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Senior associates nipping at the edges of partnership in big Manhattan law firms are increasingly counseled — officially or casually — to do some major soul-searching as they prepare for the passage from employee to stakeholder. Robert J. Kafin, chief operating partner at Proskauer Rose, offers a picturesque take on the trick of transition. “It’s like the dog that chases a bus,” he said. “I mean — what happens when they catch it?” Some firms have formal programs to familiarize senior associates with the proprietary challenges ahead — seminars such as the “Path to Partnership” seminars at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft — while others take a more personalized, mentorlike approach. Mentees among the senior ranks of associates are apt to be considerably more blunt than wide-eyed juniors. Michael S. Kelly of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius said he is unsurprised when a senior associate asks him straight up, Look here — I want to be you, so what does it take? “First, you need to demonstrate an ability to effectively leverage yourself,” said Kelly, managing partner for personnel. “You’re a good lawyer, you do good client work, so now you go out and train five other people to be as good as you are — and you move on to something else.” Two related steps must be taken before what Kelly calls the “final act” of bringing home business. “You work on your external reputation. There are a million writing and speaking opportunities, for instance,” said Kelly. “You learn to be an acknowledged leader in your practice area, and to project the image of the firm to the outside world.” At last, the final piece: “Rainmaking is a contact sport,” advised Kelly. “You can write all the articles you want, but it doesn’t matter unless you get into the room with someone and convince them that when they go down you can save them.” John A. Malitoris, a management consultant for Hildebrandt International, delineated just such a formula during his late February seminar at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for Shearman associates of the class of 1997, gathered together from a dozen offices — three domestic and nine from abroad. “I’m not a lawyer, but I know what moving through a firm is like,” said Malitoris by way of introduction. “I know about aligning people, and adapting to challenges. And I know that leadership is figuring out how to deal with change.” To accomplish all that, he said, successful leaders should understand their own emotions and how to exploit their strengths — up to a point. Overuse of strength, said Malitoris, results eventually in weakness. After ticking off classic leadership styles — democratic, pace-setter, coach, consensus-builder, coercive authoritarian, influencer, relationship builder and celebrity — Malitoris said good leaders commonly use at least three models interchangeably. Although it may have surprised some of the approximately 80 Shearman senior associates, he further said that effective law firm partners respond calmly to others, admit mistakes and always see others’ perspectives. Which is difficult indeed, for as Malitoris said of his years of observing law firm and corporate partners, “The higher you go, the fewer people you talk to.” What is immutable, he added, is the importance of responding to the work of subordinates. “Feedback is fundamental in keeping the whole notion of respect going,” said Malitoris. As a partner, “Leading others is about teaching others. They will pay attention to you in ways that are scary. You’re a cultural carrier. You are the personification of what the firm is all about.” Every other year at Cadwalader, senior associates and counsels are offered explicit details of the firm’s partnership criteria expectations and the partnership election procedure, according to a firm spokesperson. Panel discussions are generally led by newer partners whose experiences — especially in the election procedure — are fresh in mind. Nobody offered details to Kelly back in 1981 when he was named a partner at Morgan Lewis. “Trite as it is to say,” he said, “times have changed.” Nowadays, Kelly spends a good deal of time in avuncular conversation with prospective Morgan Lewis partners. “What we do,” he said of himself and other partners, “is we talk about it.” But back in ’81, he remembered something of a baptism of fire when he took his maiden peek at the firm’s periodic internal financial report. “The first thing I realized was that all those things the firm was paying for — I was now paying for,” said Kelly. The moment quickly taught him “the difference between an owner mentality and an employee mentality.” Kafin had a similar career jolt on becoming a Proskauer partner. “All of a sudden, you become an owner of a business, with responsibility for managing it and bringing in business and all of the external affairs that go with that,” he said. “The ‘us-versus-them’ goes away.”

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