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The time frame for entry into partnership in major law firms has stretched to longer and longer periods. Nevertheless, many associates assume that the last year in this cycle, the “partnership year,” is somehow the magic point at which the potential for partnership can, or should, receive an associate’s concentrated attention. This view — that the race to partnership is won in the last lap — is unfounded, and potentially counterproductive. The reality is that an associate begins to make (or not make) partner long before the partnership vote is taken. Any efforts to improve the potential for partnership, or to overcome obstacles that may adversely affect partnership selection, are long-term efforts. There is generally no “quick fix” in the last year of an associate’s career that can make up for lost time. Moreover, the good professional habits that mark an associate as a potential partner must be developed early; bad habits may be very difficult to unlearn later. This article focuses on the earliest years of an associate’s career, suggesting some of the milestones and personal metrics that junior associates should focus on in order to stay on the path to partnership. No single article, of course, can account for all the factors that may affect partnership decisions in a specific law firm. You must be a student of your own cultural milieu, seeking to understand how partnership decisions are made at the firm, and how you might be judged when those decisions are made. Begin with formal structure. Most law firms have formal evaluation systems, which a firm begins to apply soon after an associate starts work. Whether associates are formally graded or scored, or are merely given annual evaluations of their strengths and weaknesses, these evaluations establish a record, from which a partnership decision may later be made. Consistently mediocre reviews in the early years of a law firm career may be difficult to overcome later. Strongly negative reviews may be impossible to reverse. REPUTATION FOR EXCELLENCE As a junior associate interested in the possibility of making partner some day, it is thus important to earn a reputation for excellence from the outset of your career. When you have positive experiences with senior lawyers, moreover, it may be worthwhile to ensure that some record of that experience exists. Most firms, for example, permit associates to affect the evaluation system by requesting that specific senior lawyers evaluate their work. In the opposite direction, if you have had a negative experience with a senior lawyer, and you suspect that you may receive a negative review as a result, you can and should take affirmative steps to ameliorate the situation. The best response in most instances is to speak directly to the senior lawyer. Even if it is not possible to talk the senior lawyer out of a negative review, you will, in most instances, get some credit for being forthright and professional in your approach. You may, in any event, learn something that could help you to avoid a negative result in the future, in dealing with this lawyer, and other senior lawyers. In similar ways, development of the skill set necessary to qualify as the kind of fully functioning lawyer who is eligible for partnership is an ongoing process. It should be a regular habit to list (mentally, or even better, in writing) the essential skills and experiences that well-regarded senior lawyers in your firm have acquired, and to evaluate yourself on these scales. If you are missing one or more essential skills and experiences, you may ultimately place your partnership prospects in jeopardy. It is not possible, in the last year before partnership, to fill gaps in your development to which you have failed to pay attention. Failure to acquire essential skills and experiences, moreover, may be a barometer of your relations with senior lawyers in the firm. You must ask yourself candidly why it is that you are not getting the opportunity to acquire these essential skills and experiences. It may be that the firm only has room for one or two “stars” in your class, and that you have not been recognized as such an associate. It may also be that your reputation in your firm, your office, or your group is impaired in ways that may discourage senior lawyers from giving you the advanced work that will permit you to learn and to demonstrate your ability to perform at the highest levels. It might also be that your area of practice does not have a sufficient volume of business to keep junior lawyers active at the higher levels of practice. Any of these conclusions may require action, both to improve your skills and experiences, and to ameliorate the causes of any persistent inability to develop such essential skills and experiences. In addition to personal evaluations and skill assessments, however, you need competent information about the partnership selection process itself, as well as your prospects and any obstacles to partnership. It may be that the formal evaluation process will include discussion on these subjects. Some firms, for example, tell associates whether they are “on track” to be eligible for partnership. Others at least explain something of the partnership selection process. Frequently, however, formal reviews focus more on an individual associate’s most recent performance, rather than providing much solid information on the prospects for partnership. Some associates misread this failure to communicate, wrongly assuming that because the firm has not told them that they will not become partners, the opposite must be true, and partnership is assured. The better assumption, in most instances, is that the failure to offer a formal discussion of partnership potential during an annual review does not mean anything, one way or the other. Often, reviewers may not have a direct hand in partnership decisions, and thus cannot give you a reliable answer. In some instances, moreover, the firm has a more or less formal policy never to tell any associates that they should expect to be made a partner. If substantial information on partnership prospects cannot be obtained through formal review processes, what else can be done? Some information is immediately available, simply by observing and investigating the circumstances of recently made junior partners. What do these partners exhibit, in terms of background, areas of practice, client contacts, business development activities and other factors that may be relevant to partnership selection? Direct discussions with these recently made partners may answer many of your questions about the paths to partnership at your firm. If possible, this kind of information should be supplemented with more senior sources. The head of your group or practice team would be ideal for these purposes. The questions you wish to ask (“What do I need to do to make partner?” “Am I likely to make partner?”), however, may not be easy to ask of these firm leaders. For that reason, many associates turn to mentors, whom they trust to provide confidential, reliable answers to these kinds of questions. DEVELOPING A MENTOR Enlisting the active support of these senior lawyers may also be of great value in the drive to partnership. Mentors and firm leaders can help raise your profile in the firm, by putting you in contact with other senior lawyers and important clients. If they are actively involved in the partnership selection process, moreover, they can help greatly by taking your part in the discussions and enlisting others to your cause. Where there are questions about your qualifications for partnership, for example, a senior lawyer who is familiar with your background may be of crucial value. Lack of such a mentor to provide you insight into the partnership selection process and to advocate on your behalf may itself be an important measure of your partnership potential. Ask yourself, in all candor, why have you not made significant contact with at least one senior lawyer that you could call a mentor? Is it because you have given inadequate attention to the issue? Is it because you are not naturally inclined to reach out beyond your peer group? Is it because you are not well enough regarded by senior lawyers in your firm? The answers to these kinds of questions may require concerted action to improve your situation. You must also plan for the possibility that even your best efforts may not improve your partnership potential, in the circumstances of your particular firm. In that case, you must give serious thought to your alternatives (a counsel or permanent associate position at the firm, a move to another firm where partnership potential is greater, or a move to a business, government or academic position, among many other options). The earlier you consider these options, the better your ability to make a successful transition. Even if you choose to wait out the long process to partnership selection and are selected for partnership, you will not have misspent your time. Awareness that you have options may make it easier to understand that you are making a choice, each day, to pursue or not to pursue the partnership option. If your choice is to pursue partnership, you should pursue it wholeheartedly, with a real awareness of the everyday dedication required to achieve that goal. The key to the continuing assessment of partnership potential, however, is to go beyond the diagnostic phase. Your awareness of the factors that might adversely affect your partnership potential must spark creative thinking about the steps you can take to improve your potential. Because most of these steps (development of new skills, work in new areas or association with a wider array of senior lawyers, for example) involve long term effort, you need to develop a system to motivate yourself to stick to your plan, and to monitor your progress toward your goals. Again, these efforts at personal assessment and planning will benefit you even after you become a partner. Once the race to partnership is won, there will be new challenges, which will call upon your ability to establish and implement a plan for continued personal development. 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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