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If you’re a senior associate in a large firm, you probably never expected to remain in a large law firm long enough for partnership to be an issue. And now, here you are wishing you had a crystal ball that could tell what the future holds for you at your firm. The partnership prize is tantalizingly close at hand, but will you win it? Here’s some advice, culled from 15 years of hearing stories from those who made it and those who did not. First, you have to really want it. That sounds simple enough, but think about it. Are you an “accidental senior associate” — someone who is now thinking about partnership simply because nothing better has come along? If so, you’ve probably done whatever is necessary to stay in good standing, but perhaps not enough to be the “go to” person for one or more key partners at your firm. Make it clear to the powerful partners in your practice group that you really are serious about making your career with the firm, and take their reactions to heart. It’s also important to do a reality check with a couple of important people outside of your practice group, since partners for whom you are currently working may not wish to give any sort of negative message if you are a significant person on an active case or transaction. If anyone expresses less than wholehearted enthusiasm about your prospects, you have a lot of work to do. Chances of making partner are particularly dim if you have ever actively sought the assistance of the firm to position yourself to make a lateral move outside of your firm. CAN YOU GET THE VOTES? Second, assess your level of support. Making partner is a lot like running for political office. Being a very good lawyer is necessary, but usually not sufficient; it is also important that the decision-makers view you as a person who will enhance both them and the firm. If you are a lateral associate in a firm that traditionally does not elevate laterals to partner, take a hard look at your “indigenous” competition. It may be better to postpone being considered for partner for an additional year or two if you are not as well-known within the firm as others who would be considered at the same time. You are also fighting an uphill battle if you have ever openly opposed your firm’s vision for you by turning down assignments or changing practice groups. If you have ever received a highly critical performance review, you are unlikely to make partner — even if subsequent reviews have been good. It’s also important to be politically astute. What is the track record of your solid supporters? Are they partners who have consistently had the power to elevate their key associates? If not, is there an upward trajectory in the profits of your practice group that would enhance your supporters’ ability to make the case for a new partner? Remember, if these partners are themselves holding on by their fingernails, they probably can’t do much for you — even if they genuinely think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. If you have ever been approached by partners regarding possible practice opportunities for you outside of the firm, that is a strong sign that they can’t or won’t be able to support you in your partnership quest. QUANTITY AND QUALITY Look at your billable hours and the kinds of assignments you are given, from the perspective of your firm’s management. Associates in the running for partnership almost always have higher hours than other associates in their respective practice groups and are generally among the top billers in the senior associates ranks firmwide. The quality of assignments and level of responsibility you are given should also be increasing. In order to have a realistic chance at partnership, you should be the functional equivalent of a junior partner by the time you are a senior associate. If you are in a highly leveraged practice group (i.e., one in which there is a need for lots of junior people and very few “chiefs,” as is the case in most large litigation departments), bear in mind that you may be facing significantly longer odds than associates in other practice areas — and your rainmaking potential may be a particularly important factor. In assessing your level of support, don’t overlook three other key groups: junior associates, support staff, and clients. While people who report to you obviously can’t make you a partner, their views are often taken into account in close situations. The focus on mentoring and associate empowerment that has characterized the past few years makes firms much more likely to take management skills into account in the partnership decision-making process. DO CLIENTS LOVE YOU? And, as clients have become both more savvy and more fickle, their perceptions are more important than ever. If a key client thinks really highly of you, that can matter as much as — or more than — a partner’s views. On the other hand, if you have had a significant number of hours written off because clients have questioned your value in a case or transaction, or if clients rarely interact with you directly, your partnership chances are almost certainly not very good. Third, take a good hard look at the overall position of your firm generally, and your practice group, in particular, in the larger legal universe. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your firm’s criteria for making partner will be the same in 2002 and 2003 as the criteria in 1998 or 1999, when the economic future looked rosier than it does now. For better or worse, most large-firm partners now look at profits per partner as a barometer of how well they are doing, both collectively and individually. Many are loath to admit new partners unless they are convinced that net PPP will not be diminished. Consequently, many firms now look for solid evidence of rainmaking potential in the lawyers they elevate to partner. A few years ago, it may have been sufficient to be deemed a good “grinder” or “minder,” but now your firm may expect you to be a “finder,” too. For clues as to what characteristics your firm values when times are tough, take a look at who was made partner in your firm during the recession of the early ’90s. Finally, make sure that you have a Plan B. Ironically, the senior associates most likely to be elevated to partner are those who know that they have other options in the event they are passed over. At the same time, it is extremely important to make clear within the firm that partnership is your No. 1 goal. So if you want an objective assessment of your alternative employment prospects, you should look to sources outside your firm. These may include headhunters, a career counselor who specializes in legal employment, and colleagues from other firms who have recently made job changes. Do an extensive analysis of your skills and put together a practice development plan. Then you’ll be well-prepared to move forward, whether there is a partnership in your future or not. Carol M. Kanarek, a licensed therapist and former large-firm corporate lawyer, provides career management assistance to large-firm lawyers. She is based in New York and can be reached at [email protected]

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