Keir Gumbs of Covington & Burling: I was very nervous as a junior partner. I spent more time than I should have worrying about what I was supposed to be doing. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
When you started out, the statistical odds were against you, but you persevered. You worked thousands of hours; you sought out experienced mentors and advisors; you learned how to please and even dazzle clients; you gave up evenings, weekends and occasionally vacations to meet the needs of those clients; you figured out how to market yourself to a disparate, demanding partnership. You became a damn good lawyer. You worked thousands of hours more. And finally you made partner.
You may be wondering: Now what?
We asked seasoned partners at firms across the country to reflect on their days as newbies in the partnership ranks. What advice would they have for their younger selves and for fresh-minted partners today? Their answers were thoughtful and wise, often funny and revealing. Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out on Day One. These lawyers didn’t, either.
Now you can relax …
“For new partners, one of my first words is to breathe. Whether they are newly promoted or a lateral, this is a big step in their journey. … It’s not like their business plan has to be implemented in their first week.” —Christine LaFollette, partner-in-charge of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Houston office
“I would tell myself [looking back] to relax and take a deep breath. It somehow all works out.” —Elizabeth Baird, co-managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius
“I was very nervous as a junior partner. I spent more time than I should have worrying about what I was supposed to be doing. I think I probably took a year off my life with the self-imposed stress levels. I thank goodness that I am past that part of my career.” —Keir Gumbs, vice-chair of Covington & Burling’s securities and capital markets practice group
… but not for too long.
“Don’t rest on your laurels. You have made it, and you’ve been accepted into partnership, but you have to keep proving yourself. The pitfall is thinking you’ve checked the box … and not taking the initiative and marketing yourself.” —Jamie Levitt, co-chair of Morrison & Foerster’s commercial litigation and trial group
“This is a service business. It’s an intensely competitive atmosphere in the legal world right now. And basically how well the firm does depends on whether we keep our clients happy or not. So you need to do your best in every aspect.
“So congratulations on making partner, but it doesn’t really get any easier at this point.” —Todd Jacobs, managing partner of Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Chicago office
You still need mentors.
“Continue your mentor relationships with senior lawyers. Do not treat those as unnecessary [now]—they’re even more necessary as you’re learning new things.” —Michael Gerstenzang, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton managing partner-elect
“You’re crossing a threshold into new growth, and you need to allow yourself to grow. Maintaining mentors both within the firm and outside the firm is important because it gives you the ability to have a perspective that you need. It can be lonely to be a new partner.” —D. Alicia Hickok, appellate team head, Drinker Biddle & Reath
“When I made partner, I was very stressed out about what the expectations for me would be. I had a few clients call and say things along the lines of ‘Congrats on making partner. Now go find us a new associate.’ How would I keep myself busy? Was I now expected to generate and perform all of my own work?
“Fortunately I had very good mentors who helped me understand how to be successful as a partner. Part of that meant remembering how I’d gotten to the partnership: doing good work, developing relationships with clients and continuing to develop as a lawyer. They helped me put together a plan to bridge the first few years of the partnership and reassured me that it would work out.” —Gumbs, Covington
Your own mentoring responsibilities will grow …
“One thing that new partners can be uncomfortable doing is delegating down. That’s part of establishing the next generation of talent, and you need to be willing to let go of some of that work and have high expectations of people.” —Rebecca Eisner, partner-in-charge of Mayer Brown’s Chicago office
“I think that every young partner has to recognize that young lawyers now look up to you, and you have to give those young lawyers the same guidance you no doubt received on your way up.” —Peter Russ, head of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney’s Pittsburgh office
“Don’t forget where you came from. Mentor associates.” —Len Bernstein, managing partner of Reed Smith’s Philadelphia office
… and just because you’re a partner now doesn’t mean you can be a jerk.
“On the partnership side, I would say that the transition should not change at all how you treat the staff and associates. In fact, you’re becoming a leader, and you want to move teams along in the most productive way.” —Jan Levine, co-chair of commercial litigation at Pepper Hamilton
“Don’t let your promotion to partnership get to your head. Treat associates with respect regardless how you’ve been treated. You’ve got a long career ahead. The associate you mistreat today may be the in-house counsel of a major client to whom you are reporting tomorrow.” —Nicholas Gravante, partner and general counsel, Boies Schiller & Flexner
Remember that you’re part of a team.
“My mistake early on was trying to be a lone wolf. When meeting with clients, I talked a lot about myself instead of talking about my team.” —Ira Coleman, chairman elect, McDermott, Will & Emery
“Don’t try to do too much yourself. Younger lawyers have a natural desire to want to show well in front of clients. As a result, you talk yourself into thinking you need to do everything. It’s much better to bring in a colleague who can help. Ask for help, go to more senior people.” —Jon Ballis, corporate partner and executive committee member, Kirkland & Ellis
Think like an owner.
“These folks obviously have passed all the tests, and been elected partner by the other partners, so they don’t have to prove themselves. What they need to do is go in with the We attitude. ‘I want to be on the team with you.’ ‘I want to help expand our business.’ All of that is … mutual respect to the firm. You are now an owner of the business and have responsibility for a lot of people.” —LaFollette, Akin Gump
“The transformation from being a senior associate to being a partner is exciting, but can be difficult because it involves a changing of the mindset a bit, from being an employee to being an owner.
“Try to think of the ownership as being of a small business. Lots of components are needed to run a small business. People need to be recruited, trained, motivated. Always the focus is on the best product to attract customers.” —Gerstenzang, Cleary Gottlieb
“Never forget that, as a partner of the firm, you now ARE the firm—24 hours a day, seven days a week. Your personal actions and the manner in which you conduct yourself will now be considered by adversaries, clients and the judiciary to be more indicative of your firm’s culture than the actions of any associate.” —Gravante, Boies Schiller
“If you’re a partner with a firm, have an institutional perspective. You will be successful if your institution is successful. You have to put that institution first. If you primarily focus on your own success, it eludes you.” —Frederick Nance, global managing partner-elect, Squire Patton Boggs
Get to know partners outside your practice area.
“If I could do it all over again … I would probably make more of an effort early on to get to know partners outside my practice group or office that I did not know. I would learn about their practice, hope that in my travels I could introduce potential clients to them, explain my practice, and ask what they thought I should do to be a success at the firm.” —Ivan Wasserman, partner at Amin Talati Apadhye and former Washington, D.C., administrative partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips
“Be adaptable and open to exploring new areas of work as your practice develops. Cravath’s rotation system allowed me to work closely with partners across all areas of litigation when I was an associate. That early, broad-based training … allowed me an opportunity to form close working relationships with partners across practices and clients across industries.
“Being nimble with your practice and open to that exposure as a new partner will build a foundation from which you will be equipped to handle just about any matter that may arise for a client in the future.” —Damaris Hernández, litigation partner, Cravath, Swaine & Moore
Have a plan.
“Too often, new partners swing too hard in one of two ways. They decide they need to now engage in lots of partner activities, like business development, leadership, internal meetings and other things. They get overwhelmed. This is a long journey. You don’t have to do it all in one year.
“On the other hand, some fall back into just doing the work and being busy and don’t spend enough time doing the things to develop as a partner.
“You need to have a specific plan and one that is reasonably achievable, both in the short and long term, and you need to stick to it and see it through, no matter how busy you are in the moment.” —J. Warren Gorrell Jr., CEO emeritus, Hogan Lovells
“You can’t just be reactive. You really have to be proactive, and you really have to expand your horizons. … It is so important to actually take the time to think strategically about where you want your career to go.” —Russ, Buchanan Ingersoll
“I encourage young partners to sit down and make a long-term business or career development plan. And that’s actually a very hard thing to do when you’re in the day-to-day practice of law. … But when you make a long-term business plan, what you do is make a road map of where you are and where you want to be in your legal career.
“If it’s not a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s at least a map to get to the light at the end of the tunnel.” —Amanda Amert, chair of Jenner & Block’s ERISA litigation practice
Get out and meet people.
“[For men, there are] golf courses across the United States, football games where they naturally just associate with each other and talk business. Women need to be more thoughtful about creating opportunities to gather with clients in a setting that might lead to business in the future.” —Susan Cohen, chair of the immigration practice at Mintz, Levin, Cohen, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo
“When I made partner, I already had a client base that kept me busy. Because I was so focused on servicing and growing that client base, I did not feel that I needed to get out in front of people to build my brand.
“But a few years later, I realized that I should do more, because networking and talking at conferences is a very good way to make new connections and solidify your brand and reputation.” —Cristina Carvalho, managing partner, Arent Fox
“As a junior partner, it’s time to open your Rolodex, and everyone who might be a source of business or connector, take that time out and make those connections.” —Levitt, Morrison & Foerster
“The first thing I did was that I got active in the New York State Bar Association. I got out into the world and got to know lawyers and the issues. That’s what got me started.” —Beth Tractenberg, head of the trust and estates practice at Steptoe & Johnson LLP
“Meeting fellow practitioners by participating in bar association committees, becoming involved in political activities, serving on nonprofit boards and simply making time to catch up and have lunch or drinks with former colleagues and college and law school friends will pay huge dividends down the road as members of your network rise to the upper echelons of their professions—which many undoubtedly will.
“After not staying in touch with a former colleague for 20 years, don’t expect an overly warm reception when you reach out to ‘catch up’ with them after learning they’ve just been appointed general counsel of a Fortune 500 company.” —Gravante, Boies Schiller
Be an expert.
“I would say No. 1, keep developing one or more specific areas of expertise. No. 2, find business or legal trade associations to market that expertise, like with speeches and articles.” —Bernstein, Reed Smith
“In regard to developing your practice, writing articles and really becoming a specialist or expert in an area is always helpful.” —Levine, Pepper Hamilton
Market yourself internally …
“If you’re a securities litigation partner, make sure you talk to M&A partners all throughout the firm. Go out and there say, ‘I’d really love to help you on your case as a junior partner.’ It’s both external and internal business development you need to think about.
“Take initiative, say yes to everything. Agree to work on committees, hiring committees, assigning committees, evaluation committees, diversity committees—whatever it is you can do to make yourself an active and visible citizen of the firm.” —Levitt, Morrison & Foerster
“Return all partners’ calls and emails promptly and never decline to work on a matter, even if you feel like you are not getting the credit you deserve. A few bucks that are not in your column are more than worth the cost of developing the reputation of being a team player and a good firm citizen.” —Wasserman, Amin Talati
… within limits.
“Don’t get trapped dedicating all of your time servicing more senior partners’ clients. Help your partners when needed, but if you haven’t already been doing so, immediately start using your new status to work to develop your own portfolio of clients.” —Gravante, Boies Schiller
Business development is personal.
“Think about how to make yourself indispensable to clients. Usually you have to be very passionate around an industry or a focus. That makes it easy to keep up and be interested in the challenges of that industry.” —Coleman, McDermott
“Three traits are pretty critical: being a team player, being good at developing relationships and being passionate about what you do. Sounds corny, but if [you’re] not passionate, it shows.” —Gorrell, Hogan Lovells
“I’m glad that I started developing business and establishing trusted relationships with clients before I became a partner. It takes a while to develop.” —Christopher Dodson, litigation partner, Bracewell
“Don’t look for the next deal, but a 20-year relationship. Focus on what’s in the best interest of the client. That may mean bringing in a person down the hall. Be confident that if you do the right thing, it will work out.” —Ballis, Kirkland
“My impression of successful partners is that they are focused in their business development endeavors, whatever that may be, and generally positive and amiable people. These are partners that I would be happy to cross-refer work to, that are willing to help you with your business development, and you want to help them with their professional development.” —Cyndie Chang, managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Duane Morris
Pay attention to the nuts and bolts of client development.
“It’s not enough to go out to lunch with someone and say, ‘It’s great to get to know you.’ You have to be much more focused [on getting work]. Ask, ‘What can we do to work together?’ Also, refer work to someone that you want to refer work to you.” —Tractenberg, Steptoe
“It’s about billing. Not the hours, it’s about the act of billing your clients and how that’s actually a communication that I think is almost more important than anything else.
“The art of billing clients is something that you really have to master. What message are you sending clients when you send the bill? Are you writing off appropriately so your clients are getting bills that match their expectations? Are you creative enough in making alternative billing arrangements?
“You can win the heart of a client if you do that right. … That’s not something that’s taught to associates much.” —Cohen, Mintz Levin
“New partners need to be as client-centric as possible. I know it seems obvious, but I am talking about being acutely aware. You might be working with someone who hands off work to you and wants only infrequent updates. Or you could be dealing with someone more junior who will be asked for periodic, and sometimes unscheduled, updates by their bosses. So consider what their superiors may be expecting of them.” —Baird, Morgan Lewis
“You need to be able to take rejection. Don’t expect to be batting your typical 100 percent in all client pitches. If you don’t get hired, put in a phone call and find out why.
“Peer-coach each other. Tell each other it’s OK not to win something. Just being at a pitch is a win.” —Coleman, McDermott
Make time for yourself.
“Usually we’ll have a social interaction after the day’s festivities [to celebrate new partners]. And the conversations necessarily turn to how do you make time for your kids, and how do you generate better opportunities for yourself, your clients.
“And my advice on the children’s front is: I coached every one of my children’s sports. And I just put on the calendar ‘meeting outside office’ when I had to go to a practice or coach a game. I never once had a client say, ‘What’s that meeting about?’ They always said, ‘Can we work around that?’ As long as you put it on the calendar as co-equally important, you will force yourself to have a more balanced approach to life.” —Carter Phillips, chairman, Sidley Austin
“Have fun. We live in demanding and interesting times, politically and otherwise. It’s hugely important to work with people that you respect and like, as well as to have fun and laugh every day. OK, almost every day.” —Jay Epstien, co-chair of DLA Piper’s global real estate practice
“This is definitely a job that can completely suck you in. And you have to set up your personal boundaries and priorities, and sometimes those are going to be superseded by client needs and demands, but you need to set those up and try to honor them as much as possible.” —Rebecca Eisner, partner-in-charge, Mayer Brown’s Chicago office
“I will say something that I don’t live, which is make sure that there’s time for you, because there are so many demands on partners, and it can be so overwhelming to meet all of the expectations.” —Hickok, Drinker Biddle
You’ll find the rewards of partnership go far beyond profits per partner.
“The big picture is definitely the people you want to practice with.” —Hickok, Drinker Biddle
“Don’t take anything for granted. Make sure you pay attention to all the great assets you have in clients, partners, colleagues, etc., and be thankful for it. Take full advantage and be appreciative of those relationships.” —Abraham Reich, co-chair, Fox Rothschild
The job will force you to grow, and can help you to be your best self.
“My advice to others and to myself is that you will be successful only if you are authentic. Listen to others, but you must ultimately speak in your own voice.” —Marci Eisenstein, chair, Schiff Hardin
“As an associate coming up in the ranks, you’re typically in a support role. It really is imperative to find your own voice. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” —Russ, Buchanan Ingersoll
“Being a partner does not mean that one is more important. It does mean that one must continue to grow as a counselor, advocate and human being. Find more ways to pay it forward for younger colleagues, the legal community and our broader society.” —Morgan Chu, chair of litigation group and executive committee member, Irell & Manella
Correction, 1/6/2017, 3:00 pm EST: In an earlier version of this story, the name of Steptoe & Johnson LLP partner Beth Tractenberg was misspelled. We regret the error.