It is a tricky business – making the transition from senior associate to partner in a law firm. There are the many booby-traps which come from having to create, write, and pitch your business case for partnership. Then, there’s the other stuff: the intangibles that demonstrate to your partners that you haven’t “got it” yet. In this article, I discuss the most common and normally career-limiting mistakes I see senior associates making on their way to partner.

Not having a business case for partnership in your law firm

As a senior partner in a law firm said to me last week: ‘you need to have a business case.’ So many senior associates think that all they need to do is keep their nose clean, do a good job, and they will be made up to partner. It doesn’t work like that in law firms. You need to create a compelling business case for partnership.

Busting your billing target at the expense of business development

The more you can ‘bust’ your billing target as a senior associate, the more valuable you will be to your firm. However, that isn’t the case for senior associates on partnership track. On the one hand, you want to hit your billing target or there abouts. But, on the other hand, you need to demonstrate that you can win business for your firm as well as think and act like a partner. This means if you focus on hitting and exceeding your billing target at the expense of taking on managerial/leadership responsibilities and bringing in work for the firm, then you won’t make partner.

Not doing the partner track optional stuff because you are ‘too busy’

Let’s be honest now. Being on partner track in a law firm is tough. On the one hand, you need to hitting your billing targets and other key numbers. Then you need to create a business case for partnership in your law firm. On top of all of this, if you are seen to be on a formal partner track you will have all sorts of essential and optional demands on your time. Being on partner track is very much a political game. You need to show willing. If you don’t do the optional things, such as undertake a MBTI assessment, then you can be seen as someone who is not fully committed to the process.

Asking your partners to help you get more work

As a partner in a law firm you are expected to be able to stand up on your own two feet. This means you should be able to get all the work you need without your sponsoring partner helping you out. This work can come internally from the firm or externally via the work you bring in. If, as one senior associate did, you make a big presentation to your sponsoring partner and team leader about how you are ‘ready for partnership‘ but the ‘only assistance you need is for them to help with the distribution of work, ‘ then you have just demonstrated that you are not ready for partnership.

Not being comfortable with ambiguity

After working with many lawyers on partner track I have realised that, more so than the accountants or consultants, they take comfort from process, structure and certainty. i.e. if I complete this process, get all the boxes ticked on my partnership track self assessment, then I will make partner. The problem is that you can have the most structured and process-orientated way of making partner at your firm, but it will still come down to a gut feeling when partners vote who to admit. Or it could be that someone is the strongest candidate on paper, but their attitude means that partners decided against putting them up for partnership. Ambiguity is a fact of life for partners. In their role they need to be comfortable with uncertainty. After all, there isn’t an easy process or structure to follow to decide on a winning firm strategy. If you are clinging onto the need for certainty in your route to partnership then you are demonstrating that you are still not thinking and acting as someone who is ready for partnership.

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