That big promotion 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 banking 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 DC, 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 practised at big law firms for 14 years, previously at US firm 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 programme 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 ALM’s 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% 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 is needed, the new partners indicated. Almost 80% 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% 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 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 agonised in comments over how their firms did nothing to help their transitions. One new partner said they got promoted too early, because the partnership promotion happened after only seven years. Another said an email was all the preparation they 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.

Equity partners seem to view new partners as competition rather than resources to be utilised like when they were associates

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 utilised 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 realise the amount of personnel and administrative tasks that would drop onto her plate. And D’Ambra says she didn’t internalise how drastic a change the rhythm of partner pay would be, with pay cheques 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.

Who we asked

The ALM survey this year found that two thirds of new partners were promoted into non-equity or income partner roles. About 40% 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 practising. 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 practised law more than 20 years, and 3% of new partners in the survey had had more than 16 years of practice. In 2017, more than 7% of the pool of new partners had practised more than 16 years.

In 2015, almost 60% of new partners saw their contact with clients increase after their promotion. Now, not even half (49%) of new partners report having increased client contact, though they said they are doing more business development and matter management.

Billables still reign

The survey data largely represents new partners at firms with more than 250 lawyers, mostly in major US legal markets like New York, Washington DC 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 thirds of respondents said large law firms in general were only “somewhat prepared”.

When asked about measurable performance objectives they might have, about 70% of new partners said they had none. But among the 30% 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 lawyers 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 is 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 eight years as associate, and then two as counsel. I’m still catching my breath and savouring 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 realised that she gets more opportunities to speak publicly. “It’s generally wonderful,” she says.