That big promotion in Big Law, from associate to partner, is one that rarely happens without years of planning and preparation. Sometimes it’s seamless, other times it’s a surprise.
Take the contrasting experiences of Jai Massari at Davis Polk & Wardwell and Andrea D’Ambra at Norton Rose Fulbright. Both women made partner in 2017. But Massari’s partnership promotion took her almost by surprise.
“You know you’re being considered but can’t do anything about it,” says Massari, a securities and bank regulation lawyer. Even though she had close mentors at the firm in two senior female partners, the crystal ball remained cloudy. “I got positive indications as a sixth- or seventh-year and was getting signals not to accept any other job,” she says, but her promotion “was never clear until the last moment.” Massari, based in Washington, D.C., became an equity partner three months ago.
D’Ambra, on the other hand, joined Norton Rose in New York almost three years ago with her sights set on the partnership ranks. She had practiced in Big Law for 14 years, previously at Drinker Biddle & Reath, and spent several years as a counsel.
“I wanted to be an owner in the business,” the e-discovery and information governance specialist says. Norton Rose placed her in a career strategies program for women on its partnership track, which helped D’Ambra develop her leadership skills, business development strategies and become more aware of gender dynamics, such as how differences in things like personality and body language factor into business settings. She worked one-on-one with a career coach, which helped her hone her statement to the partnership.
Both women felt they’d been guided by mentors and others in their firms, though that support manifested in different ways.
According to our annual New Partners Survey—which this year included responses from 400 lawyers promoted to firm partnerships in 2015, 2016 or 2017—the preparation large firms give young partners can range from none to an extensive amount. To law firms’ credit, an overwhelming 88 percent of new partners said their firms adequately prepared them for the partnership.
Firms gave the most training to the new partners in business development—and it’s needed, the new partners indicated. Almost 80 percent of new partners who answered the survey said their business development efforts have increased, along with their compensation and the information they got about firm’s finances. In a separate question, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated that developing their own clients is either somewhat or very important to their career advancement.
HOW FIRMS DON’T PREPARE Even so, several new partners who gave anonymous comments in our survey said that their firms could have given them better preparation. “I definitely needed more of a steady book of business and contacts to call my own before I moved up,” one wrote. Several new partners agonized in comments over how their firms did nothing to help their transitions. One new partner said he or she got promoted too early, because the partnership promotion happened after only seven years. Another said an email was all the preparation he or she received.
Only about a third of new partners said they got training from their firms in project management, from an executive coach or through extensive reviews from colleagues, before becoming partners.
A handful said they wished their training came before they made partner, though they were grateful for it after the promotion. One sensed the ulterior motives of a cutthroat industry behind the promotion. The “firm appears to promote associates to partner to keep from losing them to competitors. Once promoted, equity partners do little to support them, no longer take time to work with them and mentor them [or] visit with clients,” this partner wrote. “They seem to view new partners as competition rather than resources to be utilized like when they were associates.”
Massari and D’Ambra both say they had no reservations about how ready they were for partnership tasks at work. Their surprises instead came in the more technical aspects of partner life. Massari, for instance, says she didn’t realize the amount of personnel and administrative tasks that would drop onto her plate. And D’Ambra says she didn’t internalize how drastic a change the rhythm of partner pay would be, with paychecks getting cut when money comes into the firm, mostly at the end of a year.
“I think it’s hard for them to give insight into that sort of stuff to any degree of detail,” D’Ambra says. “It’s just an adjustment. I wouldn’t turn it down. Whenever I whine about this, my [law] partner says we could take this away.” Of course she wouldn’t want that.
WHOM WE ASKED The ALM survey this year found that two-thirds of new partners were elevated into nonequity or income partner roles. About 40 percent had spent seven, eight or nine years as associates at the firm where they made partner, and more than half had never changed firms. No single practice area dominated in partner promotions, though litigation represented almost a quarter of our pool. These demographics closely mirrored last year’s survey responses.
In other categories, however, there were noticeable shifts from even two years ago. In any given year, the majority of new partners have five to 10 years’ experience practicing. But most of the new partners of 2016 and 2017 appear to have made partner later than they would have in years past. Two years ago, for instance, only one new partner said he or she had practiced law more than 20 years, and three percent of new partners in the survey had had more than 16 years of practice. In 2017, more than 7 percent of the pool of new partners had practiced more than 16 years.
In 2015, almost 60 percent of new partners saw their contact with clients increase after their promotion. Now, not even half (49 percent) of new partners report having increased client contact, though they said they are doing more business development and matter management.
BILLABLES STILL REIGN Our survey data largely represents new partners at firms with more than 250 lawyers, mostly in major U.S. legal markets like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Despite large law firms’ reputation as being slow to embrace change, the new partners gave their home firms surprisingly positive grades on how they are adapting to shifts in the legal industry. When asked about changes prompted by clients, technology and competition, almost two-thirds said their own firms were well-prepared or very well-prepared for industry-wide change.
They took a less positive view of the entire industry: About two-third of respondents said large law firms in general were only “somewhat prepared.”
When asked about measurable performance objectives they might have, about 70 percent of new partners said they had none. But among the 30 percent that did, billable hour minimums came up most frequently in an open-ended question. The billable hour targets fell into a wide range. Two people in the survey said they would have to bill 2,400 hours in a year, while a few said they had to record less than 1,750 hours a year. Many indicated they would need to bill between 1,800 and 2,000 hours.
The new partners had a lot of worries. One hit right on the industry’s 1,000-pound gorilla: Asked what most concerns her about her firm, this lawyer responded, “Law firm competition and potential future obsolescence in general.”
Some new partners fretted their firms would not keep pace “with client demands for creative fee arrangements.” One new partner feared his firm might not be committed to the satellite office he worked in, and that other attorneys brought in through a merger weren’t high-quality enough.
“Job security is still a question mark,” another new partner wrote. Several others took issue with how equity or senior partners refused to share or pass down clients or work in a way that empowered new partners. “We seem to be content tending to our own gardens on the theory that we are judged based on those and less on how the rest of the gardens are growing, or whether we could work together to build a new, bigger garden,” one new partner wrote.
Overall, new partners said they like their jobs—for lots of reasons, according to open-ended anonymous comments we received. There’s autonomy and flexibility, many said, and others said they like the control they have over their schedules. A bigger office still can be a perk, one respondent indicated.
And then, of course, others felt the contentment of having successfully achieved a longtime goal. “The mere fact that I managed to make partner satisfies me the most,” one lawyer wrote. “It took 8 years as associate, and then 2 as counsel. I’m still catching my breath and savoring my new role and new perspective on life at a big firm.”
D’Amara and Massari both could point to perks, too, with their bigger jobs. Massari noted how clients speak with her in a more deferential way than when she was an associate. And D’Amara realized that she gets more opportunities to speak publicly. “It’s generally wonderful,” she says.