Starting out on the track to partnership

By Robina Clough


Taking the decision to work towards partnership in your firm is an important one. Whilst 20 years ago it seemed it was every new lawyer’s goal to reach equity sharing status, a generational and cultural shift in the attitude to work/life balance and the seemingly increasingly lowering glass ceiling at many firms have made some lawyers seek other avenues. Indeed, many law firms now have alternative career structures in place for solicitors that love the law, but love life outside of it equally.

But assuming your decision is made and partnership is your ultimate aim, then even as a relatively junior assistant solicitor, it is important to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Here are a few pointers to bear in mind.


Prove that you want it and make sure your firm knows your ambitions

This doesn’t mean knocking on the senior partner’s door every five minutes and telling him you want to be made up, but do make sure that your mentor at least has an idea of what you want to achieve in the long run. You should hopefully have a good enough relationship with him/her that you can have an informal conversation from time to time over a drink or two. You can also reinforce this message by asking for pointers as to how to develop yourself within the firm and by asking questions that show you have a real interest in the firm. At the end of the day, when the time comes to put forward nominations for the year’s new batch or partners, your mentor could well be your sponsor so who better to try to impress?

It’s also important that your firm’s HR department are aware of your aspirations. If not readily accessible already, ask them to provide you with a development framework which should (depending on the quality of the firms career development programme) provide you with at least an outline of the milestones you need to achieve to be considered for partnership in the long term.


Build strong relationships within the firm

Generally speaking, it is important that you are well liked within your firm – existing equity partners will not want to share their profits pot and decision making responsibilities with someone they are wary of and has a reputation for being a bit of a troublemaker. Introduce yourself to partners outside your immediate team/department when appropriate and show an interest in their line of work.. Providing any sort of lead to any part of the firm will help you get noticed even if at this stage in your career you’re not yet in a position to cross-refer work. It is key to continue to manage the relationships you begin to develop with your firm, so make sure you hold good any promises you make to provide contact details of a client, or a name of someone who can provide specific expert advice. This will help to build and enforce your reputation as a helpful and reliable colleague.

It’s not just partners you need to be on-side with. Other lawyers in your peer group will favour you when it comes to referrals if you have made an effort to develop a positive relationship with them. And never underestimate the influence that legal secretaries can have in a firm, so always treat them (and other non-fee-earning staff) with respect.


Build a strong network of potential clients

Whilst you don’t necessarily have to be the biggest rainmaker to make partner, at the very least you must be able to project that you can bring in work and be a conduit for cross-referring matters throughout the firm. Existing clients of the firm are likely to already have a dedicated relationship partner and it would be naïve, whatever your involvement with that client, to assume that one day that responsibility will be handed to you on a plate. In many cases if that partner were to leave the firm, the client will follow.

A good way to start building your network is by joining relevant organisations and societies. These may be both professional and social (such as university alumni) and will open up the possibility of meeting hundreds of professionals who share similar personal and professional interests. It’s simply about getting out there and meeting people and getting yourself known in the right circles.

When you meet someone who you feel could be a potential client, be sure to hand them your business card and ask for one in return. Back at the office, make a note of when you met them and what their specific role is and set a reminder to follow up with a courtesy call or email in a week or so to say it was a pleasure to meet them and offer an open door should they need any legal advice in the future. Although it’s important not to hassle people you have only met on the one occasion, you should schedule to make a follow up call in a few months

When possible, keep an eye out for speakers and attendees at industry conferences. You may see the name of someone you have previously met and this will give you the perfect opportunity to reacquaint yourself in a subtle manner. You can also use this to spot potential contacts you have previously identified as “useful to know” individuals.

Whilst not everyone you meet will ultimately turn into a future client, making these acquaintances early on in your career will allow you develop long standing relationships that generate work and referrals.  By showing your firm that you are interested in and capable of successful networking, you will be sure to get yourself a big tick in one of the most important partnership criteria boxes. And it is never too early to start this process. You should also make it your business to know your potential client’s business; this includes their product or service, any latest industry developments and their competition. This doesn’t have to be restricted to legal matters; an empathy with the trials and tribulations of the client’s everyday business will put you one step ahead of your competition.


Show commitment

Most forward-thinking law firms are continuously trying to come up with new initiatives that allow for greater flexibility for lawyers to develop their careers whilst also respecting their personal priorities. Unfortunately, if you really do want to make partner, there is no substitute for hard work. By at least showing a willingness to make yourself available, particularly as a junior lawyer, will earn you a reputation as a grafter. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to join the “jacket on the back of the chair” brigade, but offering yourself up when you have a quieter period or agreeing to help with non-billable tasks is a good way of showing you are committed to the firm.


Get feedback on your progress

Your monthly/quarterly/annual appraisals should give you a really good indicator as how well your career is developing.  Be sure to take on board any recommendations you’re given and try to improve any highlighted issues before the next assessment. In addition to this, you can get more informal feedback from colleagues and peers, and don’t be afraid to ask specific questions rather than relying compliments (or possibly even complaints!) Even if you get feedback that you’d rather not hear, stay positive, be grateful for the advice and find ways to improve.

It might be that you decide that although you want to aim for partnership, for whatever reason your current firm isn’t the place to achieve it. In some firms the partnership club is more exclusive than others, this is particularly the case in all equity partnerships. Those firms that have salaried partners are more likely to open the doors to new candidates, although becoming a salaried partner doesn’t necessarily guarantee a route into the equity. Your consultant can offer you advice and alternative options to help you achieve your aspirations.


© Edwards Gibson

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