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Candid discussions among associates about how things are going in their world often revolve around how associates are elected to partnership, what the chances are of getting elected and what happens if an associate is either not put up for election or not elected. In this difficult market, associates would like assurances, if not outright guarantees, about their future at the firm. But partners are reluctant to make these kinds of promises. For many associates, the whole partnership process remains a mystery. They see a number of intelligent, hard-working and highly valued candidates enter the annual race. But some excellent candidates do not get promoted. What makes one associate partnership material and another not? What does it really take to achieve this level of success in the legal profession? HARD WORK ACROSS THE BOARD The first element of success is hard work, and it is pretty straightforward. All candidates must achieve and transcend a certain baseline of effort. Most big firms expect you to bill at least 2,000 hours per year — and in the two to three years prior to your eligibility, they will expect even more: 2,300 to 2,400, minimum. As a junior associate, you need to demonstrate initiative, pay scrupulous attention to detail and take full responsibility for your piece of an assignment. You must also begin to delegate your work effectively, knowing when to involve paralegals and what types of work to assign to your secretary. You must continually hone your writing skills. A few firms have retained the services of an in-house writing specialist. If you are lucky enough to work at a firm with this resource in place, use it. Skillful writing will distinguish you early in your career. As a midlevel associate, you will begin to think more seriously about the possibility of becoming a partner, especially at the close of your fourth year. By this time, you should be able to handle questions directly from clients. You should begin to see your assignments in the context of whole projects and manage them accordingly. You should also try to get as much exposure to diverse types of matters within your practice area. And you should start to train junior associates in expert lawyering and the ways of the firm. Senior-level associates are expected to have developed a breadth of substantive knowledge and technical expertise. At this level, you must be able to handle clients and run deals or cases with minimal supervision. Partners will also judge your ability to leverage your work by training and supervising midlevel and junior associates. To manage this process effectively, you must demonstrate leadership abilities and inspire a sense of trust. Ideally, at this point in your career, clients are asking that you be put on their matters and associates are asking to be put on your team. In many respects, you must begin to act as a partner, while understanding and respecting the boundaries that are still in place. OWN YOUR WORK What lawyers may forget on the pathway to partnership is that more than just hard work and good lawyering are needed to distinguish an associate as partner material. Partners are owners of the firm. As owners, they share the profits, successes and prestige of the firm’s business, along with the losses. Law firms are unusual business entities in that they require partners to be both lawyers and business managers. For the firm to run efficiently and successfully, partners must participate in the shared efforts of firm administration, recruiting, associate development, marketing, article writing and seminar presentations. As the “CEO” of their individual practice, partners must also decide what business to bring in while taking care of clients and providing leadership for the associates who will work on their matters. To be taken seriously as partnership candidates, associates must therefore demonstrate that they can contribute to the firm in all these areas of the firm’s business. Finally, partners are expected to have a vision of and a vision for the firm. Having a vision of the firm means knowing what gives this firm its special character. Having a vision for the firm means seeing where the firm will be in the next five, 10 and 20 years, and how will it get there. The most successful associates at any level are those who mirror the partners’ visions and sense of ownership in all aspects of their work and life at the firm. Beyond its commercial sense, ownership also means that you take full responsibility and authorship for the matters that you handle. For example, someone who does not own an assignment might drop off documents that must be delivered to the client the next day, without checking to make sure they will be ready in time. But as an associate with a sense of ownership, you would ask for an estimated time follow-up — throughout the night if necessary. If more word processing operators were needed to finish the job on time, you would notify the partner as to how much the extra help would cost the client. After obtaining partner approval, you would then make arrangements for staff to be added and then check in from time to time to make sure everything was going as smoothly as possible. This attention to administrative detail should spring from the same sense of ownership that animates your written work. The quality of research and the clarity of a brief or loan agreement often turn on the level of ownership of the people involved. Signs of ownership include delivering a document that has been read with an eye to the audience’s understanding, ensuring that all the edits and changes make sense and conforming all exhibits to the agreement. POLITICKING You have only limited control over another element of success: politics. Wherever two or more humans are gathered together, you will find politics at work. The more people you know and have a positive relationship with, the more successful you are. As you rise through the associate ranks, you need to get along with everyone. Treat junior lawyers in a manner that will inspire them to ask to work with you, and then train and mentor them so that they feel valued. In fact, if you have been successful in this area, junior associates should be seeking you out for advice, as well as assignments. Working with as many partners as possible in your practice area is extremely important. Partners must know you and your work to feel comfortable about you joining their ranks. You may want to find the right champion, someone who will sing your praises both inside and outside the firm. But two dangers lurk here. One is that if the star of the influential and respected partner that you align yourself with wanes, your chances for election may wane as well. A second danger presents itself if you are up for election with several members of your class in your practice group. If only one of you can be elected, you will have to deal not only with the competition of your peers but also with the competition of their possibly numerous sponsors — against your one. Another element of success that you will have almost no control over is economics. In a boom market, more partners are elected because more profits can be shared. In a recessive market, smaller profits make for fewer partners. However, your relationships with clients can make a significant difference, despite the market’s flux. The ability to develop contacts for future business is regarded seriously when associates are up for election. If you are elected, you will need to develop your own practice. Therefore, the quality of your contacts provides the partners with some measure of confidence about the business you will bring into the firm. Finally, for what it’s worth, remember that partners regard their chosen profession as a true calling, as their life’s work. Making partner is serious business. The author is director of associate development and recruitment at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft of New York.

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