herself “what activities would sustain me” as an individual person. “What things am I interested in? What things am I good at? What things can I reasonably contribute to?” He recommends doing a “personal inventory about what you bring to the firm, and what you enjoy doing.” For some people that means developing business, for others it means training young lawyers, and for others it means facilities management or recruiting. But first, observes Bennett, “You need to decide if you want to play the game.” The game may have different rules, however, in a small firm. Ken Puhala has been a partner at eight-lawyer Layton Brooks & Hecht for four years. He says the kind of “power struggles you see at other firms are an alien concept here.” In a firm with five partners and three associates, a one-for-all and all-for-one attitude is a key not only to a congenial workplace, but also to the survival of the firm itself. It would be an “impossible business relationship if we didn’t get along,” says Puhala. In a small firm setting, the many layers of bureaucracy that leave room for political maneuvering simply don’t exist. “We rarely have a formal, scheduled [partners'] meeting. If there is a management decision to be made, we just round everyone up and meet in someone’s office,” explains Puhala. In this way, management decisions “are made very quickly.” Another aspect of group dynamics that helps keep politics — as that concept is generally known in larger firms — to a minimum is a shared history among the partners, who have known each other for a very long time, even though the firm itself was founded as recently as 1993. “Bob Layton was my mentor and boss right out of law school,” says Puhala, referring to the days when he was an associate, and Layton was a partner, at Jones Day. Other partners of Layton Brooks & Hecht were formerly partners together at another firm. “We came together because we like working together,” Puhala says. Without committees and formal stratifications of management responsibility, fiefdoms are less likely to develop. When a small management issue comes up, “we volunteer,” explains Puhala, to handle it individually. And they work together on bigger issues such as finding new space and lease negotiations. The partners do not see themselves as being in competition with each other. “All of us don’t have to be busy all the time [with our own cases]” says Puhala. “ We can work on each other’s cases.” Sharing work and managerial responsibility in an equal way militates against a hierarchy in firm management. For example, when the firm temporarily found itself without a bookkeeper, Puhala had to roll up his sleeves and figure out how to do the payroll. “I sat there looking up the tax tables,” he recalls, chuckling. “It’s not something I’d care to do again, but it’s part of the whole experience [of running a firm].” Although he may not realize it, Puhala was describing something similar to the “centrality” component of Jones’ strategic-contingency theory. Jones argues that less powerful individuals or groups within an organization will respond to and follow those people who supply a resource that others within the organization depend on, in other words, those who are central to the organization. For example, at a company like Coca-Cola, the R&D department will take its marching orders from the marketing department, because the marketing department knows what customers want. (Id., at page 569.) In the case of Puhala’s firm, every partner in his small firm has power because each one can claim centrality in the mission and functioning of the firm. MIDDLE GROUND The middle ground of junior-partner power may well be found in the mid-sized law firms. At Carter, Ledyard & Milburn, Jeffrey Boxer, a commercial litigator who has been a partner for one year, does not feel that there are layers of hierarchy over the junior partner level. The firm has 115 lawyers, of whom 40 are partners. While he may not be involved in the minutiae of law firm management, Boxer does not feel powerless, either. Even as a relatively new partner, he believes, “You have an impact; your voice is heard. People are pretty open about talking about what they want and why.” The entire partnership meets at a weekly luncheon, where “people ask me what I think,” says Boxer. In the one year he has been a partner, Boxer has had a fair amount of influence, serving on the recruitment committee, administering associate assignments in his department, and organizing the firm’s partner retreat. Sentiments similar to Boxer’s were expressed by another new partner at a firm of almost identical size — Walter Hanchuck of 105-lawyer Morgan & Finnegan. Hanchuck, a patent lawyer who has been a partner at the firm for one year, described a style of management much like Carter Ledyard’s, which integrates junior partners into the ebb and flow of management issues as quickly as possible. Partnership is largely “what you make of it,” says Hanchuck. “No one is going to disregard your opinions,” he says. Hanchuck feels he has a significant input into firm management by serving on the hiring committee (he ran the summer associate program last season) and serving on the firm’s patent prosecution committee. In a patent firm, that puts one at the heart of the firm’s practice, helping to determine “firm policy on how we handle getting patents,” explains Hanchuck. And while having clients is always a key to power in any law firm, in a highly specialized practice such as Morgan & Finnegan’s, intellectual capital carries a special weight of its own. Hanchuck’s partner, Andrea Wayda, who has a Ph.D. in biotech sciences and, like Hanchuck, has been a partner only one year, runs the firm’s CLE program. This is a very important responsibility in a patent firm that is constantly keeping up with the latest complex scientific and patent law developments. BE REALISTIC It’s important to be realistic, though, about the situation, whether in a large firm or a smaller one. “A new partner is not going to be running the place,” Bennett, of Jones Day, reminds us. That recognition, coupled with self-awareness, according to Bennett, is the key to accomplishing one’s goals in a new role as partner. The answer that emerges from this type of self-analysis is not the same for everyone. Indeed, one may well discover that one does not want to participate heavily in firm management and enter the fray of power politics at all. Some young partners “want to master their craft,” says Bennett, and “there’s nothing wrong with that.” (Remember Jones’ “nonsubstitutability” theory?) For Proskauer’s Katz, who is adhering to what he calls a “freshman theme,” the day after becoming partner was pretty much like the day before. “I have no big political aspirations to take over the firm,” says Katz. “At this point in my life, my goal is just to get home in the evening and see my new baby.” Carla T. Main, an associate editor/legal at The National Law Journal, writes frequently about the legal profession.

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