Path to Partner: What are You Getting (or Have Already Gotten) into?

Path to Partner Document
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Partnership is a key, if not ultimate achievement for many aspiring attorneys. Acceptance into these ranks checks many boxes. First, it credentials the attorney, elevating them into a class of lawyers considered masters at their craft. Second, the promotion often widens doors of influence in the firm. Next, the title further anchors the relationship between organization and individual much like tenure does for a professor at university – while changeable, buy-in agreements are harder to break than pinky-swears. And if tradition and luck hold, with this anchoring comes the hoped-for financial pay-off.

The challenge often lies when an associate is asked, “Do you know what it takes to be a partner?” Without fail they quickly respond, “X-many billable hours, and Y-many shared credit dollars (or whatever metrics the firm values).” Yet for most firms, this isn’t the full answer. It’s not the full answer because it’s difficult to believe a firm would readily promote an associate who repeatedly abused the expense policy or disrespected the staff despite outstanding metrics. While law firms aren’t known as bastions for employee feedback, and dollars may cause some to turn a foggy eye, most firms have some list of “other” (perhaps hypersubtly) communicated acceptance criteria for the path to partner.

While law firms aren’t known as bastions for employee feedback, and dollars may cause some to turn a foggy eye, most firms have some list of “other” (perhaps hypersubtly) communicated acceptance criteria.

The challenge doesn’t lie solely with associates. The same question can be asked of tenured partners: “Do you know what it takes to be a partner?” Without fail, they pause, hesitate. “The question is moot; I have already arrived.” But it frequently comes up during bonus time or new unit allocation: “What about me?” Metrics like billable hours remain key, but other criteria – for being a good partner – must exist. Those, like entrance criteria, are also not explicitly communicated.

For the most part firms haven’t articulated what it looks like, behaviorally, to be a good partner. Yes, partnership agreements exist, but they primarily cover legal aspects and are usually shared after an invitation has been extended. They fail to speak to the role’s human aspects: the behaviors, character traits, competencies, etc. Most specifically they fail to provide the necessary mirror for reflective consideration and personal development. The joke for parents is that there is no manual for raising a baby. Seemingly the same is true for law partners – unless or until it is created.

Answering Legal Banner

Firms actually know how partners are made, and what it means to be a partner in their organization. They simply haven’t codified or shared it with people who need and want to know. A Path to Partner document is a tool that takes the historically unspoken but very real traits, concepts, responsibilities, and mysteries about the role and addresses them as candidly as possible.

A Path to Partner document is a tool that takes the historically unspoken but very real traits, concepts, responsibilities, and mysteries about the role and addresses them as candidly as possible.

The document tells the firm’s “story.” Maybe it addresses how long it typically takes to make partner – a more consistent way than relying on a bevy of partner folklore. It may discuss when the partnership agreement would be shared or how the buy-in process works, allowing candidates insight into their future financial obligations. Perhaps it articulates some of the risks associated with becoming a partner, helping people understand the difference between a title and a role. At a minimum, it should outline the behavioral criteria required for partnership as deemed necessary for and by the firm.

Legally binding? No. Operationally helpful. Absolutely. A document such as this helps striving associates understand the complexity of the role, the various evaluation hurdles others may be assessing them on, and it provides an eyes-wide-open view of what they’re working toward. Partnership, through this exercise, is no longer just a promotion or a title; it’s a legitimate rite of passage. For existing partners, it provides minimum standards, establishes retention criteria, and allows opportunities for performance discussion against agreed upon norms. Path to Partner documents take the mystery out of this prestigious role and creates better partners. Debbie Roos

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